Given the far-reaching implications of Brexit it was inevitable that it should feature in our activities at Ad Week Europe. From the impact it is likely to have on rules regarding data and services to the potential restrictions it imposes on the UK’s ability to attract and retain talent, Brexit has been a presence at many discussions this week.
Another constant – potentially a surprising one – is our industry’s bullish response to Brexit. Between the publication of our first ever annual Exports Report, which demonstrates stronger-than-expected performance from the UK ahead of Brexit, and the frank discussions around the realities of recruitment following our exit from the EU, our discussions have focused on the practicalities of ensuring the UK’s continued success in the future.
That bullishness was continued at a panel devoted solely to the creative sector’s response to Brexit, an event held by The Drum on Thursday the 21st of March. An expert panel consisting of representatives from agencies, media organisations and trade bodies discussed everything from why we should be aiming for a ‘Buccaneering Brexit’ to the most likely outcomes of any potential exit from the EU.
The Drum’s co-founder Diane Young began the session by detailing the likely impact of different forms of Brexit – from mutually amicable to No Deal – using data supplied from a variety of sources including NIESR and LSE CEP and the forecasts showed the UK economy took a hit in each case.
Advertising Association Chief Executive Stephen Woodford acknowledged the figures, but also noted that the economy to date has been buoyant:
“Advertising exports are up 18%, and services are the biggest part of our economy and they’re up 7%. Clearly we haven’t left yet and we’ve got to look at the ‘exit’ yet, so there’s still a long long way to go. One thing that is true is that the economy has been very resilient. Our industry’s ongoing success depends on corporate profitability and consumer confidence and these are both showing robust signs of health.”
He cited the latest Next financial results, in which the high street retailer argued that Brexit was not putting consumers off spending in the high street as an example of that resilience.
Woodford continued by noting that since 55% of our exports are to the EU, there is still significant room for growth outside of it: “My call to action is to power through it, and focus on exporting outside of the EU.” He cited the Promote UK initiative’s recent trade missions to SXSW, Tokyo and the Shanghai International Advertising Festival as good examples of how to do just that.
Growth beyond Brexit
Debbie Zaman, Chief Executive of With, pointed out that advice to open satellite offices in the EU after Brexit isn’t something that all businesses can do, particularly SMEs. She did, however, note that there are viable alternatives:
“We have a multilingual team based in London and remote workers across the EU. We have been offering an integrated offering from London from a number of years. But over the last 12 to 18 months – largely through necessity – we’ve also been building an alliance of similar tech-specialist comms agencies around the world. I think that’s a very achievable goal for lots of SMEs, to find lookalikes around the world. You don’t have to invest in opening your own office.”
That approach – and the Buccaneering Brexit approach championed by the Advertising Association’s Export Champion, James Murphy – trade off the UK’s reputation for creative excellence globally. Dani Bassil, Chief Executive of Digitas UK, was keen to point out that reputation won’t suddenly disappear post-Brexit, and will in fact be a key strength:
“From a Digitas perspective our biggest department is our creative department. I just don’t think the creative switch is just going to flip off because we’re leaving the EU. We are a creative and technology powerhouse. The industry, whether that’s in the UK or beyond, will still need that from us.”
Woodford concurred. He said that the UK’s demonstrable success in investing internally was a strength almost unique to the country:
“Why has the UK got this unbelievable job creation performance that almost defies gravity? I think it is in part because we are a very innovative, creative country. We had this natural disaster narrative… but we have incredible inward tech investment, more than France and Germany and the next four European countries put together. “
The final panellist, Richard Jukes, Chairman of Grayling UK & Ireland, went a step further, arguing that once the uncertainties surrounding Brexit have passed, it will be possible for UK firms to take a leadership role in defining the new relationships we will have outside the EU:
“We can ask for what we want, but it is not in our gift to deliver that, it is in the hands of the EU.
“At some point, whether it’s next week or the week after, I think a deal will be done and the fog will begin to lift, and when it does there will be a massive vacuum and a massive opportunity for brands and businesses to really engage… with the sunlit uplands of post-Brexit bliss. “
As the Advertising Association’s first annual Exports Report makes clear, the UK’s advertising exports are in relatively rude health. Among other stats, it finds that international trade in UK advertising services reached £6.9 billion in 2017. This is an 18% increase on the figure of £5.8bn registered in 2016, outstripping overall UK service exports which grew by 7% in comparison.
If the mood of the panel holds over the next few weeks, it might be that the UK’s advertising industry can put the practical advice of the panellists into great effect, genuinely building on its role as a truly global player post-Brexit.