Need help negotiating Brexit? Try the media industry
Globally-leading media companies could provide the best minds to form a core Brexit negotiation team, writes Communication Partners UK's Roy Jeans - with a brief to think the unthinkable, and by doing so frame a fundamentally different strategy
Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK's recently departed Ambassador to the EU, managed to reach 1,400 self-justifying words in his resignation letter. Based on my experience as a sender and receiver of these notes, this was about 1,390 words longer than the average media industry resignation (broadly - "Thank you for the opportunities, and goodbye"). The key message in Sir Ivan's note was the phrase "muddled thinking", an unsurprising conclusion when you consider his apparent opposition to Brexit, and the continued silence from Mrs. May concerning our general post-Article 50 strategy.
Our negotiation with the EU clearly presents the most difficult problem that we have faced as a country since World War Two, or certainly since the Suez Crisis of 1956. Irrespective of whether you are a Remainer or a Brexiter, what does seem clear is that we have a lack of skilled negotiators going "into bat" on the UK's behalf.
There have been calls for the UK to hire battle-hardened and friendly trade experts from Australia and New Zealand, and this does seem to have merit. There have also been well signposted discussions with some of the larger management consultancies such as McKinsey and Accenture.
However, conspicuous by its absence to date concerning the negotiations is any mention of a £25 billion+ UK industry which is entirely based on complex, recurring and rapidly evolving annual negotiations. An industry that has pioneered technology and creativity, and is indisputably world-leading. An industry that is ruthlessly meritocratic, and one that consistently generates excellent margins and sustainable growth. That industry of course is ours.
As hugely impressive as they may be academically, how many people from McKinsey or Accenture have negotiated anything? Have they ever sat across a table with GroupM, News Corp, Associated, Opera or Google?
A huge part of our industry's media negotiations are also assessed annually by companies that specifically exist to measure them - the results of these assessments determine the relative success of the people that are involved. These are not theoretical war-gaming exercises, but real-life exchanges that can be measured in billions of pounds, and determine the profitability of media owners as well as the likely tenure of the media agencies working with their clients. These negotiations require extensive and detailed planning, with the outcomes determining people's entire careers.
Whilst it is not difficult to argue that withdrawing from the EU is by many factors a more complex enterprise than an annual Publicis/Facebook negotiation (for example), there are fundamentals which apply to both.
What are the goals? Where is the deal flexibility? What is ultimately acceptable - and saleable at either end of the negotiation? Who are the real decision makers? Where are the red lines? What does the other side really want? And, one which is particularly important in the context of the pre-negotiation white noise of the past six months - are we all negotiating in good faith?
Jack Welch, the now-retired and successful CEO of GEC, operated by always referring any business problem to one of his Six Rules. One of his rules was "Face reality as it is, not as you would wish it to be".
The process needs an injection of thinking that is dynamic, creative but ultimately iconoclastic. Thinking the media industry can provide."
Just as one man's common sense can be another man's ideology, we unfortunately face varying shades of reality as we prepare to engage with the EU. We seem to be approaching 2017 with a sort of Millwall attitude - "Nobody likes us and we don't care".
Perhaps that in itself is a type of negotiating strategy. However, our currently perceived "transactional" attitude will simply not work, since our own version of reality does not seem to consider the existential threat that our departure from the EU creates for the countries left in it.
Sir Ivan is broadly right in his resignation letter's assertion that the EU negotiations could take up to ten years - if you think like a civil servant of course. This is where the media industry could - and should - help.
It seems that one key barrier currently is the reluctance of the "establishment" - and by that I mean politicians, civil servants, government lawyers and consultants - to think differently. The process needs an injection of thinking that is dynamic, creative but ultimately iconoclastic. Thinking that our industry can provide.
Taking Jack Welch as inspiration, how might he characterise these negotiations with a dose of low-key reality? The negotiations will be political. They will be agonisingly slow. They will not be conducted in good faith. They will be deliberately technical, focused on precedents in both European and International law. They might even be designed to disrupt or prevent our withdrawal from the EU. They will be subject to deliberate delays (from both sides possibly).
Faced with these hurdles we should at least consider exploring a radically different approach. The media industry has consistently demonstrated over the past 30 years - since the creation of Zenith - that it is able to anticipate and adapt brilliantly as the landscape has evolved at breakneck speed.
The government should ask our globally-leading media companies to provide its best minds to form a core Brexit Negotiation team. The brief should be to think the unthinkable, and by doing so frame a fundamentally different strategy.
The current players seem to come from "tram-line" industries that are trained to think only in one linear way - notably lawyers and civil servants. We should be prepared to ignore international precedents and to focus on other solutions. In this scenario ignorance is a huge advantage, not a hindrance.
Examples could be - what are the consequences of simply ignoring EU law? Why can't we simultaneously negotiate with our other Five Eyes partners (namely Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand) at the same time as our post-Article 50 negotiations? Could we extend this further to the economies that have expressed interest in trading with us post-Brexit? I would go even further, and require the best media minds to take part in these negotiations too. After all, they are rather good at it.
William Gibson once made the point in an interview that "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed". The media industry has seen more than its fair share of the future than most, and it is this dynamism and insight that the UK should use. In any well-planned negotiation face-off I would back the best of the media industry against anybody, every time.
Roy Jeans is chairman of Communication Partners UK