Scroll down the 603-item register of all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) in the UK and you’ll see all manner of interests represented.
APPGs – informal cross-party groups that have no official status in relation to the work of parliament – appear to have been set up in the interest of pretty much every industry, cause and country that MPs and Lords could think of, while stranger hobbies and pursuits are also represented: bingo, drones and jazz appreciation have all been honoured with a group.
There are even set ups for youth hostelling, video games and Scotch whisky…yet an APPG for advertising, communications or marketing is nowhere to be found on the register.
It’s a strange if not conscious omission. Culture secretary Karen Bradley’s pun-filled speech to the Advertising Association (AA) in January was a placation to the industry – a reassurance that UK politicians do know it exists: “I want to be clear that the government has never seen you as peripheral,” she told the room.
Yet while many see the industry as self-governing and to some extent self-serving, and recognise that the international nature of the networks and creative deals belies one-state political relationships, the absence of marketing, comms or advertising on the APPG register is symbolic. There are MPs and Lords willing to add to their workload by meeting pigeon racing APPG, the mindfulness APPG and the curry catering APPG, but there aren’t perceivably any who want to discuss the relatively prosperous world of advertising.
Former marketer and Conservative MP Nick de Bois lost his seat in the 2015 general election, but in his five-year stint in office was known for championing the events industry. He set up a dedicated APPG for the sector to prove its competitive worth to government, and felt the move was necessary because “there were so many bodies in the events industry that we needed [something] to speak with one voice”. But that may not be the case for the wider marketing industry, he explained
“The ad industry is one of the best in the world and is also part of the creative services industry, which the government does support,” said de Bois. "Do the ad agencies think their voice is being heard? Maybe they have a good enough relationship with government that they do not need necessarily to inform parliamentarians and consistently make their case.
“But if there’s anything missing in the armoury then it is a good way to do it.”
Another explanatory factor – posed by former MP and ASA chair Jo Swinson – is the geographical skew of the industry towards the capital could hinder the support it gets from parliamentarians, particularly MPs.
“If you’re an MP that has a constituency with lots of farmers in it, then getting involved or setting up an APPG on farming would be the obvious thing to do,” she explained. “There’s not an obvious constituency in the broader sense for advertisers – it’s obviously concentrated in London but there are a lot of other businesses in London [demanding MPs’ attention] and even then [the city] spreads across a lot of constituencies.”
Notwithstanding MPs, Swinson guessed that a possible advertising APPG may not be appealing to the Lords either, purely because of the average age of the house. “Sometimes groups will be set up by MPs that have an interest from a past career,” she said. “The age profile of the Lords is such that perhaps they were less likely to have worked in advertising.”
A weak necessity?
The reasons why there is currently no APPG for advertising, marketing and comms may be multifaceted, but perhaps the real debate should focus on whether there is any real requirement for one.
“If advertising really needed an APPG, it would probably have one,” summed up Ian Barber, director of communications at the AA. Unsurprisingly the association believes the soft power it wields on behalf of its members (“from one-to-one meetings and private dinners to political tours of ad-land and showcase events in the House”, as Barber described) gets the job done fine.
“APPG’s can be useful, but really are just a register of interests and can become an exercise in preaching to the converted,” Barber added. “What matters isn’t whether or not to have an APPG but how to deliver creative, well-planned and targeted engagement right across the political spectrum.”
Indeed Damian Collins MP, a former M&C Saatchi man and one of the bigger supporters of the advertising industry in government, has so far chosen to stick on the side of the AA. “The advertising industry has tended to favour organising events like this directly, as oppose to doing so through an APPG,” he told The Drum.
But the industry does not begin and end with the AA. Other associations have warmed to the idea of an APPG as legitimate gateway to parliament, and one that unites the industry as a whole.
“The fact that there isn’t currently an APPG for the marketing industry is partly a reflection of its complicated and diverse nature; many voices with many different interests,” said Matt Sullivan, head of membership at the MAA. “But it’s also indicative of a lack of collaboration between the many trade bodies that represent the industry.
“The MAA has been active in terms of lobbying MPs and taking part in the Parliamentary Debating Group … but an APPG would provide a clearer, more consistent voice for the marketing industry at the top level of politics, building on the strong lobbying work that bodies such as the Advertising Association currently engages in. Closer collaboration between the trade bodies could achieve this, let’s all sit down together and get this done.”
For Francis Ingham, director general for the PRCA in the UK and MENA, an APPG would “would make it easier to flag up issues in the political process that were affecting out industry, and given that we generate a lot of profit for UK PLC I think we deserve to have that”. However he believes the roadblocks to setting one up can be found inside parliament, rather than in the comms industry.
“To be perfectly honest we have got to recognise that the PR and communications industry has a bit of a reputation problem and therefore we haven’t had the politicians who want to set up an APPG, which is obviously something I’m sorry about and something we need to address,” he said. “The industry is a large one and it’s a growing one, full of highly skilled people. It exports around the world.
“It ought to be an industry of interest to politicians So we have to address the reason why it’s not.”
So there is a fervent interest from the MAA and PRCA, meaning the industry may well see an APPG soon appear on the register. Yet other bodies that The Drum approached all said the same thing: we don’t want to comment on this because it comes under the lobbying remit of the AA. So perhaps the decision does start and end with the Advertising Association after all.
Collins’ final comments support this theory; he explained that his role as chair of Culture, Media and Sport select committee means he isn’t in the position to set an APPG up personally, “but I would certainly support it if that was what the AA wanted to do”.