Claire Beale on Advertising

Why can't advertising contribute to the nation's cultural heritage?
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The Independent Online

Dance, music, theatre, fashion, film... and, ahem, advertising. Yes, it's official, advertising is an art; it's one of the creative and cultural industries getting a leg up from Gordon Brown this week. The Government's new Green Paper on creativity includes a 20-strong programme of initiatives to bolster the arts. Lucky for you if ads are your thing, because adland is right up there as one of the sectors to be nurtured.

It's nice to hear, after a year or two of regulatory screw-tightening that has compromised parts of the industry – food and drinks advertisers, say – beyond reason. Finally, if contradictorily, Brown is becoming an advertising champion.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Advertising is about commerce, selling stuff like toilet rolls and toothpaste: a million miles from the cash-strapped, soul-enriching traditional arts like dance or theatre or classical music. Nothing to argue with there. Except that selling toothpaste and toilet roll requires all sorts of creative skills, such as writing, art direction and digital design. Not only that, but advertising is an industry that employs rather a lot of other artistic craft skills – like film-making, model-making, illustration, acting, photography and set design, some of which might otherwise struggle to survive.

Think about it like that and it's absolutely right that adland should be working with government to foster creativity. Maybe it doesn't need all the government grants and tax breaks that some of its poorer creative cousins merit, but just because advertising is (fingers-crossed and don't think about recession) in robust financial health doesn't mean that more can't be done to enhance its contribution to the nation's creative wellbeing.

You see, the Government is on a mission to make the UK a global creative hub, a centre of artistic excellence. UK advertising has long been a world leader in advertising creativity, so it knows a thing or two about global standard-bearing. And when you add in its contribution to the national economy and corporate balance sheets, perhaps there's some learning that the ad business can share with its fellow creatives.

Even better, advertising's inclusion in the Government's thinking could attract new, more diverse talent to the industry and nurture the next generation of, say, Ridley Scotts, Hugh Hudsons and Alan Parkers: world-famous movie-makers who all got their break in advertising. We desperately need more young, exceptional creative talent in the industry. If Brown and his culture secretary Andy Burnham can drive that on, the creative crown is within Britain's sights.

THE WORLD'S biggest advertiser is also doing its bit to raise creative standards. Procter & Gamble has been on a mission to make better commercials. And since it's been one of the most consistent offenders of advertising sensibilities over the decades (even the agencies that make the ads have been known to hate them), that's good news for all of us.

P&G has spent the last few years in pursuit of advertising excellence. Oh, all right then, maybe not "excellence", but definitely "improvement". Last week, the organisers of the prestigious Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival announced that P&G is 2008's Advertiser of the Year.

P&G, you probably know, makes hundreds of brands that you use every day. From Pampers to Pringles, from Gillette to Tampax. And it spends $8bn (£4bn) on adverts for its brands every year, so you're going to see them whether you like it or not.

Chances are that a few years back you wouldn't have liked P&G ads much. And the idea of them taking home the Cannes crown would have been unthinkable. But P&G has spent the last few years studying what makes great advertising: ads that are effective and sell brands by the bucketful, but, just as importantly, ones that win creative approval, too. Last year it won its first ever Grand Prix at Cannes, taking the Press prize for a Tide stain remover ad by Saatchi & Saatchi New York.

Expect more clients to be flocking to Cannes this summer in pursuit of a similar creative renaissance.

EVEN TAX clouds have silver linings recently. Yes, another week, another independent agency bites the dust and makes a mint as the new capital gains tax rules loom. This time it's the direct marketing agency Partners Andrews Aldridge that has sold up. It's sold to Engine group, the mini holding company that is fattening nicely for a sale or IPO itself. It already owns WCRS, the creative agency that is going from strength to strength since it wrested control of its own destiny from Havas and gave its staff a slice of the equity action. Now Engine's deal aims to do the same for PAA, which coincidentally also brought itself out of Havas a few years back. The PAA partners will get about £9m in cash and a similar amount in equity in Engine.

What PAA brings to the table is a skill base in building an intimate dialogue with consumers and a reputation for creative integrity that complements WCRS. So it's a good deal for all. And like the Naked/Photon deal, which regular readers of this column will have read about last week, it gives PAA a degree of autonomy that selling to one of the global marketing services groups – like WPP or Omnicom or Publicis – would not have guaranteed. Sure, Engine has ambitions to realise its assets, and that puts pressure on all its companies to deliver growth, but this feels fairly collegiate.

The only pity is that so many thriving, dynamic entrepreneurial ad businesses are cashing in. While it's great to see success rewarded with such handsome price tags, it's a shame that the entrepreneurialism that is so rare in this business is trickling away. Oh, I know that Engine's chief executive Peter Scott would argue that entrepreneurs are still what drive his group's success, and offering equity is designed to maintain that engagement. But there's no doubt that people and their companies change focus post-sale.

Now we must hope that the hefty new 18 per cent CGT that will come into effect in April will not deter adland's next generation of hungry entrepreneurs.

SHHHH... whisper it: there's a new Trident chewing gum ad out and for once I reckon everyone involved