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Diversity doesn’t rule; adland and politics don’t mix; and prizes for all

16 Dec 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Diversity doesn’t rule; adland and politics don’t mix; and prizes for all

As they hightail it out of the company, M&C Saatchi's board members have inadvertently made the case for diversity, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: proof that adland doesn't get politics; and taking a leaf out of the Turner Prize

Reading about the high drama at M&C Saatchi, in which half the board quit, was a lot of fun last week, as well as proving a welcome distraction from all the electioneering.

And didn’t it all read like a chapter or two of House of Cards, which is perhaps not surprising given that its author Lord Dobbs was a member of the board.

But a couple of things struck me, the most important of which is that the board shenanigans have shone a light on its composition and, inadvertently, made the case for diversity.

You don’t have to be a paragon of PCness to believe that diversity — at any level, but especially at the top — improves governance, decision-making and (in some cases) profitability. There is sufficient evidence out there. The case is endorsed by the World Economic Forum, and here’s a piece by the Boston Consulting Group.

And yet, at least before half of them threw their toys out of the pram, here was the make-up of the M&C board:

Lord Saatchi — aged 73
Lord Dobbs — aged 71
Sir Michael Peat — aged 70
Jeremy Sinclair — aged 73
David Kershaw — aged 65
Bill Muirhead — aged 73
Lorna Tilbian — early to mid-60s (a good guess based on when she started her career).

So…with the exception of Lorna Tilbian, it’s a board that’s male, pale and stale. Equally, they’re old mates. Saatchi, Sinclair, Muirhead and Kershaw have worked together for at least 35 years. Dobbs is an ex- Saatchi and Saatchi alumnus, as well as former chairman of the Conservative Party (double connection!), while Tilbian was a City analyst covering Saatchis at its peak.

If there was a group picture of them, they’d look like the Conservative 1922 Committee circa 1980, only a bit less diverse.

This is not a group that was likely to look under the carpets for misdeeds. You can imagine board meetings were high on chumminess and self-congratulation and low on critical self-analysis. And it’s all great until the shit hits the fan — then, like cats in a sack, they all start fighting.

Still, now the hunt is on for a new batch of directors, whether executive or non-executive, the opportunity is there to rebalance the board in terms of diversity and bring some fresh thinking in.

The second thing that struck me was, going over Campaign’s Hot in 2019 list, no-one from M&C gets a mention. Not one suit, creative or planner. I know the lists are completely subjective, but they reflect reputation and profile. It would be wrong to conclude from this that M&C lacks the talent, but not the suggestion that the agency has now slipped below the radar.

Time was when no-one wanted to pitch against it; now they’d be happy if it was on pitch lists.

By the way, if you want an excellent under-the-bonnet read about the crisis at M&C, read no further than Gideon Spanier’s incisive take here in Campaign.

Adland doesn’t get politics

Still, if there was one thing you could say about M&C Saatchi, it is that it got politics like no other agency did. Indeed, whether you like it or not, it’s clear that the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan demonstrates the effectiveness of M&C’s famous ‘Brutal Simplicity’ mantra.

But get other parts of adland talking about politics and advertising, and they look like two tribes speaking different languages. Often, what they say just makes you laugh in its sheer ineptitude.

I refer you to System1’s analysis of Boris’s Love Actually cue-card spoof.

In its wisdom, System1 gave the film a high rating of 1.62 for short-term impact, which System1 says is a strong indicator of sales (i.e. in this case, votes). So far, easy to understand.

But then, according to these self-proclaimed sages of effectiveness, the film scored just one star for its long-term, brand-building effect.

Er, what part of politics and political advertising does System1 just not get? Politicians are just not remotely interested in any long-term brand-building. They are only focused on what’s in front of their face, which in the case of the Love Actually spoof, was winning the election just three days later — a pretty short-term goal, you’d think.

Normally I am an admirer of System1 but here, because it can’t see anything except through the prism of ‘brands’, it just makes itself look daft and naive.

Separately, but still thinking about political advertising, this was the first election I can remember when I didn’t see (or notice) any OOH ads. Clearly, the focus and the budgets have moved to social media — although I saw a few press ads and was direct-mailed and leafleted to death (yes, that’s you, Lib Dems — not very green, is it?).

And I can’t help feeling they’re missing a trick. OOH is proven, cost-effective, hard to ignore and, as great ads from previous elections show (Labour putting William Hague in a Thatcher wig, for example), get people talking outside the echo chamber when they get amplified by other media.

Does 2019 then mark the death knell for OOH and political advertising? I suspect election-fatigued Britain is in no hurry to find out.

Hooray, prizes for all

As the spirit of ‘wokiness’ spreads through adland, we can speculate whether it will take a leaf out of the Turner Prize awarded two weeks ago.

Here, in case you missed it, all four contenders took it upon themselves to share it — and the jury went along with it.

This is what the artists said: “At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the Prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society.”

Hmm, well you can see that certain elements of adland just might go along with this view of the world. I’ve certainly heard similar sentiments espoused recently.

Imagine this: everyone shortlisted at Cannes says, ‘let’s share the top prize, and make it a gold while you’re at it.’ Or all those in the running for Campaign’s Agency of the Year prizes say ‘you know what, we’re all as good as each other, and it would be a great signal to the world if we just shared the prize’.

It would be insane, and the organisers of awards would go berserk at the prospect of their lucrative revenue streams being undermined.

Fortunately, I think adland’s innate competitiveness will in the end triumph.

Sometimes though, this competitive streak manifests itself in a different way. The top editorial staff of a magazine I was responsible for came to me one December and announced that they’d decided no-one was worth a prize that year and that therefore they would not be awarding any.

“You’re bonkers,” I said.

“No,” they replied, “we talked to the shortlist and explained our thinking. They said they were happy with that.”

“You’re still bonkers,” I said. “Of course they’d say that. If they can’t win, they don’t want anyone else to.”

P.S. That’s me done for 2019. Season’s greetings to all. I’ll be back in the first week of January with a wish/predictions list for 2020.

Dominic Mills will be chairing The Year Ahead 2020, Mediatel's annual invite-only networking event for senior professionals from across the media industry, which sees panellists give their views on key media issues.

This year will not only be another opportunity for the leading minds in media to come together to discuss the next 12-months, but as we enter a new decade it gives our experts the chance to future gaze into what the next 10 years could possibly bring.

Click here for full details - and if you have a question you would like to ask of the panel, let us know.

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