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When Claire met Nigel; and the tyranny of choice

22 Jul 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
When Claire met Nigel; and the tyranny of choice

Last week adland went into meltdown over Campaign's decision to place Nigel Farage on its front cover. It was certainly a bad move, writes Dominic Mills - but not for the reason you might think. Plus: SVOD's decision purgatory

Forget the launch announcement of BritBox or impact of Publicis’s disappointing results last week. (Actually, we’ll come back briefly to BritBox at the bottom of this column).

There’s one subject dominating the headlines in adland and that is ‘Farage-Gate’, aka the saga of Campaign’s cover piece interview with Nigel Farage, published last week.

They say that if you eat with the devil, you need a long spoon. Campaign’s spoon clearly wasn’t long enough, judging by the incensed reaction in the Twittersphere, which in turn led to an abject apology — well, only half an apology, really (but still humiliating) — by Campaign.

You can read the interview here, the social media shit-storm here, and Campaign editor Claire Beale’s half-explanation, half-apology here. It’s worth spending time with all of them.

If you can’t face the Twittersphere, let me summarise the key themes: platforming/no-platforming; legitimising a racist/misogynist/homophobe/bigot/fascist; much talk of cancelling subscriptions; hate peddler/fear peddler; bringing the industry into disrepute; and Kim Jong-Un, Bashir Assad, Goebbels and the Nazis were also mentioned — thus proving Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer an online discussion continues, so the chance of someone mentioning the Nazis increases.

Amid the great and the good lining up to give Campaign a more considered kicking, there were also some more balanced responses along the lines of ‘we may hate Farage, but maybe we ought to listen to someone who connects with many of the 51.8% who voted for Brexit’. But they were few and far between.

Not surprisingly, as a previous editor of the magazine, my phone and inbox were red hot last week with people asking ‘what do you think?’ and ‘what would you have done?’.

Before we get to that, there are three quick points to make.

One, it was clear that many of those taking to Twitter had not taken the trouble to read the piece — the ‘unfashionable thing to do’, as one contact said to me — before rushing to comment.

Two, it was also clear that many of those commenting were not from the advertising industry and were not Campaign readers (and therefore a crossover with the first group). The clue was in the way they talked about 'your industry' and called Campaign a 'marketing' magazine. That does not necessarily invalidate what they said, but it means they lack context.

But hey, this is social media — what do you expect?

And three, where were these people when Global Radio signed up Nigel Farage to host an LBC show (weekdays, 6-7pm)? Have they vented their spleen at LBC or Global? Do they realise that, directly or indirectly, they are funding his show? Have they cancelled their media budgets in protest and stopped listening? I don’t think so; some double standards are on display there.

So, to the question: should Campaign have put Farage on the front cover?

Let me start by saying I am against no-platforming. It is a bad idea, especially in these fractious times. The no-platforming move against Alexander Nix at Cannes was daft because the industry lost the chance to question him. Of all industries, advertising owes it to itself to walk in other people’s shoes, especially those whose views make it uncomfortable.

Thus, understanding why Farage resonates with such a large section of the British public is important — for all of us, not just the ad industry.

However, putting Farage on the front cover was a mistake.

But not for the reason you might think.

It was a mistake because it was a boring interview. It offered the ad industry virtually nothing interesting or relevant. Nor did it hold him to account for the blatant untruths in Brexit advertising, or that controversial ‘Breaking Point’ migrant poster. And nor did it question him on either the regulation of political (or HFSS/gambling) advertising or the social platforms, all of which are issues absolutely germane to society today.

It was therefore a waste of a magazine’s most precious real estate, which is the cover story.

Instead we got some lame jokes about adland, of the type you’d hear from any retired bank manager propping up the bar of a Home Counties golf club, and a few homilies from the ‘Book of Obvious Advertising' such as, er, use social media, be authentic and stand for something. And over six pages too, FFS.

Indeed, the two most interesting things to me were that a) Farage owns — who knew such a thing was possible in politics — 60% of the Brexit Party and b) looks to Italy’s Five Star Movement for inspiration.

And as for insight, all the best stuff came from the likes of James Murphy, Jeremy Sinclair (of M&C Saatchi/Conservative party advertising fame) and PR ace Mark Borkowski, all of which could have been done without interviewing Farage himself.

But then I can’t say I’m especially surprised that the interview was a waste of space. First, reading between the lines it was obvious to me that Campaign got zero time with Farage (I now know it was less than 20 minutes), so it’s hardly surprising they couldn’t get to anything meaty. And second, famous people — and why would they? — have got bugger-all interesting things to say about advertising. I found this out myself when Campaign was given the chance to interview Bill Gates and the resulting copy was thinner than a, well, politician’s promise.

Nonetheless, Campaign’s stated intention — to see how Farage has created (and personifies, to many people) the Brexit brand, and how he connects with whole swathes of the population that the industry needs to but cannot — is entirely honourable, worthwhile and relevant to the readership. It’s just that they failed.

And to compound the problem, Campaign has now prostrated itself in front of its readers, saying: “[We will] host a public forum where we can come together to address your responses and the issues we wish we had addressed more effectively in the piece (more details to follow soon).”

Maybe they should hold it in Sunderland.

Oh dear. This is like saying “here’s a stick. Now beat us as hard as you can”. And what are these issues it wishes it had addressed more effectively? Why doesn’t it say?

And here’s the funny thing. In the feature, Borkowski says of Farage: “One of the things [he] understands is that no matter how bad things get, if you stick it out, in a few days the narrative will have moved on.”

You’d think that someone on Campaign might have read that sentence before hitting the panic button.

So...in conclusion: they were right to do a piece on Farage, wrong to give it the front-cover treatment. And they should have done it better.

And by the way, if you want a good read in this month’s issue, try the Benetton piece.


BritBox and the tyranny of choice

At last. BritBox has gone public, adding yet more choice to the cornucopia of SVOD on offer.

Choice, of course, is a good thing. But there comes a point when too much choice becomes self-defeating. Confronted in the supermarket by 30-40 different types of biscuit, I go ‘eeeurgh’ and buy none.

I thought I was alone in feeling this, my own experience with Netflix being a case in point. Time spent in the Mills household with Netflix is truly derisory, the repertoire of viewing gossamer thin.

The reason is simple: too much choice becomes paralysing. You think “this is just hard work.” The recommendation engine, if I pay any attention to it, is mostly laughable. I go to a recognised channel or catch-up instead.

It’s a relief therefore to find from Nielsen that choice paralysis is quite normal. The average US adult takes 7.4 minutes to make a viewing choice on a streaming service; over 50s (that’s me) give it 5 minutes and then just take a plunge; 21% just give up if they can’t decide.

Phew. There are others like me.

All this will have a bearing on BritBox, assuming to start with that it can persuade viewers to subscribe.

It starts with an advantage, in that much, if not all, its offering will be familiar. But to avoid what Nielsen calls ‘decision purgatory’ it has to ensure that it gets the home page — personalised or not — and the interface right from day one. Good luck with that.

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11 Dec 2019 

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