Amid Theresa May’s radical shake-up of the cabinet yesterday, Karen Bradley was named secretary of state for culture, media and sport, prompting a collective “who?” from adland. As the dust settles that confusion is turning into concern as a former accountant-turned-politician with little visible interest in advertising will be responsible for an industry already battling the notion that creativity can be commoditised.
The question of “who exactly is Karen Bradley” is not surprising, given she has spent the last year as a relatively unknown minister in the Home Office with a remit that covered online abuse and exploitation.
While this may well have given her some experience and insight into the complex digital landscape, her seeming lack of interest in the creative arts has been pointed out by some political commentators wondering if she has what it takes to tackle the problems of the BBC, the controversial reforms to at least partially privatise Channel 4 and deal with the fallout of the new regulations on advertising foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
But, as Guardian writer Stephen Moss puts it: “In a way, it’s pointless complaining that our new culture secretary doesn’t go to the National Theatre every night and wouldn’t know her Arne from her Elgar. The arts 'community' are already bleating about this, but it’s ridiculous and a bit snooty. Ministers take on a brief, and hers is a ludicrously wide one. She has civil servants to guide her, and what we are really looking for is sound judgment and the ability to learn on the job.”
According to her website, Bradley qualified as a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser and spent nearly 20 years in business, working for two of the country's major accounting firms, and advising businesses on everything from tax to commercial strategy.
Her move into politics came when she acted as an independent technical adviser to the shadow Treasury team. Within a few short years was elected to parliament and is currently MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.
However, she has spent some time working with the Conservative Policy Unit on developing economic and fiscal policies – particularly those aimed at removing unnecessary regulation and red tape.
But, in comparison to her predecessor John Whittingdale – who prior to taking on the role had spent a decade chairing the Commons culture, media and sport select committee – her CV does seem lacking.
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the creative industries. Scott Knox, managing director of the Marketing Agencies Association expressed concern, telling The Drum: “A chartered accountant will be responsible for the BBC’s new charter, the review of Channel 4 and our industry's legislation as we exit the EU, marvellous. In a time when some corporations are trying their hardest to commoditise creativity, last thing we need is an accountant as our industry’s minister.
“I’m all for more of our politicians having ‘real’ jobs before entering the Commons but sadly, Ms Bradley appears to have no experience of our sector at all. I am hoping the first thing she will do is spend time with us to embrace what we do in this world leading sector.”
Meanwhile, Jonathan Trimble, chief executive and founder of 18 Feet and Rising, said the appointment of Bradley “seems as benign as it is unknown”.
“We are going through gears of new leadership being appointed but it hardly feels a rethink of the very machine itself. If anything this is a statement that creative and media industries are not a priority. At times of national consciousness, culture has a huge role to play. But nor this role, nor this appointment are seeking to do anything with that I’d suggest.”
There’s a pervading sense from the early reaction to Bradley that she has to prove the value of her department to the creative sector. Many are worried her lack of experience signals that May’s government won’t embrace the sector as tightly as the previous regime, a stance that could have both good and bad repercussions on Whittingdale’s plans for the BBC, Channel 4 and ad blocking.
"Uncertainty will be the norm, at least for a while, and disruptive change usually makes people nervous about spending money," said Jim Dowling, managing director at HSE Cake.
Dowling went on: “So the TV advertising market will be an early indicator. But areas such as sport, music and entertainment sponsorship tend to be more stable as the deals are already done and the activation money has been allocated, at least for now. Football is a good example. The Premier League is a world famous British success story. The brands clustering around the new season know they have invested in something that is going to be popular and successful whatever the political chaos going on between Westminster and Brussels. There aren’t many businesses that can offer that type of certainty. Message to Karen Bradley: find similar stories and help them."
For its part, the Advertising Association said that it would be looking to make sure Bradley is up to speed on the biggest issues the industry is facing and why – given the £84.1bn a year contribution to the UK economy – she needs to make sure that advertiser confidence post-Brexit is a priority for the government as a whole.
So, if learning on the job is the game then the first lesson will be on self-regulation.
For the last 50 years the UK advertising industry has been trusted, via the ASA, to self-regulate. Trust and confidence in the Advertising Standards Authority means that the burden of government statute isn’t necessary – and the industry is hoping that as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about red tape she will sympathise with that point.
And that inevitably leads on to the issues of advertising bans around public health issues which she will have to face head on – namely banning junk food ads and e-cigarette advertising.
Finally, on her list of immediate priorities will be reforms to the BBC and Channel 4, picking up on the former’s review which resulted in a new mission statement for the broadcaster but not before sparking much criticism for controversial proposals. Then there’s Whittingdale’s controversial attempt to privatise Channel 4, a move the shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle said he’d been misleading parliament about last month.
While Whittingdale’s exit may have been greeted with thunderous applause from some quarters of the industry, his replacement is giving all its constituents much food for thought. Bradley’s limited knowledge of the creative sector does pose questions on how she will quickly get a handle on some of the big issues.