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The People, United: Is Now the Time to Unionise the Ad Industry?

London, UK
A group of UK ad people are trying to create a union. Laura Swinton speaks to Thom Binding to find out why - and why now
Covid-19 has shaken a few things loose. For a group of people working in the UK advertising industry, a prolonged period of lockdown and home working has triggered a rethink about the way the industry works – and their solution is to form a union.

Thom Binding is one of a group of ten people currently collaborating on a new association for advertising and creative industry employees. “The question is actually: ‘why now?’” says Thom. Shifts in working patterns, the blurring of work life and home life, the mental health implications of prolonged lockdown, the redundancies induced by recession – Covid-19 has exposed many gaps for a potential union to fill. 

The union conversation also arose shortly after the murder of George Floyd, informed by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, and 600 Rising platform for Black ad industry professionals. According to Thom, an organisation like a union is well placed to hold agencies to account for meeting their pledges on diversity and inclusion.

“It was around the time where the Black Lives Matter movement was in full swing and all of the agencies kind of came out with these renewed promises around diversity and inclusion and everything they're going to do. Which is brilliant. There are some CEOs out there who are really making some very pointed promises, but who's going to hold them to account for those promises? I think it's very much off their own back, publishing those figures and being transparent and being open, but who's tracking that and who's going to follow up and who's going to monitor over time? So there is an element of accountability that I think a union could play a role.”

Moreover, Thom says, a union could also provide a much-needed resource for those on the receiving end of discrimination, harassment or bullying, and one that is less beholden to protecting an agency than the HR department.

Then there is the union grist of working conditions and pay, and providing legal representation and protection during disputes. As the ad industry’s reliance on freelancers grows, for example, payment chasing has become an issue for many, who have no recourse to turn to. And then there are full-time employees coming up against toxic work environments or downright illegal actions, where they as individuals have little weight and few resources to take on the fight alone. Thom also posits a regular report or league detailing pay for different roles at different agencies across different demographics as a useful resource. 

However, Thom is keen to press that he doesn’t see the union as being an ‘us versus them’ set up and is keen to create a body that can work in partnership with agencies to raise the whole industry. That is, he acknowledges, going to involve a bit of legwork when it comes to branding and positioning – he mentions that his own mum has warned him to be cautious. 

“I think there is a perception that it's very kind of ultra-left. It's radical, it's quite extremist. And, you know, people only ever really think about unions when they see things like strikes and stuff like that. Whereas I think the real work is that kind of every day casework,” says Thom.

In the research the team have done so far, younger people in the industry seem to be more in support of the idea and older people tend to associate unions with disruption, striking and hardline politics. However, the ageism issue and the current trend towards over-working and burning out the young for little money while making older workers redundant is one that Thom thinks a union would be well-placed to address.

Of course, being a bunch of advertising folk, strategy and positioning should be within the founding team’s wheelhouse. “I think how we sell this to agencies is quite interesting,” says Thom. He reflects that many agencies, like Wunderman Thompson where he currently works, have been proactive in mental health and well-being offerings internally, so he hopes that businesses will appreciate what he and his collaborators are trying to achieve – and see the upside of being independently accredited as good places to work, with positive records on working hours, diversity and pay. “From an economics point of view, if you have happy workers and they want to stay with you longer, do their best work at your place, tell everyone how wonderful you are. It's just good PR right?”

Benefits for agencies include the ability to benchmark themselves against transparently-measured industry standards in terms of pay, diversity and working conditions, and to confidently use these to attract talent when they perform well. It also signals to employees that they have a real commitment to the wellbeing of their workforce. Finally, if a union can collectively provide things like wellness programmes or training, this may benefit smaller independent agencies and new outfits, as these things can be expensive and complicated to implement.

The UK advertising industry isn’t averse to a bit of collective bargaining, though this predominantly happens on a sector level, whereby bodies negotiate and lobby to devise agreeable contract terms and working practices and hold each other to account – and also come together on points of common interest. In that context there’s precedent and also a place for the missing voice of the employees, says Thom

For now the group are in what Thom calls a ‘discovery’ phase, talking to unions in other sectors as well as HR experts. They want to drill down into the granular details of best practice and draw from experience. They’re keen to approach the union in a considered manner, and so have also created a survey in order to measure the appetite for such an organisation, and also find out what people’s priorities are. There is a huge number of possible issues to tackle and needs to fulfill – but Thom is aware that at launch, the union will have to focus on core goals and will only be able to provide a limited number of services. Looking to the future he envisions providing fringe benefits like networking, training and mental health support. The survey has had about 500 responses so far, but the team are keen to reach as many people as possible (you can fill out the survey yourself here).

Beyond the research, the next steps are to nail down a name, platform and work towards a launch. Thom mentions that on social media, he’s had a lot of interest from US ad industry people who are keen to see similar movements in the States – once the union is up and running Thom says that the idea is to share knowledge and toolkits openly .

Thom’s acutely aware of the irony of setting up a union in an industry once described by George Orwell as the ‘rattling of a stick in a swill bucket’, a driver of capitalism. 

“I actually truly believe that one of the reasons why so many people in this industry end up with this kind of existential dread is because they are left wing people working in a right wing organisation,” Thom laughs, though he says he wants to steer clear of becoming too mired in politics at the expense of concrete change. Ultimately the team keen to position the union as positive voice for the employee, regardless of political affiliation, and one which could benefit the whole industry.

“Everyone has a story of potential abuse in the industry,” says Thom. “Everyone knows someone who's gone through a situation like this or has had a really toxic boss or a bad environment. So I feel like everyone would probably see the value. The question which I've got is how we ensure that this is pitched to the agencies and the holding groups as a partnership, as a collaborative thing and something which they can benefit from.”

To take part in the survey, head over here.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
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