The ad industry must sit at the heart of Britain's export strategy

We can play our part in helping UK companies attract business abroad.

There is no export quite like advertising and no export that advertising can't help. There is also no time quite like now for the industry to see good on that promise. 

The word unprecedented is overused when referring to the political landscape in Britain today, but what is clear is that it presents an opportunity for our industry to show leadership. In the streets of the ad industry, important answers lie.

Advertising is not only one of Britain's most coveted exports in its own right, but it's also a potentially significant lever in aiding the recalibration of the UK's trading relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. UK businesses large and small with export ambitions are going to need support from ad agencies to reach customers in overseas markets, to remind the world that we're still very much open for business.

The good news is that these businesses can rely on the best ad industry in the world to do just that.

I'm not alone in thinking advertising has a big part to play in our Brexit destiny. This month, the Advertising Association, the Department for International Trade and the IPA have come together to create Export Month. Over the next few weeks, we can expect to be treated to a showcase demonstrating the very best of UK advertising to international audiences.

This is both timely and deserved. The UK is an advertising exporting powerhouse. We should be proud of what it has accomplished and recognise its potential for the future. And, crucially, we should not overlook the important role it has to play in doing what it does best and what we now need most: breaking down barriers.

Advertising value

Our ad industry has succeeded by combining innovation with creativity and technological expertise, and exporting this to the rest of the world. But its most important innovation has been to lower barriers to entry.

Online advertising is now almost borderless and today in the UK, we have a multinational workforce servicing a global client base. We are now at a point when a bakery chain in France can reach customers across the border in Belgium using the ingenuity of British advertising, which employs talent from all across the world. Or take Gymshark, the Birmingham-based fitness apparel and accessories brand founded in 2012 by 26-year-old Ben Francis, which has become the number one business in the country for fastest-growing international sales and is also becoming a serious rival to well-established global names.

Advertising is now accessible to anyone. And this has fuelled a revolution in small and medium business growth.

Clearly, there are lots of factors at play when a business tries to get its product beyond its shores. But innovations in ad tech have been crucial. For UK businesses, promoting products overseas used to be difficult and cost-prohibitive. Today, on Facebook's platforms, 47% of UK small businesses now export to two to five other countries, while 375 million people outside the UK are connected to small businesses in the UK via Facebook alone.

The growth of these small businesses translates to more jobs – indeed, 50% of small and medium businesses surveyed on our platform have told us that they have been able to hire more people as a result of using Facebook – something that in turn means stronger communities. Digital advertising is driving this and there's huge opportunity for this growth to continue.

Digital advertising has also allowed business models to diversify. Companies can now start and carry out the majority of sales online, often with only one or two people, and sell to several markets. These companies are now a core part of the economy. 

Open for business

Not only has the evolution in online advertising aided the growth of countless businesses, it has helped cement the ad industry as one the UK’s fastest-growing sectors. Exports more than doubled to £5.8bn between 2009 and 2016, outperforming UK service exports overall and growing at more than twice the rate of financial services in 2016.

No matter what happens in the wider political landscape in the coming weeks and months, the ad industry is one of the UK’s most treasured assets and should sit front and centre of our future trading relationships. It also underpins the success of all our other industries. It can be easy to obsess about totemic industries such as manufacturing and financial services. They're undoubtedly important, but we overlook ad land at our peril.

It is one of the most valuable exports we can give to a country. Advertising has a remarkable ability to help entrepreneurs, start-ups and small and medium businesses grow and thrive in an international market. And it helps make businesses and job opportunities possible that could never have existed before, supporting people to make a living doing what they love.

It has also brought together some of the best talent from around the world, creating campaigns that have made an indelible mark on our culture and society, enhancing the reputation of Brand Britain in the process.

It has brought the world closer together, reducing the barriers to international trade and allowing customers to easily access products and services from across the world.

As an industry, we must redouble our efforts to show that, no matter what happens with the UK's relationship with the European Union, we’re open for international business and our ad industry is leading the way.

There is massive opportunity for our industry. Perhaps even an unprecedented one.

Steve Hatch is vice-president, northern Europe, at Facebook

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