As the UK enters yet another lockdown, Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association (AA), implores adland to make this time count and secure a better, brighter future for the industry.
Monday night’s news was a shock but not a surprise. Given the accelerating rate of Covid-19 cases and the increasing pressure on the NHS, the new national lockdowns felt inevitable. No sooner had the Prime Minister’s statement ended than the government redeployed its ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ advertising, harking back to the first lockdown in March, which was extraordinarily effective in encouraging the public to comply.
Whether we see similar adherence in Lockdown 3.0 (or is it 4.0?) remains to be seen, but my reading of the public mood is that we’re all resigned to it and will do what is necessary.
But this time feels different in that there is now a light at the end of the tunnel with the rollout of the two vaccines. Hopefully, if there have been enough ‘jabs in arms’, to paraphrase the PM, with the most vulnerable people protected by late February, we may see some easing of restrictions. Then we can enjoy a steady return to a more normal way of life and a big economic bounce back, as people are released to spend some of the record savings that UK households appear to have built up.
At this point, though, all that feels like a big ‘if’ and, as Boris said, we have the worst of the pandemic ahead of us in the next few weeks. But if you’re not an optimist working in our industry, you’re probably in the wrong job.
How can we secure the future of our industry?
Right now, there two questions in my mind: what can our industry do during this lockdown to make a real difference? And what support should we look for to help secure the industry’s future?
Let’s deal with the second question first.
The chancellor has already announced additional support for business in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors – many of which are vital clients for advertising businesses – and we already have the backing of the furlough extension until the end of April.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, we remain in close contact with the government. There are regular calls with ministers and officials and our regular member forums are still the place for advertising businesses to share concerns with government and industry peers.
We continue to make the case for the government to invest in digital training skills to support talent development in the fast-emerging areas of the digital economy.
We also continue to pursue a tax credit for advertising to help stimulate growth and boost jobs as part of the economic recovery. And we are working hard to make sure advertising and our ’Ad Net Zero’ initiative is recognised as crucial to helping to achieve the UK’s sustainability leadership ambitions in this critical year as hosts of Cop26.
Making the most of lockdown
And what of my first, bigger question – what can we do to make the most of this lockdown?
While it may feel like we are back to square one, we are absolutely not in the same place as when we entered lockdown in March last year. Our industry has proved it can function brilliantly during lockdowns. We now take it for granted that hundreds of thousands of advertising and marketing professionals are working effectively from home, not to mention all the other industries that have done the same.
We have everything in place to continue building businesses and brands. Advertising production – thanks to the tremendous work of the Advertising Producers Association to produce guidance on this – has been running successfully in a safe and socially-distanced way for months.
At the time of the first lockdown, most productions were halted, arguably because of an over-zealous interpretation of the lockdown rules, but this time, brands, agencies and production companies can continue producing the excellent creative content they need to maintain and grow their businesses and reflect the conditions we are once again living under.
Critically, the government will look to our industry to help deliver vital public health messages. Brands are sure to provide further fire-power in their own campaigns to make sure that people will be given the information, hope and reassurance we all need to get through this period.
AA research shows that the more of a social contribution advertising can make, the more it is viewed in a favourable light by a public sadly short on trust of all institutions and industries.
We are also in a better position to look outward. The threat of a no-deal Brexit has gone.
While many aspects of the new trading relationship, especially in services and data, need to be clarified and confirmed, there has been a resolution to the question and goods continue to flow. Coupled with this, Asian economies, such as China, have rebounded strongly and British advertising, as a global leader, is well placed to service these markets.
A strong UK advertising industry can then capitalise on the European and domestic markets when they return to growth post-lockdown. Here at the AA, we have the UK Advertising Exports Group (UKAEG), which works with over 50 ambitious export-oriented companies, in partnership with the Department of International Trade. Despite the global disruptions last year, we managed to create showcase opportunities around the world for the members that put them in front of international buyers and helped them win international business, and in 2021 we have more ambitious plans to support their growth.
Most importantly though is the need for our industry to make significant and lasting progress on the big issues facing us all. For the AA, these are the issues of climate change, inclusion and public trust in our industry.
We recently launched ’Ad Net Zero’, a bold five-point plan to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2030. We also launched ’AdGreen’, in partnership with Bafta and the support of eight visionary businesses to fund the development of the most sophisticated carbon measurement tools to advertising production, so the carbon footprint of this part of our industry can be managed better and rapidly reduced.
At the same time, our inclusion group has ambitious plans for the coming months that we hope will serve to mark a genuine step-change in the way we understand and tackle the creation of a workplace that is inclusive to all.
If we get these initiatives right and do the very best job to support the fight against the pandemic, I am sure this will all serve to accelerate the rebuilding of public trust in the work of our industry.
Undoubtedly, we can ‘Build Back Better’ if we lay the foundations now for that renaissance as we near the end of the pandemic in the next couple of months.
Our task is to renew our industry in a way that will benefit the public we serve and the businesses that drive the prosperity of our country.
Our collective New Year’s resolution here at the AA is to deliver the industry programmes that will help drive the changes we all want to see.