A few weeks ago The Telegraph reported that the government, led by new prime minister Boris Johnson, was preparing a £100m ad blitz to prepare the country for the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit. Engine has been hired to create this message.
This budget might seeming eye-watering to the point of implausibility (is it even possible to burn through that amount in three months?). However, if the figures mentioned are even remotely true, it means that Engine and the government’s media agency, Manning Gottlieb OMD – and media owners – could benefit enormously from the UK government’s "do or die" withdrawal, even if other sectors are warning that no deal presents them with significant challenges. With the newspaper also saying that the outdoor, radio and TV campaign would be the biggest "since the Second World War" the rhetoric between Westminster and Brussels has also been ratcheted up a gear.
Simultaneously, Johnson was also quick to embark on a tour of the nations of the UK, with visits to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in an apparent attempt to shore up support for his plan among local politicians and show his commitment to the Union post the UK’s EU departure. While he did not exactly receive a universally warm welcome, he took the opportunity to unveil further funding initiatives – such as the trans-Pennine railway and aid for farmers (following promises of more police officers) – as part of his new approach to government, known as "boosterism".
If these promises come to pass, then, from a fiscal perspective, this interventionist approach belongs more to the Butskellism policies of the post-war era rather than the monetarist doctrine of Thatcherism. Boosterism – in effect, spending on infrastructure in the hope that economic growth follows – is a political and financial risk. As well as spending the "fiscal headroom" built up by former chancellor Philip Hammond, it risks saddling future generations with more government debt, and all that pain from the implementation of austerity measures might end up looking as if they were for nothing.
With the mooted £100m ad campaign (which will presumably take the form of a latter-day "Keep calm and carry on" message) to inform the British public of how their lives will unfold after Brexit, Johnson risks straying into areas where public information has the potential to conflict with the party political.
This is a line that former prime minister David Cameron (the person arguably responsible for the past three tortuous years) was forced to tread when he called the referendum back in 2016. Cameron splurged £9m on a national leafleting campaign, with a document that laid out the benefits of the UK remaining in the EU (for what good it did). At the time it was criticised as being "one-sided propaganda" by, among others, Sajid Javid, who, in one of those twists of history, now finds himself chancellor of the exchequer and in charge of doling out the public’s hard-earned cash. The campaign was not, as it turned out, a success and it’s possible that Javid takes an alternative view about the latest campaign plans.
Engine and, potentially, the other agencies on the government’s communications services rosters – which include M&C Saatchi, George & Dragon, Ogilvy UK, The Gate and Now – may also be asked to create campaigns that risk veering into political territory or appear similarly one-sided, given just how toxic that Brexit debate has become. It’s quite possible, too, that the government will want to use the campaign to score its own party political points. After all, the huge budget is far beyond anything the Tories could summon up from the party coffers.
Whether the undoubted power of advertising is enough to convince all quarters of the UK that Johnson’s plan is the right one (or indeed that leaving is anything other than a terrible decision) is open to question. But some solace must surely come from the fact that the government is turning to our industry at a time of national gravity.
End of an era at AMV
Further change is afoot at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, with the departure of its chief creative officer, chairman and former executive creative director Paul Brazier, after 27 years service. Only the third person at the agency to spearhead its creative department – Brazier followed Peter Soutar and David Abbott himself – he had been a lower-profile figure in the industry since stepping back from his ECD role in 2013. With group chairman and group chief executive Dame Cilla Snowball standing down at the end of 2018 after 26 years at the agency and handing on the reins to Sarah Douglas, it shows that advertising was once an industry where it was possible to have a career virtually for life within one agency. This was particularly true of AMV. Whether this is the case any more is questionable (is it even desirable either for individual or agency?). But Brazier’s impact on the industry through some of his most famous campaigns, including Guinness and the lamented COI, shouldn’t be forgotten.