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The Advertising Association runs a number of events, from our annual agenda-setting LEAD conference to bespoke breakfast briefings. As of 2018 we are the official UK representative for the world’s biggest festival of creativity at the Cannes Lions.

Debating Group: The Art of Argument in Westminster

/ March 11th 2019 /

Crafting an argument and defending it from detractors takes a varied skillset and hours of practice. It’s easy to set out a position; it’s very difficult to defend that position when an opponent deliberately sets out to reduce it to nothing.

That’s why the Advertising Association has been a long-term member of The Debating Group which has held debates in the House of Commons on the contentious political issues which surround marketing since 1975.

Sharpening the Industry’s Debating Skills

It is the perfect arena to let selected participants test their ability to perform under pressure and the next event is on the motion of Despite Brexit, the UK will be the pre-eminent advertising hub on the world stage for years to come.

The invitation-only event is to be chaired by Ian Lucas, MP while Steve Davies, Chief Executive, Advertising Producers Association and Sarah Jenkins, Chief Marketing Officer for Grey London, will be arguing for the motion. On the other side of the podium, Matthew Bloxham, Head of EMEA Media, Technology & Telecom Research, Bloomberg Intelligence and Sarah Taylor, Client Partner, Finch Factor will provide counterpoints.

One previous debater – our chief executive Stephen Woodford – says:

“There is something very special about being part of a debate in Westminster. If the grandeur of the rooms, the surroundings and sense of the history don’t make you raise your game and deliver your best, nothing will.”

While primarily a fun exercise in the art of debate, the skills gained through contesting and defending points are more vital than ever for ad industry practioners. The industry is having to stand its ground on issues around HFSS, gambling advertising, and openly debating the need to take action to address a historic lack of public trust. Representatives of the Advertising Association alone have variously appeared on stage, on television and the radio over the past month to represent the industry on a wide range of issues.

Practice, then, makes perfect.  IAA UK Chapter President Fredrik Borestrom, another previous participant, explains why the skills learned during the debating group have applications far beyond play fighting:

“I think it’s crucial in both your professional and personal armoury but especially in business as you’ll always need to debate or negotiate with partners, clients or suppliers.

“You will often be on different ends of the spectrum and you’ll need to hear their points of view, argue your own and make your case, in a calm, structured and collected way.”

Woodford agrees. He argues that events like the Debating Group allow participants to develop the ability to win over a majority – important in small scale discussions but paramount for wider issues:

“Debating skills are vital and they always have been – most of us have roles where at least for some of the time you’re using influence rather than authority to make things happen and this relies on the ability to put a case and win your argument well.”

Rules of engagement

As with any formal conflict, real or staged, there are certain rules to be observed. Each debater has a seconder, whose role is to present further arguments in favour of the motion put forward by the primary.

Consequently, the seconder has a slightly different skillset. Asked to pick a dream seconder from any walk of life, Borestrom said:

“Groucho Marx, I would just sit back and enjoy one of the sharpest comedic minds at work. He would not only win, he would entertain whilst he did it.”

Demonstrating the different skillset required for a seconder, Woodford also opted to nominate a comedian for the role:

“My ideal seconder would be Stephen Fry, for all the obvious reasons. If it were someone from our industry, it would be Rory Sutherland, who I’ve seen in action at the Debating Group and is very hard to beat.”

For Woodford, the ability for the advertising industry to work collaboratively to advance an argument is paramount:

“At the AA we’re in the thick of arguing the case for current rules on HFSS advertising being maintained and on the evidence we’ve assembled, the case is strong. But the 9pm watershed and other restrictions have become totemic targets for NGOs and some MPs, it feels that many are unable to see correlation does not mean causality.”

While the Debating Group events are meant to be fun – ending with some informal drinks in a Westminster bar – the skills set to be demonstrated there might ultimately end up being used in service of the whole industry.

For more information or to request a much-sought-after ticket for the event, please contact

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