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UK government beats Unilever and Sky as biggest UK advertiser of 2020

The UK government topped a list of the biggest spending advertisers in the country

The UK government has dominated a top 10 list of UK advertisers for 2020 after outspending all other contenders with an ad splurge of close to £164m.

The Nielsen rankings indicate that the government boosted its advertising spend by a whopping 238% compared with the previous year as it ramped up public messaging in the wake of the pandemic.

Illustrating the scale of these spending shifts, Public Health England also appeared on the top 10 advertiser list on the back of the highest growth in budget of any organisation, at close to eight times the previous year’s spend.

Who are the UK’s top 10 ad spenders?

  • The UK Government tripled its ad spend in the crisis year, displacing traditional big spenders such as Unilever and Sky in the process.

  • The funding bonanza has powered a series of public information campaigns such as ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ to ‘Hands. Face. Space', to control the spread of the virus.

  • This frenzied activity pushed consumer goods conglomerate Unilever into second place, despite it upping its advertising war chest by an estimated 76% to £137m – although this was sufficient to leapfrog Sky which slashed its expenditure by 31% to £124m.

  • Unilever’s bold bet on advertising contrasts with its global brand and marketing investment which remains mired in the doldrums as a proportion of revenue and are down around 2% in absolute terms.

  • Another big name to fall by the wayside in a year of upsets was Procter & Gamble, which reduced its spend by 16% to £117m – a far cry from 2018 when it topped the table.

  • Sky and Procter & Gamble were far from alone in tightening their purse strings with mid-table McDonald’s and last placed Amazon trimming their budgets by 41% and 40% respectively.

  • Toward the lower half of the list, Tesco posted a marginal 1% increase in spending to £81m, sufficient for it to claim sixth spot just ahead of Public Health England in seventh after an incredible 800% uplift in advertising firepower to £80m.
  • A surge in demand for health and hygiene products did not translate to higher spend by Reckitt Benckiser, which cut its ad budget by 11% to £75m while L’Oreal posted a modest 7% uptick to $72m.

A steep drop across the board

  • Despite a flood of public funds overall ad spend across the top ten advertisers as a whole collapsed by 20% when compared with 2019.

  • This big picture masks individual bright spots however with Unilever, Tesco and L’Oréal all managing to maintain or increase their budgets in trying circumstances.

  • Barney Farmer, UK managing director at Nielsen, said: “Not only have we seen the UK Government increase advertising significantly to ensure vital public health messaging, we’ve also seen the biggest players in the advertising space hone in on data and insights available to them to ensure ad spend is as effective as possible.”

  • Turning to the future Farmer, foresees an increased reliance on accurate data to inform media buying, stating: ”While we have seen spend movement across media channels, we have also seen variety in how brands are targeting consumers based on their specific audience base and needs.”

  • The top ten advertiser ranking was compiled by Nielsen’s Ad Intel and brings together combined spend across outdoor, press, radio, TV and cinema advertising.

  • The broad picture provided by the report echoes a ’bleak’ portrait of UK ad spend from in a recent IPA Bellwether report, which found a net balance of -24% of panelists recording a contraction in marketing budgets over the fourth quarter.

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