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Is the UK Losing Its Cultural Influence?

Trends and Insight 57 Add to collection

The discussion from Advertising Week Europe’s main stage began with a weighty debate on the host country’s soft power in 2022 and beyond, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

Is the UK Losing Its Cultural Influence?

Advertising Week Europe’s Great Minds Stage content began broadly on Tuesday morning, with a debate considering the landscape in which advertising sits in the conference’s host country. ‘This House Believes the UK Is Losing Its Cultural Influence’ was the topic.

David Abraham, founder and group CEO of Wonderhood Studios, hit the stage to argue that a decline could well be coming. As former CEO of Channel 4 (2010 - 2017) and UKTV (2007 - 2010), he’s not just an adman but a bonafide veteran of the TV business.

First, he weighed up the realities of the proposed sale of Channel 4, eschewing the promised vision of a public sell-off for the benefit of the public for the more ominous image of “a back-room carve up.” He suggested that the government gives the impression of being very excited about selling it off, but considered various bidders and their “limitations, baggage and tricky trade-offs for the government as a seller.” He also listed the many challenges to the sale going smoothly.

“We are living in an age of global media consolidation,” he said, “which we can see is leading to fewer bigger franchises in film and television, in books, and even in music globally. Channel 4 was set up 40 years ago as a counterbalance to the cultural duopoly that existed in television in at that time, the PSB [public service broadcasting] system has maintained a brilliantly British equilibrium for over 40 years, but it could now be about to be altered in a way that will have quantifiable implications for decades to come.” 

David ended his argument with an impassioned plea to protect what Channel 4 represents. He noted that regulatory body Ofcom has a stated duty to support and strengthen the overall PSB system and that the Competition and Markets Authority have also recently stated their commitment to challenging oligopolies, especially during the cost of living crisis. “We have a right to expect that if the time is coming to reform the ownership model of Channel 4, both these bodies do their jobs thoroughly and independently and with the UK viewer and citizen front and centre of their minds.”

While Channel 4’s proposed sale framed the conversation, it’s undoubtedly only a component of the UK culturals contribution. Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, argued that the “unique milieu” of UK cultural exports would continue to keep it strong into the future.

The UK has had an outstanding record in the cultural industries, clocking around at a gross value added figure in 2019 larger than Germany and France combined. She attributes this to scale, large domestic audiences as well as export markets, combined with the amazing advantage of the English language, and of course, the existence of “many brands of extraordinary longevity,” from the Financial Times to the BBC. She pointed to the thousands of hours of UK content on Netflix, noting that streamed UK content comes second only to that from the USA.

Exports of UK programmes, music and books are “proportionate to the US” but we punch above our weight in areas,” said Claire. News is one. She noted that despite the TV-licence-funded institution consistently coming under scrutiny from government and other parts of the media, there has always been an enduring defence of the BBC and its “rag tag” defenders, who are still winning, she believes.

This is emblematic of the fervour with which the UK protects its cultural influence, she suggested, concluding, “I hope that you will continue to defend our sector but I have to say, our British voice is singing more loudly today than ever before.”

Sarah Taylor, client partner at Futurefactor came to the discussion from the perspective of a Brit who’s lived abroad and, as a result, sees the strangeness of the national obsession with the UK maintaining cultural dominance. Her central argument was that whether UK cultural exports are waxing or waning, multiple global cultures sharing influence is more exciting anyway. In our increasingly connected world, why culture can come from anywhere. So why are Britons so worried about how much of it comes from their own country?

In the past four years alone, she noted that Indiana Jones, Jurassic World and various Star Wars films have been filmed in the UK, but suggested, “I think we can all agree that rampaging dinosaurs, American archaeologists and Jedi Knights are in no way representative of our culture.” It’s not UK culture that’s enticing Hollywood to shoot in Britain, but its studio infrastructure, tax breaks and locations.

“This is a clear misunderstanding between our culture and our creative exports. and I'm not sure how much soft power we've gained through actual cultural pursuits: village space, the requisite pint in the pub after work or some sort of obsession with Sunday roasts – all enjoyable parts of our culture,” said Sarah. “But let's not get carried away with the notion that these are somehow the envy of the world… Is it our culture or our industry strength that is now responsible for our cultural influence?”

In closing, she suggested that culture isn't something that’s dictated to us but the arts or institutions. “It's something that emerges from within our communities,” she said. “And as these communities exist increasingly at a global level, the idea that one country has some kind of claim to cultural leadership is somewhat absurd. So yes, the house is correct that we are losing our cultural influence, but that in my view, is far from a bad thing for our industry.”

Robert Haigh, strategy and sustainability director of Brand Finance, turned to research and economic data on investment in UK culture, emphasising the disproportionate cultural footprint that the UK does continue to leave on the rest of the world. 

But this footprint isn’t simply a continuation of the UK’s colonial past in 2022. With Brexit, Robert noted that some may have expected a narrower, more traditionalist view of the UK in the country’s cultural output. That “simply isn’t the case,” he argued. Turning to the success of shows like Sex Education, not Downton Abbey, and the diversity on display in the most broadly popular British music artists. “In film, for every Benedict Cumberbatch reinforcing the image of Brexit Britain as a place of eccentric poshos, there’s a John Boyega reshaping that picture,” he said. “And in the world of social media, influencers like Zoella, KSI and Lawrence represent Britain not as a place of elitisme and stiff upper lip, but as a place of fun, energy, empathy and attitude.”

Summing up, Robert argued that the UK’s brand as a cultural powerhouse would take a lot of dismantling at this stage. “Brand equity, whether corporate or national, takes years to develop. And whilst a certain amount can be lost in a short space of time, for the most part, erosion of brand equity is a long-term process. That's precisely why brands are such valuable financial assets. 

“The actions that the government is taking now may take years even decades to begin to reduce our soft power and cultural influence. But while Boris [Johnson] may be a source of cultural cringe, while the government may be undermining our institutions, and while it may be under investing in the future of the creative arts, we cannot yet make the claim that the UK is losing its cultural influence.” 

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 17 May 2022 15:19:25 GMT