It has long been in Britain’s interests to advertise. From ‘Rule, Britannia!’ to ‘Cool Britannia’ it’s important for the British to be, and to feel, special. As much as our politicians might think they are judged on their intelligence, experience or debating skills, they are often defined by the sort of place Britain is perceived to be.
Jim Callaghan lasted just three years at the helm of Europe’s ‘sick man’, and few outside Westminster remember the name. His successor Margaret Thatcher, by comparison, became a global superstar. Nicknamed ‘the Iron Lady’ by the Soviet media, she took on powerful British trade unions and opened up the capital markets, arguably paving the way for London to become a global hub for the financial services.
In Tony Blair, UK plc had a leader able to punch above his nation’s weight internationally, even appearing in an episode of The Simpsons as salesman-in-chief. Blair once moaned to his aide Alistair Campbell that “It’s just a shame Britain is so small, physically”.
It is this sense of worth that defines leadership, and generating the perception that the UK is ‘the place to be’ remains a high priority for the current coalition government.
It is why Chancellor George Osborne went to such great lengths to tempt communications giant WPP back on-shore with his latest budget. It’s also why David Cameron took a delegation of entrepreneurs to India in July. He is desperate for UK business to flourish, but without personally facilitating deals, there is little for him to do short of obtaining a tour guide licence.
For advertising and media types, the next five years will see little in the way of major changes in regulation, tax or reductions in operating costs. Analysts expect moderate growth, but nothing compared to the halcyon days.
The advertising market enjoyed double-digit growth every year from 1983 to 1989, a rate not experienced since 2000. Amidst record decline and ‘slightly better than expected’ growth, we risk forgetting than there was more money spent on advertising in 2004 than there was in 2010.
Advertising in particular needs more than George Osborne to get back on track. Nor is a Conservative-led government the answer – proud to spend less on public service advertising, and unlikely to intervene in the ‘free’ market.
What planet advertising needs is leadership. Sir Martin Sorrell has made a fine start, but he is working to a much wider brief. It is about time that his contemporaries step out from behind the boardroom door, put down the risk-management handbook and start to lead. Only then will the wider business world, society, foreign audiences and government and really sit up and take notice.