When I left office, having served as the UK’s creative industries minister for six years, I joked to The Drum that the advertising industry had one fatal flaw when it came to politics – it never asked for anything.
I spent a lot of time with the film industry, which receives a healthy tax credit. I engaged often with the games industry, animation, visual effects, all of which now have tax credits. At one point, there was even talk of a comedy tax credit. I’m not joking.
And of course the arts – from galleries, to museums, opera houses and theatres – receives healthy support from the taxpayer (although they would say it’s far too low – it’s always too low when the government is giving).
So it’s ironic that our largest and most successful creative industries – advertising, publishing, and arguably architecture – don’t get talked about by politicians, because they don’t need our help. Having said that, I was delighted to see the new culture secretary Karen Bradley speaking to the industry at the LEAD conference last week. Despite peppering her speech with cheesy ad slogans, Karen was across her brief, extolling the success of the industry.
Consider the facts. According to Credos, annual UK exports of advertising services are worth £4.1bn, bigger than insurance or construction; the UK’s balance of payments surplus for advertising is the biggest in Europe at £1.6bn; and since 2005 the UK has won more Cannes Lions awards than any other country apart from the US… but you won’t see the same 'Brit Success!' headlines we get with the Oscars.
Overall, advertising contributes well over £100bn to the UK economy, and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. It’s an economic and creative success story, no question.
Advertising continues to be important to the UK in many other ways, beyond the stats. As our economy becomes more and more digital, it is UK advertisers that are establishing innovative and pioneering ways to engage consumers online. Digital ad spend in the UK is more than double its nearest European equivalent in Germany. The ad industry is very much part of the innovative and world-beating UK tech economy, helping to support the skills and growth that we need in these new industries.
So merrily we roll along, and there’s no need to trouble government, except perhaps for a supportive quote or speech. But while the ad industry has not sought, and perhaps does not need, direct help, it does need to continue to engage.
Too often (and this was true of the games industry as well), the negative agenda tends to dominate. So while you create jobs and growth, politicians debate whether advertising is harming children’s health. While you pioneer online innovation, fake analytics undermine trust in the industry. While you’re being creative, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a full-on row about a tasteless ad.
I’ve waited long enough to mention the dread word: Brexit. I imagine, like most of the creative industries, most of the ad industry voted to remain in Europe. (And no, this doesn’t mean you are out of touch with the world outside London. Stop beating yourself up.)
Not only does the industry have global reach and impact, it dominates in Europe. Many country teams running campaigns in Europe are actually based in London, taking advantage of the creative hub that is the world’s greatest city. That means the average office could see a dozen or more nationalities, made up of highly skilled people making their home here, and contributing in so many ways. In fact, it’s estimated that one in five people in ad land come from Europe.
In one way, Brexit won’t affect the industry – you’ll still be able to sell into European markets. There isn’t a full single market in services, and there are no tariffs on creativity. There will be some important issues, such as procurement and data laws, as well as country-specific ad regulation.
By far the major impact, however, will come from changes to the free movement of labour. When we leave the EU, we will leave the single market, because the government is determined to control immigration.
So we have to fight for two things: firstly, the right for European nationals already in the UK to continue to live and remain here, and secondly, a visa or immigration system that is as light touch as possible. One important aspect of this, that people too often forget, is that when someone comes here under free movement, there is the additional attraction that their spouse or partner is also often free to look for work as well.
The industry’s immediate reaction has, understandably, been to predict that Brexit will hit them hard – some have already talked about a lack of investment since the vote. And advertising is the bellwether of our economy, so any post-Brexit downturn will affect it. But we are in the early stages of this revolution, and there is a lot to play for, so the industry needs to make its voice heard – loud and clear.
The UK leads the world in a world-leading industry, and it deserves a seat at the economic table as much as any other industry.