Tony Blair, unforged in the furnace of government, cannot as yet be called a political heavyweight. Michael Heseltine, his detractors would claim, never has been – anyone who has seen him perform live knows that the performance is better than the substance, whatever his publicity machine would have us believe.
For these reasons, their contest in the ring at the Confederation of British Industry conference in Birmingham on Monday was something of a bantamweight, rather than heavyweight, contest. Blair is undoubtedly winning on points, but we must wait for the championship bout, scheduled for late next year, before deciding who wears the business belt.
Nevertheless, there is more industry per square yard at the CBI conference than even at the political party conferences, so it is as well to take account of the way ring-side support is swinging. This is especially so for the marketing services industry – the Birmingham conference hall is like some enormous client party, at which the guests are collectively deciding whether to spend any money or not.
What Blair endeavoured to present them with was reassurance that New Labour bears no relation to the economically stultifying politics of its forebears. In short, no more penal tax regimes and no more trades union misadventure. The days of beer and sandwiches at Number 10, he wished to imply, are over. (Whether the days of chardonnay and guacamole dip at Number 10 are about to dawn remains, however, a significant concern to British industry and Blair knows it).
But Blair had to go further than attempting to remove some of the old Labour ogres. New Labour’s “partnership” with British industry depends on the successful communication of a positive industrial agenda.
Hence the emphasis given to sustaining a stable economic environment based on low inflation; the raising of educational and training standards in workforces with government assistance; the creation of infrastructure in fields such as transport and telecommunications (having the proposed deal with BT in his back pocket helps Blair here) and the industrial discipline that discourages the sort of trades union behaviour that helped put the Tories in power for at least 16 years.
All of which is partly aimed at avoiding the industrial bugbear of an incoming Labour government – a collapse of private sector investment that drives the economy into decline and turns the political harbingers of doom into self-fulfilling prophets.
As I say, there is a long haul ahead before we will know if Blair has managed to persuade industry that a Labour victory does not necessarily require industrial retrenchment. But the degree to which he succeeds in doing so will prescribe the degree to which budgets – marketing budgets among them – will survive into the first term of a Labour government.
This will have its inevitable, pro rata, knock-on effect into the marketing services industry. Clearly, if industrial confidence and investment holds up through a Labour victory, then so can marketing services revenues.
But there are other concerns that affect marketing services, arising out of the prospect of a Labour victory, that are entirely separate from the issue of whether investment and revenues hold up. Firstly, there is the regulatory issue. We are led to believe that, in significant areas of commerce, a Labour government can’t wait to stop us marketing highly remunerative product sectors, from tobacco to alcohol to food.
The main point to make here, quite apart from the low priority that Labour is likely to ascribe to advertising regulation, is that regulation in areas such as tobacco and alcohol advertising will be driven by European regulation rather than Labour piety. Michael Portillo can rant at Brussels all he likes, but a British government of any persuasion will fall in with pan-European rules more readily than other members, if experience in other regulatory sectors is anything to go by.
This leads to my next point – that, in any event, it is the most creative within the marketing services industry that find a way of living within a new advertising environment, to the financial benefit of themselves and their clients. Look at tobacco advertising over the past decade.
Finally, there is the point that we are hardly currently enjoying a climate of verdant marketing expenditure as a consequence of having voted this Government back in last time around. As far as revenues directly attributable to government expenditure are concerned, privatisation marketing has dried up. And where are those men in braces with gritty regional accents going “whoosh” for the Department of Enterprise? Come to think of it, where is the Department of Enterprise?
A Labour government is likely to bring with it a demand for fresh creativity – in this respect, we look to BMP Needham to adopt the Saatchi role of 16 years ago – renewed public sector marketing activity and, with its liberation of BT to stimulate the cable industry, a faster growth in marketing access to consumers.
None of this, of course, is possible if Blair has failed to win the confidence of industry. But, if investment holds up, he could offer the marketing industry a boost, if not a boom. And boosts are, anyway, healthier than booms – look what happened to the marketing services industry during the last boom.