The AA after Buscombe

Feature%202_120Days after the announcement that the Advertising Association chief executive Peta Buscombe is leaving to be the next chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the AA has started the hunt for a working politician to replace the baroness.

Many argue it is an endorsement of the work of the outspoken Tory peer, who raised the profile of the “trade organisation for trade organisations in less than two years – something her predecessor Andrew Brown failed to do in 13”, as one observer puts it.

One of her biggest success stories is the recent launch of the Business4Life initiative – as a key partner to the Government’s Change4Life movement. The new industry consortium has “now” been recognised by the Government to help it encourage healthy lifestyles and tackle obesity in the UK. Buscombe has already got a range of advertisers, including Cadbury, Coca-Cola and Mars, to support the initiative and pledge a contribution worth in excess of £200m over four years.

Government intervention

“Three years ago the then Food Advertising Unit director Jeremy Preston, helped by the agency Abbott Mead Vickers. BBDO responded to lobbyists calling for Government intervention in the marketing of foods high in salt, sugar and fat to children. They then presented a similar model to Business4Life and the Department of Health, but failed. Buscombe came along and with her political nous managed to get it implemented,” adds the observer.

Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkitt adds that the fact Buscombe is a baroness and also “a rather attractive character” added to the appeal of her role. “The AA used to put out rather worthy papers and therefore came across as rather dull. A lot of cobwebs have been blown out of the organisation since Buscombe’s arrival,” he says.

Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, also praises Buscombe. “Her tenure will be seen as a fantastically successful episode in the AA’s history. Following the recent attacks on advertising by lobby groups, the industry needed someone to get involved in the political process. Buscombe is someone who knew how to walk the floors of the Whitehall departments and have all those important corridor and tea-room conversations,” he says. A barrister by training, Buscombe was Tory spokesman for culture, media and sport in the Lords between 2002 and 2005.

Her departure raises concerns that there could be a loss of momentum for the ad industry just as it seems to be winning some of the battles against increased Government scrutiny. However, others feel that Buscombe’s zealous approach towards promoting advertising as a force for good has “almost exaggerated the risks the industry faces by seeking attention and trying to whip up the sympathy vote at all times”.

Institute of Sales Promotion chairman Clive Mishon does not agree. “Buscombe has put energy behind getting the industry together to fight for its cause. To get the right balance between legislation and self-regulation, someone needed to beat a drum loud and clear to get that message across. She has achieved that.”

However, Mishon feels that though the advertising industry has benefited enormously from Buscombe’s support, the AA still continues to focus on the “old model of advertising”. “My hope is that the next hire is someone who not only understands advertising but the whole gamut of the marketing communications industry,” he adds.

It is a criticism rebuffed by Buscombe, who has set up “various committees” to engage with communities outside traditional advertising. “I continue to have talks with Ofcom about future-proofing self-regulation of the industry and the new kinds of advertising in the future,” she says.

Meanwhile, insiders claim that after two years in the role Buscombe was becoming increasingly frustrated with the “little funding” the AA receives and her inability to convince the likes of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers – one of the AA’s biggest fee-payers, alongside the IPA – to help her to seek funds from individual advertisers.

“The reason I’m leaving to join the PCC is because jobs like these come once in a lifetime. I have a huge fondness for the advertising industry, but to be asked to chair the PCC was rather flattering,” she adds.

With the AA being the umbrella body for all other industry bodies, the current funding model means that ISBA, IPA and ITV are its major contributors. Yet it has a reported annual income of just over £1m, which is thought to amount to only one-tenth of television marketing body Thinkbox’s funding. ISBA is funded by advertisers themselves, which pay a levy of 0.1% on their total ad spend, and the IPA via membership subscription and income from consultancy fees and training.

One industry insider says: “With such meagre resources the AA has not been able to produce any major research in the last seven years. And with Buscombe not being a businesswoman, she has been unable to solve the funding issue.”

Another adds that the solution to the funding crisis is for ISBA, “desperate to retain its exclusivity over clients”, to review its lobbying role and agree to “outsource” it to the AA.

ISBA director of public affairs Ian Twinn refutes the charges and adds that it has had a long-standing relationship with the AA and it maintains its public affairs function when “specific” advertiser interests need to be addressed.

Not one to be bullied, Buscombe has been privately known to try and woo individual advertisers, including the members of the IAB such as Google and Yahoo! “Buscombe was quite keen to have some sort of a levy on all advertisers, a move that has been interpreted as hostile towards ISBA,” adds another insider.

Mishon suggests that members such as the ISP have been paying more than “ever before” and that the AA needs to embrace the entire marketing community before it can expect the industry to bail it out of its funding crisis.

However, the industry is keen not to lose momentum in the “big fightback” against the vilification of advertising as the root of most social evils. The next AA chief executive will be expected to deal with such issues as advertising and its impact on binge drinking; controversy around the online advertising software Phorm and issues of trust and privacy; not to mention the commercialisation of childhood.

As one insider says: “The fact the AA made Buscombe famous, which in turn helped her get the PCC job, means that we are confident that the organisation will attract a heavy-hitter to promote the cause of advertising.”

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