As the UK's new prime minster assembles her cabinet, Brian Carruthers thinks it doesn't hold out much promise for the advertising industry.
Michelle Donelan has become the eleventh Culture Secretary in ten years. As she arrives at work, her to-do list is already full, what with the planned privatisation of Channel 4, impending HFSS advertising legislation, the Online Harms Bill, the Online Advertising Programme and the Gambling Review White Paper …
“We hope that she will take an active and positive interest in the advertising industry, recognising our importance to UK jobs, culture, and the economy,” said the IPA’s Paul Bainsfair.
Pre-politics Donelan had a stint as a marketing manager at WWE, so at least that hope can be well placed: she has some understanding of the issues the advertising industry faces.
But advertising doesn’t operate in a vacuum – it has to take note of and respond to what is happening in the wider world. And that means addressing concerns around climate change, sustainability and acknowledging the DEI agenda. Here, the signs are less encouraging.
In fact, the appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is positively alarming.
The history graduate and hedge fund manager has opined that scientists can’t really be expected to understand future climate change because meteorologists sometimes get tomorrow’s weather forecasts wrong. The man also has a record of supporting fossil fuels (including fracking) and has suggested that “climate alarmism” is to blame for high energy prices. And he has described net zero – a policy for which he is now responsible – as a “huge regulatory cost”.
So no-one is expecting that the green agenda is going to be high on his list of priorities. Scrapping regulations (does he have new ESG reporting requirements in his sights?) and issuing more North Sea drilling licences may make ideological sense to a right-wing government and its supporters, but in the real world lots of people do care about what a previous Conservative prime minister dismissed as the “green crap”.
And it’s because people care that businesses are attempting, with varying degrees of success, to address these very issues.
So what are brands and companies to do? They could take advantage of any opportunity to reduce costs that might result from a “bonfire of regulations”, but then they’ll have to decide whether to pocket the profits or pass the savings on to hard-pressed consumers.
Enriching shareholders during a cost-of-living crisis isn’t a good look but who would bet against many businesses following the example of water and energy companies. Marketers could find themselves having to deal with some very negative brand perceptions without the certainty that comes with selling utilities.
And brands that have already embarked on a sustainability mission are going to look rather stupid if they suddenly ditch all the work they’ve been doing and telling people about.
But then, the practicalities of business and marketing are not really a strong point for the so-called party of business. Remember the big idea in the summer of running an ad campaign to encourage brands to cut their marketing spend and reduce prices? While it turned out that wasn’t going to happen, the report had enough credibility to have the industry foaming at the mouth.
Only last week, one of Rees-Mogg’s final acts in his previous government role as Brexit opportunities and government efficiencies minister was to block spending on a tourism campaign aimed at boosting post-pandemic visitor numbers from important international markets. His argument, based on typical Brexiter exceptionalism, seemed to be that people would visit anyway so why bother to advertise?
The Guardian reported a senior government source as saying: “Jacob Rees-Mogg is totally unsuited to modern governance. His kneejerk ideological stubbornness halted British tourism from being promoted in key international markets, at the very time when many sectors are still on their knees from Covid. He may wrap himself in the union jack at home, but he is unwilling to fly that flag abroad.”
So the new business secretary is an advertising and climate change sceptic while the new culture secretary has a background in marketing but is inexperienced at this level. Bainsfair may hope she’ll take a positive interest in the industry but that’s far from certain and she’s sure to face opposition from a man whose interest in advertising probably extends no further than disappointment that The Times ever took classifieds off the front page.