The year ahead for politics

James Murphy: there's plenty at stake for UK advertising
James Murphy: there's plenty at stake for UK advertising

While there is no election, 2016 is still a busy year, with issues such as HFSS marketing and Brexit directly impacting adland.

2015 might have included a general election, but 2016’s political calendar is no less busy – and there’s plenty at stake for business and for UK advertising.

It is fair to assume the single-party government is more inclined to support business and more able to do so. After all, it is no longer stifled by the compromises of coalition. However, it’s never as simple as that and our industry faces a number of interesting challenges. Big macro issues such as membership of the European Union and more precise challenges in areas such as HFSS (products high in fat, salt or sugar) marketing. However instinctively pro-business the government is, there are always ministers and policymakers keen to raise their profile with eye-catching gesture politics. And, a bit like banker-bashing, no politician ever alienated voters by attacking advertising.

One fascinating dimension to the post-2015 election landscape is the huge presence of the Scottish National Party across Scottish and UK politics. Will they maintain their domination at Holyrood through the 2016 Scottish parliament election? And, perhaps more relevant for advertising, what are the effects of Westminster’s third major party on many of our big issues? The SNP are not always naturally inclined towards business and, with roots on the harder left, can be instinctively suspicious of the marketing industries. Not only can they take very difficult positions on industry matters but there is always the prospect of the SNP implementing draconian measures north of the border, using Scotland as a lab for policies that can then seem less risky to roll out nationally. Against this backdrop, engagement with Scottish parliamentarians in both houses is a priority for the Advertising Association this year.

Back to national politics – what to make of the Jeremy Corbyn factor? 

It’s a fascinating test for democracy – should the party be led by its parliamentarians (voted for by nine million-plus people) or party members (voted for by 200,000-plus people)? If Corbyn survives the myriad plots to unseat him, could he and his brand of Labour emerge as a credible and sizeable opposition in the eyes of the public? While New Labour and their centrist approach provided a very positive environment for business and marketing services, there is no doubt that this new "old" brand of Labour politics would take a harsh and interventionist view.

Closer to home, the industry surely has an interest in who replaces Boris Johnson. While the London mayor’s powers may be limited, the office impacts directly on the centre of our UK industry through policies on transport and the environment for work and workers in the capital. There will also be potentially beneficial effects for regional agencies as the government aims to fire up its northern powerhouse and install more regional super-mayors in areas such as the West Midlands.

With an eye on 2017, the big debate will be: in or out of Europe? We all have our view and, while my personal preference is to stay in, the question divides opinion and raises surprisingly intense passions. Just as some would point to the growth opportunities across Europe for the UK’s world-beating agencies, others will point to possible EU-led legislation against data that will curb targeted marketing. With this in mind, the AA will understandably be remaining neutral on the big question. However, within the day-to-day business of representing the industry, it will be taking a view on what advertising needs from the European process – with the Audiovisual Media Services Directive refit and the Digital Single Market strategy top of the agenda.

GDP growth is set to climb 2.4 per cent in 2016, the same as in 2015 – making the UK the fastest-growing G7 economy since 2010. As the vanguard of the economy, the agency sector should flourish. Advertising growth is expected to be well ahead of that, estimated at 5.3 per cent in 2016, according to AA/Warc data. 

The chancellor and business secretary have singled out productivity and market competition as key levers to pull to keep the UK ahead of the pack. Both are a natural fit for advertising’s beneficial effects on the economy – as has been so clearly proved in the Advertising Pays series. 

Exports are also high on the growth agenda – which is where the latest of the Advertising Pays reports will focus on this year. Not just how we export our advertising services abroad but how British advertising creativity, best practice, talent, self-regulation and media influence the world.

The creative industries remain popular in terms of political attention, but that affection may be tested as the recently announced Department for Culture, Media & Sport budget cuts begin to bite. The Creative Industries Council has led the way in showing how government and business can partner to further everyone’s interests – and a new Create UK strategy is due this year, with the AA taking the lead on a closer look at the role of regulation.

And although there are creative hubs across the country, for advertising in particular, London remains key – and all will be paying close attention to the race for City Hall. 

Andy Duncan, the AA president, has put responsibility at the top of the industry’s agenda – and, by the time you’re reading this, UK advertising and the government are likely to be testing that ground. The question? How advertising should respond to the childhood obesity strategy. The Committee of Advertising Practice has already announced its intention to consult on new food advertising rules – a process instigated through the AA Council early last year. 

The obesity strategy will be a test of whether advertising can put forward a vision that persuades the government that partnership and self-regulation are preferable to statutory interventions.

That topic – and much more – will be on the agenda at the Lead summit at the end of this month. I look forward to seeing you there to get an important year under way.

James Murphy is the chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB and the chairman of the Advertising Association

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