Nothing fake about the FT's Presidents Club assault

29 Jan 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Nothing fake about the FT's Presidents Club assault

Dominic Mills wonders if the excellence of the Financial Times' journalism can help change the minds of 'news rejectors'. Plus: why the AA wants to spread the advertising jam around, and how awards schemes discriminate

Hats off to the Financial Times for its sterling journalism uncovering the horrible goings on last week at the Presidents Club dinner.

I must confess to an immense feeling of concern when I first saw the headline, and then relief when I read the story: it wasn’t anything to do with the advertising industry, WPP’s ill-judged sponsorship of the dinner apart. But shame on me for thinking that, well, it might have been.

As luck would have it, the FT’s story coincided with the publication of the Edelman Trust Barometer, the most significant finding of which was a surge in trust for the traditional media and a parallel slump in trust for social media. The FT, as well as other efforts by the mainstream press over the last year (Grenfell/abuse/extremism) demonstrate why this might be so.

In summary of the UK results: trust in traditional media is up 13 point to 61%, and that in professional journalists up similarly (phew). Meanwhile, trust in social media has slumped to just 24%.

There’s more too: nearly two thirds (64%) believe social media is insufficiently regulated, lacking in transparency (63%) and selling data without their knowledge (62%).

But I take that last figure with a pinch of salt. There is widespread understanding of how the unwritten contract with social media works, and we tacitly collude with the deal: we get our services (and content) for free, and they get our data. So I suspect that that figure is more do with the way we despise ourselves for going along with it.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which a head of steam is building up amongst the population in favour of regulation. There’ll come a point when politicians can no longer ignore it.

But what is bad for social media is not automatically good for for traditional media. A third of us consume less news than before, and 20% - branded ‘news rejectors’ by Edelman - shun it altogether. That I find worrying, and the sterling efforts of the FT and other traditional media outfits to out society’s wrongs and fulfil a civic duty clearly cut no ice with a significant chunk of the population.

Spreading the advertising jam around

There is much to admire in the work of the Advertising Association promoting the cause and the benefits of advertising - notably that every £1 spent generates £6 of GDP - and defending it from its detractors.

As announced at its LEAD conference last week, it has a new mission: promote the cause of advertising to SMEs who make up 40% of GDP but only 18% of ad spend.

In fact, this is not especially new. Back in 2014, the AA made a similar call.

Let’s hope it works better this time, but in any case the AA is right to keep banging the drum because somewhere amongst today’s SMEs are tomorrow’s Unilevers.

You can read more about it here from Siobhan Kenny of the Radio Centre, who is leading the initiative.

But let’s not pretend this is easy. SMEs perceive advertising as something only for the bigger players, and many SME founders I speak to shun adland. At the same time, the industry erects its own barriers: it speaks a language they can’t understand, and is often on a different cultural and attitudinal wavelength.

Oddly, there are two paradoxes here: one, many agencies are (or were) SMEs and are entrepreneur-led - but they still don’t appear to empathise with the life of an SME; and two, advertising has never been easier to access or cheaper, thanks to the self-serve options from Google and Facebook, and indeed some traditional media owners.

But, as even big advertisers know, navigating the advertising eco-system is bloody hard, so SMEs need all the help they can get.

Thus the AA’s efforts really matter, especially when framed in the context of Brexit. If multinationals shift their marketing efforts away from the UK, then that is bad for the ad industry and bad for the UK. If SMEs can fill the gap, so much the better.

How awards schemes discriminate

Let’s say you are given two weeks to prepare for and submit your answers for an exam. It’s a sweat, a kick-bollock scramble, but you get your paper in on time. Chances are it’s not quite the perfection you aimed for, but it’s the best you can do in the time available.

Your lazy, disorganised friend, however, complains and gets a two-week extension. An even more disorganised friend gets a third week.

Unfair, right?

But that’s how industry awards schemes increasingly work these days. Take the current Campaign Media Awards, still soliciting entries as we speak.

The first deadline was January 11. Then there was an extension to January 25. Now’s there’s another to January 31.
Believe me, I understand how these things work; I understand how time-pressed agencies are; and I understand that culturally, they like to be pushed to the edge of the cliff.

I know too the economics of awards, increasingly important to publishers as advertising and subscription revenues fall.
But such a lax adherence to timetables is grossly unfair to those agencies that comply with the deadlines, and potentially grossly advantageous to those - perhaps threatening to withhold their participation unless the deadline is extended - who play fast and loose.

I confess I have no idea how to fix this. You cannot instruct judges to favour those that meet the first deadline, so inevitably publishers fall back on a tiered pricing system with so-called late entry fees. But that’s not right either, since it discriminates in favour of those with deeper pockets. Meanwhile it incentivises the publishers to stick their snouts further into the trough.

At least there are moments of amusement to be had watching all the goings on.

Last week the British Media Awards (a sister to the Campaign portfolio) announced that it was extending its deadline by a week because “it was overwhelmed” (its words) by entries.

This is a surreal claim, almost Trumpian (think of the claim/counter-claim about crowds at his inauguration) in its assertion that black really is white.

If, indeed, they are ‘overwhelmed’ with entries the obvious solution is to stick to the agreed deadline.

I think, therefore, that the correct phrasing here is “underwhelmed” by entries.

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TobyBeresford, CEO, rise.global on 29 Jan 2018
“Did you see DCMS's digital charter just released on 25 Jan? I think it's six principles are a pointer toward regulatory priorities. It's a liquid document so would expect it to change a bit over the year but it's a good start.”

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