Are UK agencies creative enough to withstand Brexit?

29 May 2019  |  Will Nicholson 
Are UK agencies creative enough to withstand Brexit?

A serious hurdle, or a walk in the park? The IAA's Will Nicholson reports on a recent House of Commons debate questioning adland's ability to see Brexit through

Let’s take a step back. On 23 June 2016, creatives from all over the world convened for the final day of Cannes Lions. Meanwhile, across the Channel, the UK woke to the announcement that Britain would be leaving the EU. Now, as we approach the third anniversary of the referendum – amid continuing uncertainty – it is a prudent time to reflect on how UK media agencies are holding up, and whether the industry remains strong enough to withstand Brexit, when it eventually happens.

As with everything in life, there are two sides to the story, depending on who has the floor. And similarly to the result three years ago, opinion on the future of UK advertising in a post-Brexit world remains evenly split. While many agencies see Brexit as an unprecedented hurdle, there are also a great number who believe that if Britain can overcome the political trials and tribulations of two world wars, then in comparison, surely Brexit should be a walk in the park?

UK agencies are a force to be reckoned with

The UK has served as one of the most consistently dominant markets since the advent of advertising. And it still leads the way, with ad spend continuing to grow (albeit only by a predicted 4.6% this year), demonstrating the sheer stamina of the industry and commitment of UK advertisers to invest, as it delivers its 21st successive quarter of growth. But what makes us so qualified for success?

According to Saatchi & Saatchi London’s Chief Creative Officer, Guillermo Vega, “The UK is special, because it is the place where advertising was created. I see elements of every country here – it has a little bit of everything. The UK is metaphorical, smart, emotional, and the craft is amazing.”

During a recent debate on Brexit, hosted by the International Advertising Association (IAA) and the Advertising Association (AA) at the House of Commons, Vega’s views were further reinforced by Steve Davies, Chief Executive of the Advertising Producers Association.

He claims the UK’s undeniable share of industry talent, coupled with the sophistication of tech platforms, is what really sets the country apart from competing markets.

A magnet for talent

For decades, the UK has attracted a diverse range of talent from Europe certainly, but also from across the globe, and this has been instrumental to its success in delivering award-winning campaigns. We see a steady influx of creative leaders from territories as far-reaching as South America.

Multiple-award-winner Olivetto Washington is another such creative influencer so enamoured by the “openness, diversity, and quality of advertising” that London agencies have to offer that he recently set up home in the UK to pursue a consultancy role with McCann Worldgroup. And with 50 Lions under his belt, he knows a thing or two about creativity.

However, with Brexit firmly on the horizon, some players in the industry are concerned about overseas talent. According to figures from the AA, 14% of the UK industry’s workforce comes from the EU, more than twice the national average. These employees have been invaluable to the advertising industry and there’s a growing sense these very people are starting to turn their backs.

At the House of Commons debate, Matthew Bloxham, Head of EMEA Media, Technology and Telecom Research, Bloomberg Intelligence shared his worries that slower growth will make the UK a less attractive place to live and work. With less money to spend on marketing and weakening investment in the industry, he claims this will create a negative cycle for talent retention.

So with Brexit continuing to hover like an elephant in the room, how do we ensure the UK remains a magnet that attracts the greatest creative talent?

Proceed, but with caution

As we gear up to a potential Brexit, the next few months will mark a critical time for the industry to reflect and be realistic about the future. Part of this will be acknowledging that confidence in UK businesses is more than likely to suffer a pre-Brexit dip.

When the Brexit vote was initially announced, more than a fifth of UK agencies reported immediate losses in business. Fast forward to 2019 and creative agencies need to prepare for tough market conditions. Following an unexpected boost in ad budgets during Q2 this year, brands are said to be erring on the side of caution – for the time being at least – in an economy naturally swayed by Brexit uncertainty.

The UK also needs to keep a close eye on the activities of its European counterparts to retain its role on the global advertising stage. The Netherlands recently won business from the UK due to attractive rates of tax and adopting a very open approach to cross-border business deals. In the UK, diversity will be key to remaining an ‘open’ market, and as such, agencies must continue to encourage creative talent from all career levels, and from all walks of life. The ability to execute global campaigns with adaptable ad creatives for local audiences will also help to keep the UK at the top of its game.

Brexit may well transform the UK advertising landscape, but it won’t crush it. As long as the UK can achieve the right deal, and continue to enjoy full access to world talent, including Europe, it should be able to retain its creative edge, and be strong enough to withstand a political – rather than creative – parting from our peers across the Channel.


Will Nicholson is Parliamentary Debating Group Representative, IAA UK Chapter

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19 Jun 2019 

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