Agency leaders talk Brexit deadlock at The Drum Agency Acceleration Day

Agency leaders talk Brexit deadlock at The Drum Agency Acceleration Day

Various treaty rejections, numerous MP resignations, fears of an advertising recession, the Halloween Brexit leave date seems fitting for the chaos that has followed since March 2017. Brexit is looming large and British businesses have sailed uncharted waters in the lead up to D-day.

At The Drum’s Agency Acceleration Day, associate editor, Sonoo Singh chaired a panel with agency bosses on how they have tried to prepare for the great unknown.

Preparing for the unknown

For independent agency Impero there is a lot of optimism around what’s next. “I'm relatively optimistic,” says Michael Scantlebury, founder and creative director of the agency. He believes that a looming slowdown and recession will be the worse for the bigger network agencies. “I’ve started three businesses in my life, all during a recession as it's easier. As an independent, you can be nimbler and get things done at a quicker rate.”

However, Chris Hirst, global chief executive officer, Havas Creative Network isn’t as hopeful. If the economic environment worsens, some businesses will continue to perform well but recessions mean more simply won’t.

“That's what happens, people lose jobs,” asserts Hirst. “The reason for my unhappiness, we let a genie out of the bottle that doesn't get put back in anytime soon. Whether we leave, stay or stay in limbo, at some point this phase will come to an end, whatever it is and the sooner the better. But all that happens then is the next stage of Brexit begins.

“We're arguing about all the wrong things, discussing all the wrong things and we're spending all our time talking about all the wrong things. That's not just a Brexit issue, that's all the others things that aren't being resolved in our society.”

Rocking the boat

He says he’s “pissed off” being in this land of uncertainty.

Nicky Unsworth, chief executive officer of advertising and marketing agency BJL [acquired recently by Dentsu Aegis Network] believes the relationship between client and agency has gotten better. Agencies are now starting to speak to clients about the broader business issues, such as Brexit, rather than just a communications campaign.

“Think that also puts us in a stronger position. From my perspective, the client situation is worse because often they're dealing with more cross border issues, especially the international clients. It's probably changing the conversation slightly.”

We’re also in a horrible cycle of short term planning, according to Katy Howell, chief executive officer of social media agency, Immediate Future. “We aren't looking more than eight weeks ahead of ourselves because nothing is moving,” she insists. “The financial directors and procurement people are stamping their feet, saying they don't go further than this, because it's too unpredictable. That for me is a big challenge.

“My first love is marketing, in what we produce, in making a difference and changing behaviours. We're not doing the best we can do in these tiny short term cycles.”

Now that it’s all been smashed up, time to rebuild

Is it a time for the industry to be drawing parallels to what’s going wrong in our society? There appears to be a mass rejection of everything that stood before- whether it's politics, religion, the finance industry even the social fabric. Is it time for the industry to pause and see whether there are lessons to be learned?

Over the past few years, the advertising industry had everything thrown at it, according to Anil Stocker, chief executive officer and co-founder, Market Invoice. Whether that’s Zuckerberg, data and privacy issues, woes around brand safety - it's been a real challenge. The problem right now is that we don't have a vision, as UK politicians are not bold enough to create one, he says.

“That often happens in business as well, you don't have a vision you stagnate,” he explains. “When you go outside of London, you realise that it's not like Brexit is an issue of two years but it's an issue of thirty years.It's people not being heard and feeling shut out of politics.

“We should acknowledge the long term problems and and as creative businesses say we have a unique position right now to actually try and do something different. This affects all of us.”

Take a look at campaign director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, says Hirst. “If you listen to his view on Brexit, it was almost creative destruction. To rebuild that, we probably have to break it all up. Maybe that's a valid approach and at the moment if you try and pull it back into our industry, it needs to go through a period of that.

“With all facets of our society, political system, the way we think of ourselves as a country, our place in the world, our relationship with Europe, we've definitely smashed it all and the only way for us to move forward is to start to think how we want to rebuild it.”

Maintaining the talent

On retaining talent, a report by the Advertising Association saw 57% of businesses concerned about their ability to recruit new international staff post Brexit. In an industry that's going through many changes, disruption and turmoil of its own and within Brexit as well, how it gets talent is a focal talking point.

Upsworth and Scantelbury add that Brexit isn’t really impacting on talent directly. Scantelbury says “We've been losing talent to the sexy tech firms, to the Googles and Facebooks for a while,and I'm not sure Brexit is going to do much more with that. We've got to make our industry awesome again and the talent will come.”

Market Invoice, which has around 130 people in the company and 30% are not UK nationals and Stocker says: “In our tech team of 25, there's 12 nationalities. I'm very excited about employing those outside Europe. It should be equal chance of coming here. If we're going to pay £5,000 to sponsor someone, it shouldn't matter where they come from. Talent is important.”

Hirst adds that there's no question that we aren't maximising the potential of the people we have in the UK. 70 million people live in the UK and at the moment, we only tap into a small fraction of that. “It’s not just we the creative industries, we the successful businesses in London. If we go back to creative destruction, what can we be better at? We need to be better at finding routes for all sorts of different people to get into our industry.”

Political silence

The creative and communication industries in the UK have a great reputation for doing fantastic political and social change advertising, so why has the industry been silent on Brexit?

Unsworth says the industry has tried through the trade bodies but the fact that we're asking the question means they've either not tried hard enough, not been vocal enough or maybe not constructed the argument well enough.

Hirst however believes the industry has been quite vocal about it, but that our government does not view the creative industries as a real industry.

Hirst, Unsworth, Scantlebury, Howell and Stocker were panelsist at The Drum's Agency Accelleration Day 2019. Register your interest for 2020 now.

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