Review of the decade: Plus ca change

Review of the decade: Plus ça change

Economic and political pressures, agency acquisitions, the management merry-go-round and issues surrounding diversity have all played their part in shaping the past 10 years for the industry. And many of the above will undoubtedly continue to do so as we enter a new decade. But which agencies outshone the others over that time?

The end of 2019 presents an opportunity not just to look forward (for more of which, see Campaign’s "Year Ahead" issue in January), but also to look back over a decade that might have had no name but was still significant in the annals of UK advertising, as the industry continued to evolve.

While we might think that things have changed at a giddying rate over that time, revisiting Campaign’s first review of the decade – 2010 – showed that agencies, media owners and clients were wrestling with things that look eerily similar to the challenges they faced over succeeding years, right up to the present day. 

The economic downturn of 2008 was still blowing its ill winds through 2010, prompting, among other things, limited UK adspend growth, a reduction in the number of advertising employees and the eventual election of a new government – the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition formed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

One of that government’s first austerity-led tasks was to freeze COI spending and put the organisation into review as it looked at new ways to communicate its policies. The COI was eventually dismantled in 2012. 

How ironic, then, that one of the bigger stories of 2019 was the proposed £100m budget for the Brexit campaign – something the Boris Johnson-led Conservative government boasted would be the biggest public information campaign of all time. 

The full impact of Brexit on the economy has yet to be felt, such has been the UK’s painful and lengthy extraction from the EU (the role of the comms industry in failing to achieve a Remain vote is something for historians to mull).

If there is one thing that we can perhaps all be grateful for, as a new decade looms, is the end of Sir Martin Sorrell’s allusions that described the macro-economy: we went through "LUV-shaped" economic recoveries, various bath shapes and "grey swans". His departure from WPP – surely one of the key events of the decade – and replacement by the mild-mannered Mark Read means that such pontifications have stopped.

Elsewhere, at the beginning of this decade, traditional agencies were grappling with how to manage the concept that "big ideas" could come alive on non-traditional media channels and their own business models, given the disruption that "digital" was raining down on them. 

Indeed, there has been a recurring theme over the ensuing nine years – that of acquisitions and mergers (at first on a small scale, such as MCBD and Dare, and latterly on a hitherto unthinkable level that includes J Walter Thompson and Wunderman, and Ogilvy and OgilvyOne). 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Nonetheless, maybe the dominance of the FAANG companies was underestimated in those early years.

Meanwhile on the never-ending merry-go-round, management overhauls that looked shocking at the time – and were brutal for those on the end of them – revealed that advertising is not an industry for the faint of heart. 

One slightly more cheerful byproduct of this flux has been an increase in the number of women in senior roles. The issue of diversity and equality has echoed down the decade. Now that so many companies – and the IPA – have committed to meeting targets, perhaps this particular conversation will end at some point in the 2020s. It will not be before time.

That’s not to say that all of the time between 2010 and 2019 has been stuck in the same conversation (admittedly, brand purpose has also been a record that at times has sounded stuck). There was the London 2012 Olympics; a continuous body of John Lewis work from Adam & Eve/DDB that has seeped into popular culture, helped make its founders almost as rich as Croesus and maybe prompted other agency toilers to start up and go it alone; and the arrival of management consultants. 

For the last of these, the welcome has been mixed, but at least it reveals that the wider business world is taking advertising more seriously as a discipline than perhaps it did at the turn of the decade. 

Now, we look to the 2020s, with all its challenges. Surely that feels uplifting… at least try to have more fun along the way.

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