Let’s face it, barely anyone in UK Adland predicted Brexit. Now the dust of the actual referendum has settled a bit, we have a new Prime Minister and both major parties have seen their divisions rise to the surface exposing the deeply held resentments and ideological differences that had previously been papered over, we can have a proper look at how Adland both failed to anticipate and combat a popular decision that may set the UK back years in economic growth and social progress.
At the heart of the issue where the Advertising industry in the UK, and more specifically London, is concerned is the demographic makeup of agency staffers and their socio economic backgrounds. It’s no secret that advertising agencies are trying to focus more on diversity and any efforts in the right direction should be applauded. We’re seeing more ethnic minority participation from junior level all the way up to the key movers and shakers. Almost every agency head has made a commitment to expanding the female presence at leadership level and LGBT inclusiveness and visibility also appears to be on the up.
Progress in all of its forms should be applauded but there are underlying structural economic issues that cannot be ignored. Some efforts to to redress the gender balance have seen white middle class male leadership be replaced by white middle class female leadership in what seems like only an incremental improvement. Creative departments, Account Management and Planning across most agencies still exude a strong public school mafia vibe where everyone will have been to university and a disproportionate chunk will have been privately educated. It seems that in much of what has been written in the industry press on Brexit, very few have made the link between diversity and the tone-deaf nature of the creative output for the Remain side.
The results of the referendum have shown us that the ‘out’ vote was strong in working class communities outside of London where the benefits of EU membership, globalisation and technocratic forms of government and industry are not felt in terms of cheap city breaks, gap years and Air bnb. Working class Britons living in post-industrial towns across the country face job insecurity, wage depression and the depletion of previously existing community bonds in contrast to exotic restauraunts and cheap domestic labour. This is not to give credibility to the UKIPs and Britain Firsts of today’s Britain who seek to exploit and divide a wider sense of malasie but to point to a large section of the buying public who brands, including that of the defeated Remain campaign aren’t connecting with.
The comms that actually ran made for mundane viewing at best and they focussed on young people and their ‘future’ which made the grave mistake of preaching to the converted. The decisive misjudgement was in ignoring those among the general population who don’t feel that they have a future to protect in the first place. The double-thronged approach of regurgitating IMF warnings and employing Kiera Knightley and Lily Cole in drives for the youth vote seems to be aiming at simultaneously playing on people’s fear of potential financial insecurity and encouraging already pro-European cosmopolitan young voters to show up and vote. Whilst both sensible approaches on their own right, neither held any weight with people lacking any of the attributes of economic, social or political capital such as gainful employment, home ownership, a university education and the option to live and/or work abroad. Worse still yet altogether more indicative of the problem at hand were the ads that didn’t run, all of which from the image of Nigel Farage with a Hitler moustache to the image of key politicians from the Brexit campaign with the headline ‘Do you want to be left alone on a small island with these men?’ Here you can see a palpable sense of middle-class sneering and Mock the Week style wishy-washy social liberalism that smells a lot like one of those trite Question Time exchanges between an audience member and Nigel Farage where any kind of constructive and insightful criticism is cast aside for a damning cry of ‘but you’re racist!’
The purpose of this post isn’t neccesarily to argue that M&C Saatchi needed to round up a bunch of white working class copywriters from the North with racist Dads for this campaign but instead to point to how the growing lack of opportunities for those from more marginalised backgrounds evident across society as a whole has become a key issue for Adland and the resulting creative output. The problem however is rooted in the highly insulated bubble that the clear majority of the advertising industry originate from and operate in. The issue goes deeper than whether or not agencies were able to fully grasp and meet the challenge of the EU referendum Remain campaign. If all departments at creative agencies are mainly staffed by one demographic it’s hard to see how work that speaks to consumers outside of that group can be produced.