If you're out of touch, you'll be out of pocket

Understanding the public sentiment that brought about Brexit will help an agency mitigate any negative external forces that follow it.

After seven months of self-flagellation, you’d have thought the industry might have learned something about the world outside its bubble. Yet, when delegates at the Advertising Association’s Lead conference were asked how the country would vote if the European Union referendum were held again, they said the result would be reversed. When they were then invited to choose the least-trusted business sector from a list – including advertising – banking was overwhelmingly the winner. In both cases, the assembled executives were wrong.

Deborah Mattinson, founding partner of BritainThinks and former Labour pollster, was quick to put us back in our box. However much some people might wish it so, there is no evidence that Remain would win if the vote were recast today. 

Meanwhile, research from the AA’s own think tank, Credos, found that advertising was the least trusted of eight sectors. The banking and energy industries – which have both been beset with scandals in recent years – were actually joint fourth, ahead of online and computer games and media but just behind that bastion of customer-service excellence, telecommunications. 

Are we really that out of touch? Like Donald Trump looking out in front of the Capitol building and seeing millions of people rather than exposed mats and empty bleachers? Hell, Ogilvy & Mather has even sent its planners off on day trips to speak to "real people" to reconnect with the public mood. While well-meaning, the move isn’t without its critics. Colin Byrne, UK and EMEA chief executive of Weber Shandwick, suggested a better strategy might be to actually hire people from diverse backgrounds.

Part of me hopes the audience at Lead had allowed themselves to daydream. They knew what the answer probably was but chose to imagine an alternative reality where Leave voters saw the error of their ways and valued our sector (or at least more than bloody banking). If that’s the case, then no real harm done. If not – and they thought the rest of the country had caught up with their way of thinking – then we still have so much to learn.

Brexit has already cost the industry money. A Credos survey of 200 advertising companies found that just over a fifth (22%) had lost business or contracts since the referendum. AA chairman and Adam & Eve/DDB co-founder James Murphy said his agency missed out on £3m in income in the week after the vote, although he added that business had since returned to normal.

But there will be opportunities in all of this. Most obviously in selling the UK to the world on behalf of the government, as culture secretary Karen Bradley indicated in her slogan-ridden speech. But more significantly, those companies that both hire more broadly and listen harder will do better than their competitors because they understand the people they’re trying to sell to. And, after all, that’s why we’re here.

Maisie McCabe is acting UK editor of Campaign. 

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