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Silly season sieges & squandered chances

04 Aug 2020  |  Bob Wootton 
Silly season sieges & squandered chances

The ad boycotts of today will go the same way as the media sieges of old, writes Bob Wootton

The traditional silly season approaches, but in these weird times it seems like it started months ago.

In my last column I observed how little real news there had been. The last month has been contrastingly interesting.

We’ve seen by far, the most comprehensive advertiser boycott ever of media owners - Facebook taking most of its force.

As a UK advertisers’ shop steward for many years, I understand how difficult it is for such concerted action to come about. Any attempt to organise, for example by ISBA or WFA, is illegal under competition law and the penalties can amount to many times a trade body’s meagre turnover.

Moreover, as I’ve asserted previously, advertisers are in competition for prime media. Some will always rush in to capitalise on the lower media costs that follow any boycott, immediately defraying if not neutralising its impact on the media owner.

Sadly, this boycott came about, not as it should have because of cumulative advertiser disaffection with many misdemeanours and outright misrepresentations. Rather, it happened when brands’ purpose divisions weighed in with the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign and the virtue-signalling marketing and ad folks followed.

Some (predictably, the Nikes of this world) sought to curry consumer favour by linking with the #blacklivesmatter movement as its profile went supernova in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.

Others followed, some deftly but most were clumsier, getting egg on their faces which really stuck and having to spend deep to get themselves out of a self-inflicted bind.

You’d think that such a huge advertiser boycott would have an impact as it absolutely certainly would in the past, but unfortunately it won’t for four reasons:

1. Facebook’s revenue base is far, far broader than the traditional top 100-heavy customer base, which funded the legacy mass-media channels. It has literally millions of advertiser customers, many of which are small businesses that have been built on the platform. They’re not going to withdraw – rather, they’ll look to enjoy a price holiday.

2. Facebook and its peers are insanely profitable. Well, who wouldn’t be with huge revenues and no pesky responsibilities like having to pay tax or produce quality content, which is then subject to regulation?

3. Its founder and biggest shareholder (almost 20% of the issued share capital and nearly 60% of the voting shares where the real power lies) doesn’t care and doesn’t need to.

4. The clincher: those advertisers who became so vocal once they’d ascertained safety in numbers won’t hold their nerve. Many have indicated that they are freezing spend for just a month, some for three, a few for six. Watch them all skulk back just as soon as they think they’ve shored up their reputations and/or won’t be noticed.

Compare this with the media ‘sieges’ of old. Originally, these standoffs were usually between large advertisers and regional ITV stations with agencies drawn-in reluctantly.

Unilever’s sustained withdrawal from Television South back in the mists of time was the subject of inebriated reminiscences for many years.

As the industry consolidated, sieges became handbags at dawn for the major network buying groups and sales houses and usually ran for about three months before sense was seen by both sides, accommodation reached and face saved.

“Ah, but there’s hope yet,” I hear you say. As I write, Zuck and his GAFA peers are up in front a Congressional Hearing in Washington.

Well, let’s look at that August body’s (or indeed our own Government’s) conspicuously undistinguished record in such matters.

Last time Zuck went before them, their questioning was as downright weird as it was wide of any mark. No, these hearings are invariably much more about committee members showboating before their electorates than they are about getting to the nub of things.

Former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson’s performances on the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee were a notable exception. He really went for those before him, though his career subsequently imploded over his wilful persecution of former cabinet minister Leon Brittan and others.

Me, I’m expecting business to resume as usual for Facebook long before it does for those affected by the pandemic, which I fear is on the cusp of its second coming.

I’ve also commented previously on adland’s ongoing but silent frustration with its representation in government.

To recap, despite being a key national asset and engine of commerce, our creative industries fall under the ‘sponsorship’ of the smallest and therefore least-effectual Department of State - Culture, Media & Sport (budget £1.4 billion).

Further, its Secretary of State is either appointed as a sop for loyalty to a Prime Minister or as a proving ground for those fancied for greater posts. The holder changes every few months as they fall out of favour or are moved on and up.

So the lobbying and influencing clock is constantly being reset to zero. No chance of accumulating influence despite the Advertising Association’s sterling and sustained efforts. (Of course, those closely involved can’t utter such things for fear of offence and going backwards).

But then, Huawei. A major national issue, driven mainly by security and defence concerns (budget £46 billion) but concerning our future 5G communications infrastructure and so led by DCMS and Minister of State Oliver Dowden. At last, an opportunity for our sponsoring ministry to show its mettle and gain cabinet traction on a serious issue, which can only benefit the rest of us who sail alongside. Please don’t squander it, guys.

And I haven’t even started on the shit-show that is government’s capricious attack on ‘junk foods’…

I wish you a good, safe summer, wherever you’re spending it.

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