Stephen Woodford, Advertising Association: “The health of the economy is tied to the health of our industry”

October 3, 2019

Stephen Woodford is CEO of the Advertising Association (AA), “the voice of British advertising”.

In his role, he liaises with government on behalf of the industry to make sure they get the best deal possible. Since 2016 when he took up the role, “I’ve written to the Prime Minister maybe once or twice.” On the whole, however, “it’s more ministerial level that we are in touch – basically, to put across our point of view.”

The Advertising Association describes itself as “the only organisation that brings together agencies, brands and media”, drawing on the strengths of each to meet all their needs. In big political decisions, the AA will want to have its say – especially where it involves limitations on its constituent parts, like recent plans to ban high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) products being advertised online, or something that reaches across the whole country – and, therefore, needs voicing by British advertisers.

“People are very nervous about no-deal”

And the biggest point of concern for perhaps every industry right now? It’s clearly Brexit. “The most pressing thing at the moment,” says Woodford, “not just for us – for pretty much everybody in industry, and that’s leaving aside the politics of whether you’re a Remainer or Leaver – is that people are very, very nervous about a potential no-deal Brexit.”

A no-deal Brexit wouldn’t just cause financial damage to the country, but leave us with so many loose ends not tied up that it would significantly hit the advertising industry. “Top of the list is data,” something that so many businesses rely on unthinkingly. “If there isn’t a deal, and there isn’t recognition of the UK’s data adequacy – even though we’ve taken all the relevant GDPR provisions into UK law, requiring the EU to recognize that the UK is an adequate place for data – we’re into uncharted territory about how firms can send data to and fro.

“We’re just pointing out the potential damage of no deal to our industry,” he says. “We can do all we can, but it’s a two-way process. We need that recognition that the UK’s regulatory framework makes us an adequate partner.

“In the heat of the negotiation that’s a very important thing, because it doesn’t just affect our industry but pretty much every industry that relies on the exchange of data. But it’s one of the big issues yet to be settled.”

Advertising itself is feeling the heat in the face of a no-deal threat, since it’s “a service business to all of Britain’s consumer-facing industries,” says Woodford. “The health of the overall economy is of critical importance to the health of our industry. So we’d love to see a deal – [and] if there is a deal, we may well see some pent-up investment that’s been held back for years. Certainty was would probably lead to quite a interesting bounce in the economy.

A waste of £100 million?

As the government, torn by indecision and rivalries over the decision to leave the EU, heads towards its imposed deadline of October 31st, one decision they have made drew some criticism. It launches a £100 million advertising campaign to make sure the public is ready for a no-deal Brexit, in case it occurs. “This is the biggest change in our economic relationships since the war,” says Woodford. “Given the size of a £2 trillion economy, it is worth paying that sort of money to make sure we’re as prepared as we possibly can be.”

Direct advertising is a “very effective” way to reach every single person across all businesses, he says. “When you look at the complexity of the message, the importance of the message and the breadth of the audience – if we’re a 60 million population, less than £2 per person is probably worth paying.

“Look at it from the other way around. Would it would it be the right thing to do to leave people in the dark? Absolutely not!”

A campaign on the scale of the no-deal Brexit campaign is, Woodford believes, a good bellwether for the magnitude of the issue at hand. “The government sees the risks of not being prepared [for] what might be a difficult situation. I don’t think anyone expects it to be plain sailing, but if you have no deal, having a well-prepared population for those kind of eventualities can only be a good thing.”

At the end of the day, the thing that’s more important for the AA is simply to have a deal – determining the best way to go about getting that, choosing to agree with the Prime Minister or his opponents, “is not something I would comment on. The importance of the deal is something that we feel very strongly.”

Half a Smartie’s difference – against more HFSS ad restrictions

Even as the debate surrounding leaving the EU rages, the AA has to continue to work on other policy issues. One of the most central, which also saw the association get in contact with government decision-makers, surrounds a potential ban on advertising of high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods to children.

“Childhood obesity is an enormous societal challenge,” Woodford says, “and advertising obviously can play a role in that.” However, indiscriminate limitations are misguided, the association believes, not least because “we have the strictest rules in the world of advertising HFSS foods to under-16s. Most countries in Europe, every other country in Europe defines a child as under 12. We set the bar at 16.”

Right now, no HFSS product adverts can be targeted at under-16s in the UK – “pretty much the toughest restrictions in the world, apart from one or two countries that ban any advertising of any kind to children. We’ve had those rules in place on television advertising for 10 years… extended in 2017 to cover all media.”

Woodford goes on: “The net impact of these changes has been a dramatic fall in the exposure of children to HFSS foods and drinks and so on. Yet we’ve seen across that time, childhood obesity rates moving up a little bit.”

In 2007, Ofcom rejected further proposed restrictions on advertising HFSS foods, saying the impact was far outweighed by the cost and inefficiency. 10 years on, says Woodford, TV viewership among young people has gone down as it is, and extending limitations makes even less sense.

“In fact, the DCMS’s own Impact Assessment talks about a saving or reduction in children’s calorie intake of about 1.7 calories a day. 

“Somebody pointed out that’s half a Smartie.

“You can tackle these things, but not by doing something which is going to make half a Smartie’s difference. It’s tackled by changing the way people live their lives, and that’s difficult and complicated and requires help and education and support.”

Woodford believes that most of the time, proposals like banning HFSS advertising are based only on looking decisive. “There’s a tendency to look for easy solutions – and this is a superficially attractive solution. But the data doesn’t support it.”

There are already so many limitations on what advertisers can do – not least heavy penalties for breaches, such as KFC receiving a ban for an advert seen on a phone box within 100m of a school. And when it comes to online advertising, all possible efforts are made to avoid targeting under-16s with HFSS adverts.

Citing the Daily Mile and an extensive campaign in Leeds to focus on better diets and exercise – both of which have had measurable effects – Woodford says, “the best way to solve this would be for the industry and government to work hand in glove to solve it. 

“Use the power of advertising and the power of brands to help people get active. There are loads of great examples of brands and media owners doing things to help people get active.”