It's clear we can't go on like this

21 Nov 2017  |  Bob Wootton 
It's clear we can't go on like this

There are parallels between the beleaguered UK government and media agencies, writes Bob Wootton. Is it time to expect some older-world leadership from new leaders?

Recent events and commentaries suggest new endgames.

- an unprecedented recent flurry of high-profile network agency resignations. Five leaders in fewer weeks - Starcom’s Pippa Glucklich; Havas’ Paul Frampton Calero; Denstu Aegis’ Tracy De Groose; OMD’s Nikki Mendonça and Publicis' Amanda Morrissey.

- Lindsay Pattison’s elevation to WPP’s chief transformation officer while remaining Global CEO of Maxus Global. Destined for high office, surely?

- and persistent coverage of the challenge that agencies, not least media agencies, face as their job becomes more demanding while their rewards (or at least what their clients think they’re paying them) diminish.

Stepping back, I see some parallels with the pickle our country is now in. Is it time to expect some older-world leadership from new leaders?

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I voted for Brexit entirely tactically because I wanted the finest possible remain majority to focus a complacent, smug, federalist EU’s attention on how slim its grasp of the UK was.

That was too clever by half and we overshot. (I realise opining on Brexit or inclusion more or less guarantees that I may be trolled by our commercial yet paradoxically liberal industry).

The outcome precipitated the resignation of the PM who called the referendum (largely and successfully to subdue his party’s warring factions - a true account man).

Thus Mrs May came to lead the country. Unfortunately, the safe pair of hands we thought would carry us through the turbulence was actually a rabbit caught in headlights.

She sensibly decided to seek her own mandate. Her timing seemed auspicious and the Tories are still the only party to promote female leadership all the way - twice.

But her catastrophic campaign squandered any advantage in no time and yielded a diminished majority, putting her in hock to Ulster’s atavistic ‘Democratic’ Unionist Party.

So the Government is trying to execute the gravest political decision of several generations...

...under a Prime Minister with scant franchise leading a party always riven but now melting down over Europe

...whose Government’s only saving graces are a woeful Opposition and that yet more change might take things further backwards

...new fissures don’t follow old party lines (I felt like an interloper on my own Facebook page for weeks...)

...and there’s growing recognition that, if asked again, the electorate might respond differently (leavers dying off and more remainers coming of voting age).

Might some admittedly old-fashioned, brave and courageous (yes, possibly divisive) leadership be the way through? To say to the country:

“OK, we all misled you over Brexit, both sides. We then followed what we considered our duty to you as Parliament, prosecuted your will and only got further into the mire.

“With each new day and piece of new information that comes to light, it becomes more evident that we should ask and listen to you once again. Not because we want you to make the different decision that most of us in power frankly support. But because we think you should have the opportunity to reconsider”.

Timing would be around the time whatever exit plan (or not) becomes clear. But as I write, our ‘leaders’ are still arguing whether it should even go to Parliament!

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Our industry faces similar, if admittedly not as monumental, challenges.

The narratives coming from the independents are more encouraging and they’re succeeding. Maybe they offer a new template?"

It’s clear we can’t go on as we have been and still are. Businesses routinely over-promise yet still cleave to cut-throat competition even when it only drives margins down. (And to filching to bolster such dwindling revenues so they can report positively to their holding companies).

Most studies show advertising is becoming less noticed and worse, irritating, obtrusive, creepy and unwanted. (The annual crop of Christmas ads do something to stem this tide, though not Coca-Cola’s ghastly reheat in Gogglebox. Shame on you C4 - it didn’t even fill the whole break with Iceland flighting a cheeky spot before the programme mercifully resumed).

Creativity has yielded to data and advertisers are spunking dosh into channels that aren’t proving their worth (cf this), carry fake news, peddle false audience data, don’t give a stuff about their brands’ safety or whether their ads are even viewable by real people...

So if our leadership might have failed us, let’s try a new kind where it’s most needed and where the vacancies lie - in the networks where most of the money at risk sits. (I won’t conjecture on this correlation here).

Best not follow the nostrum that they’ve merely got be smarter, more agile and of course data-savvy. Those coming up behind could well be more of the same, therefore less.

Instead, they’ll also have to be braver to rewrite the terms on which we all operate: transparent, open, effective, accountable, sometimes collegiate, intuitive and flexible, also tough. But visionary.

This might favour people with experience who’ve already made wealth enough to remain independent. Trouble is, those who’ve made money tend to want to make more even if they don’t need it. And much serious talent has already leeched to those who pay best (or offer the biggest capital growth through equity ownership).

As ever, there are some positive glimmers. The narratives coming from the independents - the7stars, Goodstuff and others - are more encouraging and they’re succeeding. Maybe they offer a new template?

We - and our advertiser clients - could actively reassess whether we want to actively help beleaguered channels we still value become more sustainable...even revisit whether public ownership and creative industries are truly compatible.

(Only when our commercial radio industry fell back into private hands did it stop spiralling under short term market pressures. CEO Paul Polman flew in the face of the markets by withdrawing Unilever from filing quarterly. And as a leading Japanese concern, Dentsu is well-known for taking very long views).

Perhaps it’s even time to invent a new kind of corporate social capital, beyond the greed of the markets and the beard of CSR. Our commercial yet liberal industry leaders should be up to that.

There. Not a mention of AI, VR, AR. Maybe next time.


Bob Wootton is principal of Deconstruction

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