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What’s on the Agenda for 2022? Trust, Inclusion, Sustainability and More

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The Advertising Association is on a mission to raise the profile of the industry’s positive social contribution and to help members navigate uncertainties ahead, CEO Stephen Woodford tells LBB’s Laura Swinton
If the advertising industry could make one collective resolution, Stephen Woodford rather hopes that we might start talking about the good things it does and the positive contribution it makes to society. Immersed as one might be in the language of self-help at this time of year, it sounds like the industry at large is in need of positive affirmations. In the context of the UK, where the Advertising Association works, the advertising industry is a world leader in tech and creativity and makes a huge contribution to the local economy. And more generally, the past two years have seen the industry work hard to communicate vital information and assist businesses to help people navigate a truly seismic shock.

Despite the country being in the thick of the Omnicron wave, with the spectres of supply chain and inflation hovering on the horizon, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about 2022 (WARC predicts a 7.7% year-on-year rise in adspend). And the Advertising Association has a packed agenda for the year ahead to match that can-do spirit, focusing largely on the issues of public trust and sustainability. On top of that, they’ll be continuing to raise the profile of British advertising at home and internationally.

Laura Swinton caught up with Stephen to find out what’s on the cards for the year ahead.

LBB> What are the key topics on the Advertising Association’s agenda in 2022?

Stephen> We will drive momentum around the three core programmes at the heart of the AA’s work: public trust, inclusion, and sustainability. We’re also hearing the calls from industry leaders to ensure our workforce is as equipped as possible to meet the skills needs of what is the most digitally advanced ad market here in the UK. Attracting and retaining talent is top of the agenda, and with the energy from All In, the industry’s inclusion Action Plan, we can build a workplace where everyone belongs. 

To support this, we’ll continue working with the government to try to win skills support across the creative industries, to invest in the best talent from across the UK so they have the skills to thrive in advertising. 

We also have major Government policy and regulatory issues to respond to as we represent our members’ interests and advocate for pro-competitive outcomes and striking the right balance between public and business interests.

LBB> What progress made in 2021 are you hoping to build upon?

Stephen> We made enormous progress on our sustainability workstream in 2021, building up to our global Ad Net Zero Summit alongside COP26. Over 2,000 ad professionals joined the AA, IPA and ISBA members to review and drive forward the industry’s response to the climate emergency.

Together we have developed a world-leading response to the climate crisis and our intention is to drive rapid progress on this across the UK industry and to also build this out into other territories through collaboration with international partners. 

The first year of Ad Net Zero has ended with nearly 100 supporters across the advertising landscape. The drive to net zero in industry operations has been supported by the launch of AdGreen’s carbon calculator – four months on, over 300 agencies and production companies are using the tool, along with the IPA Media Climate Charter, with the media measurement tools within it.

In 2022 we will redouble our efforts to make a long-lasting and sustainable change in the work we make. 

In a similar vein, All In, our plan for building a workplace where everyone feels they belong, will see a series of further actions announced in 2022 to complement the original three launched back in the summer. There is tremendous progress being made to develop these across several working groups. We are also going to be awarding ‘All In Champion’ status to companies that have completed the actions.

LBB> There’s still a degree of uncertainty in terms of Covid-19 – as we’ve just seen new variants can pop up – but 2021 saw the UK industry really bounce back in terms of spend, activity and the movement of talent. Do you think that optimism is likely to carry forward into 2022?

Stephen> You’re right, and while the new Covid-19 variants continue to create uncertainty for businesses and colleagues, businesses in our industry are more resilient than a year ago and swift adaptation to changing circumstances has become intrinsic to the way we operate.

We have good reasons to be optimistic for the year ahead – the latest AA/WARC adspend figures in October predicted a record year for 2022 when the market will be worth a record £31.5bn – that’s a 7.7% year-on-year rise.

There are challenges ahead though. We do hear concerns about inflation and supply chain issues and issues like these will affect our industry too, given our role at the heart of the economy. 

We will need to be agile, applying all the learnings we have gathered to date when it comes to hybrid working, online events and, as we are allowed to come back together in-person once more. I am a great believer that we are best when we are together, and this means being back in the workspaces where collaboration and creativity are best fostered, at least for some of the working week.

LBB> Speaking to the companies involved in the AA and the other organisations that contribute to it, what are the most exciting opportunities and areas for growth that you and the Advertising Association team are hearing a lot of buzz around?

Stephen> We need to make good on our mission to make the case for responsible advertising and its societal contribution. Our work had already begun to explore and build the understanding of advertising’s social contribution, and this has increased since the advent of Covid-19. When the pandemic struck and we saw the UK government become the no. 1 advertiser, it’s been clear that our industry’s social contribution is something that is a strength on many levels. Our latest Credos research shows it is a key driver of public trust. We know that social contribution can be many things. It is life-saving public health messaging. It is greater representation of UK society in our work. It is supporting the shift to more sustainable products and services. I believe the importance of advertising’s social contribution will only continue to grow with our members and we need to deliver on the actions which are essential to meaningful change.

LBB> Talent seems to be the one topic that all of the leaders I speak to are really tussling with - what do you think the Advertising Association’s role is in helping the industry navigate that?

Stephen> This is something we’re hearing throughout all our conversations with industry leaders too. The AA definitely has a role to play here, and we’ll be building upon the work done following the All In Census: we know that inclusion plays a pivotal role in retention of talent, so for us the first step is putting into place those Actions. We’ll be announcing the next six actions in the coming quarter which will really help drive momentum.

What’s more, we’re really excited to be relaunching our much-loved Media Business Course after its pandemic hiatus. So many of our industry are alumnae of this course, which is over half a century old. We’ve moved it from an annual gathering in November to the summer where the weather in Brighton will make the trip all the more enjoyable! 

The course is for advertising professionals with 4-5 years’ industry experience – this is what the data tells us is a pivotal point for retention of talent. 

We’ve also been active with our fellow trade bodies, the DMA and MRS, in calling for the government to recognise and fund industry-led training. This is important because the training offered by professional bodies is different to academic institutions – the skills are precisely what industry needs to fill vacancies now and we will continue to champion this message with the government.

LBB> The Advertising Association has been working closely with the government on issues relating to regulation and online/social media platforms and influencers in the past year - what do you think will be the knotty issues that brands and agencies will be tussling with on the digital and social front?

Stephen> The digital landscape is so fast-moving that working on its regulation can be challenging. We’re in a strong position as we have a gold-standard self-regulatory system with the ASA, which is hugely proactive in its ‘More Impact Online’ strategy, with exciting and timely initiatives to come in 2022.

Last year we saw the tightening of HFSS regulation which we continue to consult with government about it. It is essential that the implications of this are fully thought through and understood by government. The government’s evidence for this decision remains weak and we must ensure no precedent is set for poorly evidenced interventions into other areas of advertising.

We also had a Lords Inquiry into Influencers and the report on the Online Safety Bill. 

In 2022, the government will be consulting on its Online Advertising Programme which will deal with paid-for advertising and throughout this, we’ll be putting forward the interests of our members, agencies, advertisers so that any further regulation is coherent and complements existing self-regulation.

Transparency is crucial – especially when it comes to influencers and ads – and this all links to trust. 

Fundamentally, we need to support the ASA’s work in this area and do everything we can to raise the profile of its work within government and with the general public. All our research shows this is the biggest lever we can pull to rebuild the public’s trust in advertising.

LBB> The Advertising Association does a great job of liaising between the advertising and marketing world and the political world - what’s your sense of the political sphere’s understanding and appreciation of advertising and marketing and creativity as forces to bring the country and economy forward?

Stephen> I think the government knows our industry is a force for economic recovery, helping rebuild consumer confidence, supporting innovation, growth and competition. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t also reminding politicians about our industry’s vital role in the plans to build back better from the pandemic, consistently highlighting how and where advertising can make positive social contributions, as well as economic.

We’ve held regular calls between government departments and our members, bringing advertising’s interests and concerns to parliamentarians. One such example is just before Christmas when the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy turned to the ad industry to help support the roll-out of the Get Boosted Now campaign. 

The government knows we’ve had a record recovery from 2020’s decline with our AA/WARC adspend figures forecasting a 24.8% increase in 2021 and crucially this helps support the UK’s wider creative industries, as well as the economy, with every £1 spent on advertising generating £6 of GDP. Advertising helps to fund the things we all value in our democratic society – a free press, public service broadcasting and the digital ecosystem. It is also very aware that the UK’s advertising sector is recovering faster than any other in Europe.

LBB> One of the major achievements of the Advertising Association in 2021 was Ad Net Zero and the tools and summit designed to help the industry get to grips with reducing carbon footprint and environmental impact. How would you like to see the industry pick that up and move things forward?

Stephen> The aims for Ad Net Zero next year are threefold: deliver on the KPIs for each of the five actions in the Plan, roll out a certification process for Ad Net Zero supporters, and continue the conversation with international colleagues to make this a global drive for change. 

Following the Ad Net Zero Global Summit, we have had many interesting conversations with global partners and we’re heartened by the potential for Ad Net Zero to be rolled out internationally during 2022.

COP26 highlighted that we cannot delay climate action - we have to act now. My personal ambition is to see the Ad Net Zero Essentials training rolled out far and wide across our industry, helping ad professionals across brands, agencies, media companies and in the production sector build sustainability best practice into their everyday working lives and understand the rules around greenwashing and how to avoid it. I’m proud that every one of us at the AA has achieved their Essentials certificate. 

We have also established a Working Group with our supporters to look at a realistic model to account for advertising’s real-world impact in terms of emissions. It’s clear from all our conversations that the industry wants to use its influence to help advertisers along the path to net zero, reducing the carbon intensity of campaigns, and supporting positive behaviour change.

Ultimately, I’d like to see even more companies join Ad Net Zero and help our industry to make the most positive impact possible. 

LBB> For the past few years trust has been a major focus for the Advertising Association, and looking at recent Credos research there’s been progress on that front (purpose advertising, messaging around Covid) but also challenges (people conflating all spam and scams with advertising intrusiveness). So is that still a big focus for the Advertising Association and where do you think that journey needs to go next?

Stephen> Our Trust Summit in October provided a great opportunity to revisit the public’s concerns about trust in advertising. This will continue to be central to our work in 2022.

The biggest single thing we can do is build the awareness of the ASA in the minds of the public. All our research shows that people are more likely to trust our work if there is an effective regulator in place to ensure that advertising everywhere is ‘Legal, decent, honest and truthful’. Working with industry partners, we hope to deliver a UK-wide advertising campaign for the ASA in 2022, building on the hugely successful test market in Scotland in 2020/21.

LBB> What do you think the industry isn’t talking about that it needs to be talking about?

Stephen> The good work we do. 

We spend a great deal of time (rightly) discussing and tackling the challenges we face across the advertising ecosystem, but I believe we can do more to champion advertising’s positives. The UK is the most-awarded, the most technologically advanced and most international of all advertising markets. We should be proud of this. By spending more time recognising and understanding this, we can build on our strengths and do even more to help UK and international businesses help build a more sustainable and more inclusive world.

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