Repitching the Big Tent

Five years after it was first abandoned, the advertising industry is once again ready to pitch its “Big Tent” idea. This time, the rallying call to the marketing communications industry to work together has been made by the Advertising Association (AA).

Ten months into the job, the AA’s new chief executive Baroness Peta Buscombe – a Tory peer – is looking to rebrand the organisation and extend its remit to become an umbrella trade body for the entire UK communications industry (MW last week). But unlike the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) – which unveiled similar plans in 2002 – the AA seems to have the support of the other trade bodies.

Even the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which was the main voice of opposition to the IPA’s proposals five years ago, has given the AA’s “supergroup” plan its blessing.

Increasing restrictions
One advertising source says: “The appetite, and more importantly the need, for a coherent voice is stronger now than ever before. The threat of the increasing restrictions on advertising and various other forms of communications including digital means that we need to present a united front to opinion formers. The AA can help coax all the trade bodies into doing just that.”

Many in the industry believe that Buscombe’s background makes her uniquely placed to spearhead the united front, particularly because of her greater influence with the Government and lobby groups. Former shadow minister in the House of Lords for education and skills, she was the opposition spokesperson in the upper house for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport from 2002 to 2005. Trained as a lawyer and called to the Bar, she also practised law commercially in London and New York before becoming a legal advisor to the IPA.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) director general Mike Hughes says that the initiative to drive forward greater co-operation between industry organisations has already been given a “thumbs-up” at a recent event organised by the communications industry.

The event, called Belgrave Day and held at the IPA’s offices, brought together advertisers, media owners and agencies who agreed on the need to have “one voice” to promote the communications industry as a whole and to ensure a degree of consensus on key issues.

“It was a true coming together without a single organisation being the dominant force but with all parts of the village agreeing that present day challenges to communications can be fought if we are all part of this Big Tent run by the AA,” adds Hughes.

Hughes says that since the meeting, key trade body figures have met up to draft a formal strategy for the initiative. He adds that the discussions are still in the “early stages”.

However, some wonder what is so different this time around and are asking why the DMA appears to have had a change of heart. The DMA reportedly said in 2002 that because it was a “tripartite representing clients, agencies and suppliers” it could not be part of an organisation – the IPA – which only represented agencies.

One industry expert says: “ The one thing that did not help the IPA’s Big Tent initiative was vested interests. Trade associations have no divine right to exist and should reflect the evolving needs of their membership. However, too often those that run them get entrenched in their jobs either for financial or ego reasons, or both, and defend an outdated entity.”

DMA managing director James Kelly says that the IPA’s proposal was to “create a sub-tent within the Big Tent” by forming a new body to look after agencies. He adds: “We did not feel the need to create a new body.”

Lobbying power
Kelly adds that the AA’s “desire” to be more pro-active in talking about the benefits of the UK communications industry is “highly welcome” because as the lobbying organisation, the AA has always taken the lead in trumpeting the success of the advertising business. “We will continue to take the lead when it comes to the specifics of the direct marketing sector,” he says. Chairman of the Institute of Sales Promotion Clive Mishon also welcomes the news.

Industry experts say that Buscombe’s call for additional funding for the organisation is gaining support, because the communications industry has recognised that it needs someone like the AA to lobby on behalf of its cause at the highest levels of the UK and the European Union.

As one insider explains: “It is very difficult to talk about advertising in isolation because there is a lot of blurring on the edges between traditional advertising, paid-for-advertising or even paid-for-content. The politicians and opinion formers see a television commercial, a pop-up banner ad, or even a buy-one-get-one-free offer as advertising and there needs to be one single body representing all these varied forms of communications.”

However, the AA’s intention to rebrand has surprised many. Aside from interest from advertising and design agencies – already queuing up to offer the AA their services – the plans to change the name of the organisation have yet to receive any support. “Trade associations are low-interest B2B bodies and do not have any money to promote themselves,” says one expert. “The fear is that a new name without the power and resources to promote will not work and could prove to be a big mistake.”

It is thought that the AA is rethinking its name because it sometimes gets confused with the Automobile Association or Alcoholics Anonymous. The name change could see the word “Advertising” replaced by “Communications”, which some say could “send the signal that the industry is being apologetic about advertising as a business”. The AA has yet to confirm that the rethink is going ahead.

But in a climate of collaboration, at a time when most brands and businesses – and advertising itself – are under threat, the AA’s strategy to present a unified voice for the communications industry already seems to be taking shape. Now might just be the time for the Big Tent idea to develop without fear of any tears in the fabric.