In early 2017 I joined Reach, the largest regional publisher in the UK. I was tasked with raising its profile among media agencies and marketers through the use of insight. As I’ve come to realise throughout my career – timing is everything.
With the industry still reeling from the EU referendum, it was fair to say many marketers were starting to acknowledge the extent to which they had lost touch with large swathes of the population. Talk of a London bubble hit fever pitch in the trade press, and this represented an ideal opportunity for Reach to position itself as experts in the understanding of people outside the capital.
In June of that year, I published ‘When Trust Falls Down’. We revealed among other things that brands were not connecting with people outside of London and that they were perceived to be out of touch with mainstream audiences. While we didn’t interview marketers, there is no doubt that I was reinforcing the notion of a London marketing and advertising bubble.
In time, I’ve come to realise that I was wrong. The London bubble doesn’t exist, and I believe it’s about time we retired the phrase for good. Let me explain why.
Our studies show that in every framework we use, there are no differences between marketers based in London and those in other parts of the UK.
Over the past five years Ian Murray and I have published a number of industry acclaimed studies including ‘The Empathy Delusion’ and ‘The Aspiration Window’ which explored the culture of marketing in great detail. For those of you who are unfamiliar with our work, we used frameworks from the world of cross-cultural and moral psychology to highlight the very substantial differences between people working in marketing and mainstream audiences. Within this, we have also shown marketers to have an extremely poor grasp of the values and aspirations of ordinary people.
When we put our research into the public domain, we understandably can’t control how the findings are used or interpreted by others. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read (or heard) that our studies are all about the London bubble. But of course they are not. They are about the marketing bubble.
It’s about how marketers work, not where they work.
Our studies show that in every framework we use, there are no differences between marketers based in London and those in other parts of the UK. It doesn’t matter where you live, your unconscious thinking styles, moral foundations and values are the same. Not only that, when it comes to estimating the values and aspirations of mainstream audiences, non-London marketers get it just as wrong as marketers based in London.
One of the key tenets of our work is the focus on a lack of social diversity within the marketing industry. In The Aspiration Window, we revealed just how elitist the industry is. Once again, this isn’t just a London problem. We found that 71% of marketers based outside London grew up in a household where the highest income earner was social grade AB, compared to 69% of marketers working in London. Incidentally it’s just 29% for the UK population as a whole. According to the ‘The Class Ceiling’, marketing is in the top 10 most elitist professions in the UK.
Despite all of this evidence, continued talk of the London bubble shows that marketers still don’t get it. In fact, it’s a very convenient narrative for marketers wherever they live.
This is very evident when I present the research to marketers based outside London. Often I am met with a wry smile, with people proudly proclaiming that these results don’t apply to them because they aren’t part of the London bubble.
Equally for those based in London, it’s a great way of shirking responsibility and letting themselves off the hook. After all, we can just blame our poor understanding of audiences on where we live. We just don’t get to meet enough ordinary people when working in the economic and cultural capital of the world.
In both cases, I see an industry failing to confront the deep biases that contaminate the way we think about mainstream audiences. Worse still, it leads to the ridiculous assumption that understanding people is simply about getting out of London. Go on safari to meet the weird and wonderful creatures beyond the M25, and that’s problem solved.
Let’s stop hiding behind the concept of a ‘London bubble’, and acknowledge that the real bubble is the culture of marketing.
I was interested to see the Evening Standard launch a brand new research project at Advertising Week Europe. Called ‘Our London’, it states “in London everyone is different and that means everyone can fit in” and they discussed how London is diverse, dynamic, global and fun. Not only does it imply that other parts of the UK are the opposite and that London is some kind of utopia, it also suggests that Londoners themselves are unique.
Our research challenges this. When you get down to basic values and motivations, there are no differences between Londoners and the rest of the UK. And what’s more, the London they are describing is the marketing and advertising industries’ perception of it rather than the actual reality. In fact, many marketers go to work every day in two of the most deprived local authority areas in the UK – Hackney and Tower Hamlets (source: London Councils).
So what can we do about it? The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one. Let’s stop hiding behind the concept of a ‘London bubble’, and acknowledge that the real bubble is the culture of marketing. No matter where you’re based, the only way to overcome this is to recognise your own biases and accept that understanding people takes time and proper effort.
There is no part of UK life that can’t be found right outside your front door if you’re only willing to find it.
Andrew Tenzer (@thetenzer on TikTok and Twitter) is an independent insight and brand strategist. He is the former director of market insight and brand strategyReach.