UK pitches itself as ‘next port of call’ for Asian brands looking to export

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, the UK ad industry is looking to establish a much higher profile internationally, with growing interest directed at China, the US and Japan.

As Brexit looms and uncertainty lingers, the UK is pitching itself to China as a “natural next port of call” for brands looking to grow beyond their domestic walls.

According to James Murphy, founder and CEO of adam&eveDDB, a key opportunity for the UK is with brands leading in technology and innovation, such as Alibaba and Tencent. They have reached an “unprecedented” situation where they have become so big they’ve almost “hit a domestic ceiling”. As such, Asia is “rich pickings” for agencies to move in.

“Perhaps the opportunity for us is to present ourselves as the ambassadors that can take them [abroad],” Murphy said at the Advertising Association’s AdWeek Europe leadership breakfast this morning (19 March).

Fresh from a trip to Asia just a few weeks ago where he met with party members tasked with encouraging advertising growth, Murphy said “don’t underestimate the extent of the bad feeling that’s being stoked towards the US in China at the moment”. For political reasons, largely to do with Donald Trump, he said there is a sense in which the US is a “growing enemy”.

“Without sounding cynical, that’s an opportunity”.

Murphy’s comments come as the Advertising Association releases its first ever export report, revealing international trade in UK advertising services grew 18% year on year to £6.9bn in 2017. This is up from pre-Brexit levels of £5.8bn and significantly ahead of overall UK service exports, which grew by 7% in comparison.

The UK is the fourth biggest advertising market in the world behind China, the US and Japan. Part of the aim of Promote UK’s newly-created Export Month, which is running throughout March, is to establish a much higher profile internationally for the UK in mature markets relative to its European competition. It is also looking to create new opportunities in emerging markets both in terms of exports and inward investment.

Promote UK is the year-old cross-industry initiative tasked with creating a marketing strategy for the UK ad industry.

In Austin, for example, it is looking to position the UK as a country at the forefront of advertising knowledge and so there has been a heavy focus on its understanding of neuroscience and behavioural science.

The programme of activities has also included trade missions to the Shanghai International Advertising Festival, SXSW in the US, and to Tokyo in Japan, which Promote UK claims has generated “massive business leads” for a number of British companies.

However, while there is currently a big focus on the importance of Britishness, Moray MacLennan, worldwide CEO of M&C Saatchi, said he “never saw it as taking a British brand” to the rest of the world when the agency was founded almost 25 years ago.

The most important lesson, MacLennan said, having learned from “lots of mistakes and pitfalls” very early on, is not to have an “export hat on” and “not to see the world through that lens” but to “listen and import” what different cultures think and say.

Citing a pitch he once gave in Beirut, MacLennan said: “They have Syria and Namibia as two of their major markets alongside Saudi and Egypt. A lady asked me: 50% of our country live in tents, they’re refugees, we have three major terrorist organisations surrounding us, you’re telling me I need to run this programme tomorrow? What’s your timing? They said that’s a very Western and American view of the world.”

Similarly, when giving the same pitch in China, MacLennan said they had interpreted him as saying they need to employ more white men.

“Listening, having patience, understanding the culture and finding the right people, having the flexibility…You need a flexible plan when you’re exporting,” he said. “You need to invest, you can’t do it on the cheap.”