Life after Brexit: is it time to advertise UK advertising?

Doesn't the ad industry collectively need to show how it can help the government, asks the chief executive at Radiocentre.

Government communication has come a long way since the austerity-minded coalition Government disbanded the COI in 2011.  I wonder if David Cameron ever reflects on whether the result of the Brexit referendum might have gone the way he wanted, if it had been preceded by five years of great public information campaigns?

It’s true, the Daily Mail would have shouted. But a proper campaign of sustained and unbiased information, which is what government advertising delivers, might just have resulted in some of the no-show 18-25 year olds turning out to vote about something with profound importance for their futures, instead of leaving the decision in the hands of their grannies.  And wouldn’t we all be in a different place now?

The COI was always a convenient punchbag for opposition political parties

It’s difficult to think of a bigger failure in the communication of official policy in recent times with implications profoundly affecting us all– and it’s difficult not to lay at least some of the blame at the feet of government itself.   And yet,  if you read the Government Communications Plan for 2016/17,  it’s as if the Brexit vote never happened.

The COI was always a convenient punchbag for opposition political parties. It’s pretty easy to whip up a storm of indignation about Government communications spending, although in reality the numbers are pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things.  Once in power however, every occupant of Number 10 rapidly seizes the critical importance of good communication and usually acts accordingly. 

However, in 2010, the double whammy of austerity coupled with Steve Hilton’s new – and at the time fashionable – concepts of behavioural economics persuaded the Government they could easily achieve the nirvana of saving taxpayers’ money while effectively communicating with the public by the clever use of digital platforms. Lets face it, government ministers and civil servants were and are not alone in believing that ‘digital’ will solve all their marketing problems at a stroke.

When Hilton breezed out to California, sadly his policies stuck around. The COI had gone, along with all those who understand that, in communication, as in most other things, you get what you pay for. Digital platforms and social media are all critical parts of any communications plan, of course.  But there is a reason why big brands turn to TV/outdoor/radio/press as well to make the biggest bang. Because that remains the way to reach mass audiences with real impact.

None of this is particularly new or revelatory. But it is does present the ad industry with a particular problem. How to get back to being front of mind with government, which seems unable to shake off its obsession with price at the expense of value, despite myriad evidence to the contrary. 

All the political masters to whom the Brexit vote might have been a wake-up call are no longer in power and whether we like it or not the COI isn’t coming back. Some suggest that an advertising campaign could be in order.  Advertising advertising, as it were./div>

The industry, through the auspices of the Advertising Association and the IPA, has already shown the economic benefits of the creative industries to the economy and their tangible impact on British businesses – so the case studies are already there, the rational case has been made.

I am really not sure that such a campaign is the best way to challenge the minds of the ranks of assembled ministers and Sir Humphreys.  As with any client, doesn’t the ad industry collectively need to show how it can help the government?

 Surely the thing keeping Theresa May awake at night is presiding over a United Kingdom which is seen as parochial and marginal in a post Brexit world? There is a pretty compelling case for national branding or public diplomacy here. And isn’t the collected creative oomph of the UK ad industry best placed to deliver the message to the world that the UK remains outward-looking and entrepreneurial, a dynamic country with a thriving cultural landscape, home to every nation on the planet. That’s one immediate way to get back on the front foot. And I for one would certainly welcome it.

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