Will tobacco ad ban kill marketing talent?

The tobacco ad ban will force companies to find more innovative techniques to sell product. Attracting the right staff may be hard, says Brian Wheeler

Successive waves of legislation and years of bad publicity have failed to dent the tobacco industry’s confidence. Even last week’s admission by Marlboro-owning Philip Morris that cigarettes are a conduit for disease and addiction did not lead to a bout of public hand-wringing or the resignation of chief executives.

As the UK tobacco industry stages a last-ditch attempt to stave off a total advertising ban in the high court, the result of which will be known next week, can it continue to exist in the mainstream of commercial life? Will it be able to attract the calibre of marketing personnel it will need to prosper after such a ban?

Fran Morrison, external communications manager at British American Tobacco (BAT), owner of the Rothmans and Dunhill brands, thinks the ban will have little effect on the morale – or status – of the company’s marketing department. “I don’t think it will affect our marketers unduly. They are a resilient bunch. I don’t think they will be sitting around with their heads in their hands.”

Morrison is eager to point out that the company came clean on the health issue months before Philip Morris did, issuing a policy document entitled “Smoking – our view”, which includes the line: “Along with the pleasures of cigarette smoking come real risks of serious disease such as lung cancer, respiratory disease and heart diseaseä”

She points to BAT’s anti-youth smoking initiatives and its campaign to increase the age at which cigarettes can be legally bought – from 16 to 18 – as further evidence of its new responsible stance.

It seems the tobacco marketers of the future will be spending as much energy – if not cash – on discouraging smoking.

They are also more likely to be dispatched abroad – to China and the Far East – where the market for premium brand Western cigarettes is growing rapidly.

The industry is keen to avoid seeing its marketing departments marginalised when the European market “goes dark” – as the ad ban is referred to in the industry.

In the past, increased legislation has led to greater marketing and ad creativity, although the industry is keen to stress this will not be used to get around the ban.

A spokesman for Gallaher, guardian of the Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut brands, says: “The ban may lead to a different kind of creativity, with a much more strategic focus.

“It could make marketers into more technical people, with a greater understanding of the law, and the legal restrictions. To a certain extent, they are already like that.”

He adds that tobacco companies will probably employ innovative pack designs and try to find new ways to communicate with retailers.

One former tobacco executive, who still has links with the industry, believes the industry has become something of a career cul-de-sac: “If you want to call yourself a hardened and experienced professional, you must have TV experience, and that is not possible within tobacco companies, outside certain Latin American countries.

“If you a company man, then fine. It is a good option. But your breadth of experience will be limited.

“You can’t do TV, you can’t do the Internet – now you can’t do posters in Europe. You can get that experience elsewhere, I suppose, and then, if you can stomach it, go to a tobacco company.”

However, he believes the ad ban is unlikely to affect the calibre of people entering the industry. “Some younger people in the tobacco companies may be thinking: ‘I am going to get out of this’, but not many. People are venal, and the tobacco industry pays well.”

Few tobacco companies take part in the “milk round” – the multinationals’ annual trawl for graduate talent.

One careers officer at a London university says: “The tobacco companies tend to use recruitment agencies. I think there is a feeling, from them, that they won’t be welcome on campus, although this is not necessarily the case.”

Roy Hoolahan, managing director of marketing recruitment specialist Ball & Hoolahan, believes the industry’s public relations problems have not affected its ability to attract personnel. “Over the past few years, it has become increasingly difficult to recruit people for cigarette companies. Not because of the public debacles, but because the number of people who smoke has gone down.

“In general terms, nothing much has changed. The industry has always been on the edge of attractiveness.”

Most people in the industry are reluctant to talk about life after the ban. The Tobacco Manufacturers Association predicts as many as 1,500 jobs will go in advertising and marketing.

But marketing – of some kind – will continue. Given the resources at the industry’s disposal, it would be surprising if elaborate preparations were not being made.

So long as the industry continues to pay well, it will find marketing people who are willing to rise to the creative challenge.

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