EU will continue to call shots, new EACA president warns UK agencies

Ogilvy EMEA chief executive Paul O'Donnell was appointed this week to head pan-European agency body.

O'Donnell: has spent more than three decades at Ogilvy
O'Donnell: has spent more than three decades at Ogilvy

UK business will continue to be dominated by decisions made in the European Union, regardless of the intentions of the Conservative government, the new president of the European Association of Communications Agencies has said.

Paul O’Donnell, chief executive of Ogilvy EMEA, was unveiled this week as the successor to his WPP colleague Dominic Grainger. O’Donnell joined Ogilvy more than 30 years ago and has been in his current role since 2014. 

Along with running the Effie Awards Europe, the EACA – the pan-European counterpart to the IPA – concerns itself in large part with lobbying the EU Commission on issues that are not controlled at a national level.

Speaking to Campaign, O’Donnell acknowledged that, with the UK now technically out of the EU and currently due to separate more meaningfully at the end of 2020, it was perhaps surprising that the EACA would approach "a Brit, based in London, to be the figurehead for an organisation that’s Europe-focused – and Brussels is the key axis with which that organisation has been built".

He added: "The view was, the UK is really important part of the overall industry – we want to do as much as possible to keep Europe together as a single market for communications services."

O’Donnell, formerly a vocal Remainer, said he was "concerned on almost every level" about Brexit, but predicted that despite the posturing of Boris Johnson’s government, the UK would eventually stick close to the EU’s regulatory regime – because of the EU’s influence not just within Europe, but globally.

"One of the interesting aspects of the EACA is you’re effectively lobbying the most important trade and business organisation in the world," he said. "If you assume you can’t really lobby the Chinese effectively, and the Americans are so laissez-faire – what you have is the European Commission actually being the rule-making body for trade issues for the world.

"If you think of something like GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation], only Europe would be able to put that in place. De facto, it is the standard now that people begin to work from."

O'Donnell said it was specifically unlikely that the UK would choose to veer from GDPR, "because those are effectively the global data standards now. Particularly as people have spent so much time cranking up to engage with it, it’s a bit like suggesting we come out of Sarbanes-Oxley or something – almost impossible to do."

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the US in 2002 to regulate corporate accounting, has had a significant impact on how companies operate around the world.

Solidarity in a time of crisis

O’Donnell said he had been struck by the "strong sense of solidarity across Europe" as the agency sector faces the possibility of a harsh recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But he warned that businesses must be prepared to make redundancies.

"If companies don’t take the right measures at the right time, in terms of making appropriate staff calls, they tend to actually suffer more in the longer term," he said. 

"I don’t think anyone can be so naïve as to suggest we just have to hold on and maintain the existing staffing levels in what will almost certainly be a lower revenue environment for most agencies." 

But he added that, from his experience at Ogilvy, "business continuity has been extraordinary" since lockdowns started to come into effect. While some major brands, such as Coca-Cola, chose to halt all marketing activity, O'Donnell insisted that those were "very much the exception", adding: "Clients have really leaned in to their agency partners and been probably more collaborative and open-minded than before."

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