RENEW 2022 saw industry associations come together virtually to kick off the year – Sam Peña-Taylor takes the pulse.

Another day, another virtual meeting. Those mornings at Kings Place for the Advertising Association’s annual LEAD conference seem a long-ago treat, but the agenda remains broadly the same in this new incarnation involving ISBA and the IPA as well – broad brushstrokes that revolve around significant all-industry issues.

Alessanra Bellini, chief customer officer at Tesco, and current AA president listed them: advertising the industry’s robust regulation which in turn builds trust, foregrounding high quality creative, and, critically, making advertising a less white, less privately-educated industry.

Announcing an in-depth audit of the last issue by the Association’s in-house think tank, Credos, Bellini let the stats speak for themselves. “Only 1% of our senior leaders are black. And while many senior leaders are women, making up nearly 40% of the industry on average, a female senior leader earns 10% less than their male counterpart.” And advertising professionals are three times more likely than the UK average to have been privately educated.

A lack of diversity makes inclusion more difficult. Bellini reported that a quarter of minority ethnic employees said they were likely to leave the industry due to the lack of inclusion and/or feelings of discrimination. But inclusion goes further, and there’s work to do for other minorities. A fifth of disabled advertising professionals report having been bullied or undermined at work.

Credos’ work, then, will explore drivers of job satisfaction as well as macro issues like the impacts of Brexit and COVID, and a review of salaries through comparison to other service industries (not just creative industries).

Advertising does have serious problems that it would do well to resolve, and a concerted effort to establish proper data on the issue of diversity and inclusion are a good first step to change, since it’s hard to improve what you don’t measure.

The political agenda is also relevant and it’s rare for this event not to hear from a relevant government minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and inexplicably (for fans of W1A) Sport. 

Taking time out from the latest Westminster crisis (Partygate was in full swing) was Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries, whose early forays into the media world did little to inspire confidence when she denounced Channel 4 for being in receipt of public money. As anybody knows, it funds itself with commercial operations and pays tax… Inexplicably she didn’t seem to know this. 

The main news from the address was that the government will “look under the bonnet” of online advertising and “shine a light” as it consults on an online advertising regulation program, exploring how regulatory frameworks can be updated and how to ensure transparency in targeted advertising.

Like a good laissez faire politician, the minister believes an overhaul will mean fewer government interventions of the sort her predecessor, Oliver Dowden, was tasked with confirming to RENEW in the shape of a wide-ranging ban on advertising products high in fat, sugar and salt.

As we join Dorries on a video link, optimism is front and centre. “I think we're in a much brighter spot compared to this time last year, our path out of the pandemic was never going to be completely smooth.” You can say that again.

A week earlier, Dorries had announced a plan to scrap the licence fee that pays for the national broadcaster, the BBC, just as the political crisis was heating up. Dorries herself rowed back on the announcement when even the PM’s office attempted to distance itself from her move. While the BBC carries no advertising, it is unlikely that advertisers would like to see it gone. The standards it sets for UK broadcasting are critical to one of the country’s main remaining exports. It is also a rare thing in the 21st century: an independent broadcaster and service provider used by as much as 94% of the British public.

Yet, the argument deployed by Dorries is that it is fundamentally “very left-wing”, often hypocritically so, and even elitist. These are all subjective terms deployed at the same time as she is telling RENEW that she is “pleased to see the sector using its influence to drive change in lots of other areas, including diversity, inclusion, and climate change”. Usually, these are the very symptoms of what the media supporting her government call ‘wokeness’.

This is strange. Much of the policy backlash from Partygate involves hitting notes popular among the governing party’s right wing, which typically involve getting tougher on immigration and attacking the BBC, and which this time appear to include sabre-rattling around the tension on the Ukrainian border. The culture wars are, as ever, close to hand.

Which is part of why the whole thing feels vaguely ridiculous. All of us here have been following the news. None of us, including the minister, knows what’s going to happen. But rightward swings in government are out of step with the times that require brands to show their sense of public responsibility, their capacity for kindness, even.

While RENEW was no Trotskyist gathering, there was the sense that the agenda had moved on. The end of red tape is often touted as a key benefit of the government’s overarching political project, but it is increasingly out of step with the priorities of the business world. At this conference, ideas of how businesses could contribute to making advertising a net zero industry chime with a situation in which brands are asked ever more difficult questions about their impact on the world, their treatment of workers, their treatment of customers. Most brands have little love for the online wild west.

In last Sunday’s Observer, Will Hutton wrote interestingly about the increasingly important idea of stakeholder capitalism which is hitting the financial mainstream, not as a defensive rear-guard action to fend off criticism, but as the way toward sustainable long-term profits. And, partly, that’s because it’s what most people – those who buy products and services from the brands assembled at RENEW – demand.

Clearly it’s important that the minister addresses the industry and shares news that an online ad consultation is coming, but there’s also a sense that the divergence between what politicians in the so-called party of business want and what business itself wants is growing into a chasm that may be increasingly hard to bridge.