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‘The Worst of Times Bring Out the Best of People’

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London, UK
The Advertising Association’s Stephen Woodford on the UK industry’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

“It’s such a sharp slowdown, across everything in one go. When you think about the way the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 unfolded it’s like ultra-slow motion in comparison to what we’re seeing now,” reflects Stephen Woodford, CEO of the UK’s Advertising Association. The advertising industry, oft thought of as a coalmine canary for the economy, has taken some knocks over the years, but none quite like the current Covid-19. For the AA’s members, that means unprecedented pressure, but it’s also seen it come together to rise to the challenge. “The flip side of that is how quickly we’ve adapted.”

The pressures are undeniable – some clients have pulled back marketing spend, with some like Coca-Cola halting all campaigns in the UK for the near future. Campaigns and projects that are going ahead have had to see a sudden pivot in messaging and production. Plus with 43% of the creative industries workforce in the UK estimated to be freelance, many creative, media and production professionals are still navigating what sort of government support they may or may not be eligible for.

In the UK, the government has issued a raft of economic support measures aimed at helping companies retain staff by subsidising 80% of wages in a furlough scheme, along with VAT and self-assessment payment deferrals and business interruption loans. However, for freelancers and the self-employed, support measures were slow to be introduced and currently have several gaps that hit the creative industries disproportionately, missing those who have only recently become freelance, those who operate as limited companies or who just broach the £50,000 cap. However, says Stephen, the Advertising Association is in continual communication with government ministers and working groups and is collaborating with them to identify gaps.

“The other thing that’s really impressive about this is about the scale and breadth of the government’s response. This is not to make a political point, but the Brexit negotiations were a slow motion car crash, such little progress and when you think about how quickly the government has responded ,it’s like a war time response,” says Stephen.

“The government are listening to feedback and they’re trying to fix it. Within days they’re on the case and fixing and responding. The media tend to focus on the shortcoming in testing -  and that’s their job - but we should recognise that those schemes will hopefully save thousands of businesses and hundreds and thousands of jobs.”

Despite the emotional toll of the pandemic and the aforementioned business and financial pressures, Stephen says he’s been proud to see the industry come together to contribute and volunteer. The AA’s public affairs group has seen greater engagement than ever, with one recent call seeing double the number of attendees than would normally be the case. “ople’s responsiveness sis really high even though their businesses are under pressure,” says Stephen. “There is a war time spirit about this. Which will hopefully get us through this quickly.”

“The worst of times brings out the best in people. If you think of all the things people have done for free, to people volunteering their time,” he says. “There is a fantastic human nature thing where we all want to do our bit. We are social animals and we want to make the best of things and help our fellow human beings.”

One area, though, that has seen a disconnect is the support of news brands. Print sales have slumped as people self-isolate, but online traffic is surging as readers seek to keep abreast of the latest Covid-19 news and advice. However, brands have been reluctant to place their ads near these news stories, with the word ‘coronavirus’ cropping up on many advertisers’ programmatic blocklists. 

“All the trade bodies have been supporting the message that the news media has been putting out, which is don’t block against ‘covid’ and ‘coronavirus’ because, obviously, it’s what people are reading. If you want audiences, put your ads there. Plenty of research shows that putting your story against a harrowing health story doesn’t harm your brand, you get more attention on sites where people are paying deep attention,” says Stephen. “The bulk of the coverage has been hard news – and hard to read because it’s grim but it’s not sensationalist by any means, or lurid. It’s serious and respectful. I hope brands recognise that our news media have never been more important and have never been more under pressure and never needed our active support more.”

The Advertising Association has also been looking internationally to share knowledge and learn. Over the past year and a half, their relationship with the Chinese Advertising Association has grown considerably, and at last year’s Shanghai International Advertising Festival, a whole day of programming was devoted to the UK. And so the two groups have been in close dialogue as the outbreak has unfolded.

“I’ve just had a really lovely email from the Chinese Advertising Association, expressing huge sympathies,” says Stephen, who adds that they’ve been able to learn a lot by the journey experienced by the Chinese advertising industry.

And there are also lessons to be learned in the longer term, for the ad industry and the wider economy.

“One of the things we’ve realised about this is how fragile it all is, because of our economy’s interconnectedness and its ‘just in time’ nature. We run out of stuff quickly. If there’s a run on the shop it’s challenging so, probably, we need more resilience bilt into our systems in case it comes back or something similar happens again. At least,” says Stephen, “we will know we can handle it.

“Hopefully we will realise our global interdependence and community. From the micro of how your business adapted to this to our personal connectedness to each other , through to global industries you could see some good coming out of this that is transformational.”

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