Given the ad industry voted overwhelmingly to remain, working on the government’s £100m Brexit campaign presents a bit of a dilemma.
It is set to be one of the biggest government outlays on a single campaign since the Second World War, reports The Times, with cues taken from the 1988 campaign ‘Europe is open for business’ (irony intended).
By the second half of August, it seems it will be almost impossible to walk down a street, turn on the radio or watch television without seeing an ad aimed at reawakening enthusiasm for Brexit and instilling public confidence in the move to leave the EU. Messaging could include: ‘Britain is taking back control’ and ‘Britain is leaving the EU: are you ready?’.
The campaign raises an interesting quandary for ad land. Engine has confirmed it is handling the creative brief, with Manning Gottlieb OMD running media. But this is an industry that overwhelmingly voted to remain at the time of the referendum and is still concerned about the impact Brexit – and in particular a no-deal Brexit – could have, most notably on talent and resources.
A Marketing Week poll back in early 2018 found that 81% of the marketing and creative industry had voted for remain, well ahead of the 48% that voted that way among the general public. And on the future relationship, 87% of those who voted remain believe the UK should stay in the single market and 65% supported a transition period. It’s safe to say those who favour no-deal are in the vast minority.
Given this remain domination, it is hard to imagine that many hands shot up in the air when the bosses over at Engine asked who wanted to work on the government’s campaign. It is a huge amount of money for the agency and there’s promise of more, but it must have raised some issues internally over whether the payoff was worth it.
A number of big agencies turned down the opportunity to work on Vote Leave and look how that turned out.
That is particularly the case given that Dominic Cummings, the architect behind the Vote Leave campaign, is leading on the campaign, along with Michael Gove (although Alex Aitken, executive director of government communications, will run it). I don’t imagine there are many in ad land keen to bring back Vote Leave’s rhetoric.
That raises an interesting conundrum, not just for agencies but marketers as well. At a time when everyone is talking about brand purpose and throwing stats around about how millennials want to work for companies that align with their values, is there an ethical question to answer about taking on a brief that a company’s staff – and maybe even the company – may not believe in?
This isn’t about whether marketers or creatives should be able to create a campaign for an issue that doesn’t stack up with their view of the world. The point of customer-centricity, market research and consumer insights is that coming up with a strategy and creative direction is reliant not on your experiences but those of your audience.
But there are challenges to creating a campaign you don’t believe in or that doesn’t align with your values. That point has been brought to bear over in the US recently, where staff at Ogilvy have loudly raised objections to working for the US Department of Customers and Border Protection.
Chief executive John Seifert has acknowledged the strong feelings but is refusing to get rid of the client. And has likened the brief to working on other brands with difficult reputations such as BP, tobacco companies and Coca-Cola.
It is up to individuals and companies to decide where their limits are. Some may enjoy the challenge of working on a brief that tests their world view, especially one that will create jobs and boost bottoms lines; others may draw a line at working on something that goes against what they believe in.
What is key to remember is that this campaign will have an impact. Advertising has the ability to shift perceptions, change behaviour and invoke a response. A number of big agencies turned down the opportunity to work on Vote Leave and look how that turned out. It may be better to be on the inside, developing a campaign so its effect is positive, than to be on the outside watching on in horror.
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