For a lesson in collaboration, ignore the British politicians and look to the ad industry’s Export Month efforts, writes Laura Swinton
The British political class is not, one might venture, showcasing its ability to work together towards a common purpose in a coordinated and collaborative fashion to the greatest effect right now. Indeed, the continuing Brexit shitschturm
is leaving international observers with the impression that Brits have suddenly misplaced their ability to set differences and personal interests aside for the greater good.
This March, though, the advertising industry have been busily doing their bit to rebuild that reputation with a coordinated effort to take the nation’s creative and advertising services to the world. Export Month saw the sectors that make up UK advertising come together for a series of events aimed at growing its footprint in the biggest markets in the world. Direct competitors stood on stage together to extol the industry as a whole and different industry organisations coordinated to ensure that their efforts had maximum impact. Despite the Brexit debacle, the UK ad industry is one of the most cooperative in the world.
Hosting a space at SXSW in the States, being welcomed as guests of honour at the Shanghai International Advertising Festival, touring the agencies of Tokyo, launching a buoyant report about the growth of British advertising exports – it’s been a month of intense activity. And, perhaps, a month of cross-industry collaboration that the Brits are uniquely suited to.
Supported by the Department for International Trade, Export Month was led under the umbrella of the Advertising Association, together with agency body the IPA and production organisation the APA. And this sense of mutual interest is one that the AA CEO Stephen Woodford reckons is ingrained in the country’s business culture.
“One of the strengths of UK advertising is its potent mix of tough competition – among world-class organisations – and high-level collaboration on the issues that can drive the greater good,” he says. “The rigour and breadth of the ASA regulatory system in one example dating back more than 50 years.”
Within the IPA, the feeling is that collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive. Janet Hull is Director of Marketing Strategy at the IPA and Chair of Promote UK and she was part of both the Shanghai and Tokyo delegation, witnessing direct competitors embracing the mutual benefits of supporting each other.
“This is how we talk in the IPA - thatt we can be competitive when it comes to our day-to-day business but we’re better together when it comes to promoting our sector and that that there is a cumulative effect,” she reflects. “Some of the people who came to China said ‘we are as good as the company we keep’, so there is an added benefit from being seen together. It leaves an impression of the scale and complexity and I think the professionalism of the whole sector.”
During the APA trip, a gaggle of production companies, post houses, and music companies headed to the city’s big agencies to show off the best of British – and managed to pack out an auditorium of curious local creatives. In many cases, presenters introduced work by competitors – and indeed direct competitors stood side-by-side on stage (MPC’s Jonathan Davies and Glasswork’s Hector Macleod forming the funniest industry double act this side of Morecambe and Wise).
“I think presenting together, with people showing work from competitors, as well as their own, shows a mature industry,” reflects the APA’s Steve Davies. “It shows a community with white hot competition but with respect for each other’s work, and for the craft and skills that go into it. Other countries are always impressed by that. Plus having 20 delegates stand up one after the other, show their work and talk about how great they are would make a boring presentation.”
The trip to Tokyo also drove home the strength of the social side of the UK industry. Nipping down to the pub with the competition, cheering on clients and collaborators at award shows, swapping insight on Twitter are all part of the intangible fabric of advertising in Britain. In Tokyo, for example, where people often stay at mega-agencies like Dentsu for life there are fewer local opportunities to share intel with and playfully wind up one’s rivals.
In China, meanwhile, that proactiveness and collaboration seemed to pay off for some participants almost immediately, with visiting British agencies being invited to pitch. What also helped, suggests Stephen Woodford, is that the visiting UK agencies approached the trip with a reciprocal mindset – eager to learn from the Chinese industry.
“I was personally hugely impressed by the camaraderie, drive and expertise of the delegation and how well the Chinese audiences responded,” he says. “Some of the UK companies already had Chinese businesses and partners, others were looking to launch them; but all were looking to create more growth and were in it for the long haul. We also recognised that we all have much to learn from Chinese market too. This recognition of the reciprocal benefits of trade, combined with the entrepreneurial energies that brought everyone together, augurs very well for the continued strong growth of UK advertising exports.”
Despite the positivity, of course, there’s no avoiding the large, Brexit-y heffalump – after all the need to build markets beyond the EU was one of the catalysts for this collaboration. Says Janet Hull, the initiative was a case of the industry tasting its own medicine – after all, don’t agencies and production companies exhort clients to go bigger with their marketing during a down turn?
The quarterly IPA Bellwether report showed in December that client confidence and spending had stalled. As an uncannily accurate predictor for the wider UK economy, the industry’s bodies knew they had to act.
“We know from the work we’ve done in the past that in a downturn, the way to win is to outspend what you might have spent before. So rather than being cautious you get ever more optimistic in the pushing out your message,” explains Janet. “Our going-in position was, ‘we can’t allow this to stall. We ‘ll have to outspend the market in order to keep growth as a possibility.’ Over-invest when the chips are down.”
And that sense of optimism and collaboration mean that there’s a sense of momentum among Export Month’s organisers.
“I think our strength here and the huge foundations underpinning it – the culture, infrastructure, expertise, the creative hubs of Soho and Silicon Roundabout - are, I think, unique in terms of creativity. They are the key strength of resilience and will mean we will prosper post Brexit,” reckons Steve Davies. “Naturally the industry expresses negativity about Brexit because most people in it are personally remainers, but if or when it happens, we will have the resolve to continue to succeed as an industry.”
During Advertising Week Europe last week, the AA and think tank Credos revealed that in 2017 the growth in advertising exports far outstripped other UK services. And growth continues despite the Brexit vote. Looking to the future, Stephen Woodford reckons that the local industry will need to pull together more than ever before.
“Over half of those exports were to the EU, so achieving a business-friendly departure and a long-term trade deal that keeps market access and our economies closely aligned is imperative. That will also impact our domestic economy too, which in turn will affect the ad industry like every other. In tough times, that collaborative and competitive culture is arguably even more important and over the years we’ve seen this endures, whatever the economic and political uncertainties.”