After Brexit, the ad industry’s London centricity is no longer comical but ‘really serious’

Matt Essex spoke on a panel at the AA's Lead conference

The advertising industry’s overwhelming inability to predict a Brexit vote was just one hallmark of its liberal London-centric tendencies. But this truth is something not to laugh at but one that is “really serious”, according to Mark Essex, associate director for strategy at KPMG.

The industry proved to be just as ill-informed as the polls the evening of the 23 June 2016, with the majority of Cannes Lions delegates expressing their “shock” from La Croisette.

Six months on, the industry is still getting it wrong: at the Advertising Association’s (AA) Lead conference today (26 January), more than half of attendees estimated that if a second referendum were to be held tomorrow, we would vote remain.

In fact, current polls state that 68% of the population think "we should move towards Brexit as fast as we can", according to Deborah Mattinson, founder of research and strategy consultancy Britain Thinks.

KPMG's Essex said he believes the industry's attachment to London plays a part in its removed understanding of the wider UK public. “What gives our business some advantage is we have a national footprint with offices in Leeds, Bristol and other cities so we’re really getting a [political] sense across the country," he said. "It made it very easy for me to predict a leave result.

“But I think [London centricity] is really serious. If you’re in the business of understanding clients, audience and consumers it can’t be sustainable to be in a position that’s so distinct from the public at large. Diversity of opinion is really important.”

Adam&Eve founder James Murphy admitted the London ad scene set’s liberal tendencies that may also play a part at skewing assessments of the rest of the country. “The industry is dealing with brands and businesses and we’re fairly astute at judging the public mood regarding those [metrics],” he said.

“But I think [at the time of the referendum] we were looking at the politics in the States – the absolute schism that developed in politics there – and thought: ‘We’re not like that’. And all the time there was this simmering sentiment underneath that we didn’t understand.”

Looking forward

A willingness to understand sentiment beyond the M25 could be vital to creating better work as an industry post-Brexit. Siobhan Kenny, chief executive of Radiocentre, said this approach will also demonstrate the importance of the sector’s trading power to the government. “We need to be leading the way, and making sure we’re the best we possibly can be in terms of diversity," she continued.

"Can we say hand on heart as an industry that we absolutely represent the whole of the UK? One of the major agencies [Ogilvy] said recently they’re got a revolutionary new strategy called ‘Planning in the wild’. I thought: ‘That sounds really interesting, what’s that about?’ And it’s just about talking to people outside of London."

Now six months on from the vote, restrategising to survive in a post-Brexit landscape is creeping up the priority lists of marketers. Still rife among the AA’s panels are worries surrounding European procurement and recruitment – sentiments that The&Partnership’s Johnny Hornby expressed in an interview with Sky News yesterday (25 January).

“It’s very important to us as an industry that we come out of those Brexit negotiations with our ability to hire and bring in those one in five foreign talents from Europe and elsewhere maintained,” he said.

“We’re exporting over £4bn of ad services into Europe. One of our biggest clients in The&Partnership history was awarded post-Brexit, moving out of a French-based network into a London one. It’s important that the government – as they go into Brexit – are cognisant of what we need in order for us to continue to be the strong sector that we are.”

But in order for the government to understand – and effectively act on – these needs, it has to better understand the power of the industry at large, a fact argued by Mediacom chairwoman Karen Blackett argued.

“I don’t believe there’s enough ministers that understand advertising,” she said.

Blackett added that one relatively simple way of demonstrating the usefulness of the industry would be to educate the government in modern marketing and data usage, particularly since the closure of the Central Office of Information (COI) in 2011.

"I think it relies on all of us here to step up and get involved," she said. "If there are any ad agencies or media agencies that have government departments as a client, it is down to us to run training programmes and to educate them as to what we do and how we work.

“It’s down to us. It can’t be [the job of] a few people in the industry and it can’t be just down to the AA either.”

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