Clare Beale on Advertising

Adland's in robust health – except if you happen to be black, female or old

Monday 21 January 2008 01:00 GMT

How many people work in advertising? Take a guess. My guess is that if you do not work in the business, you will pause a moment, think of all the ads you have seen today (over 1,000 according to the statisticians) and conclude that this is an industry of some proportion.

If I tell you that between them UK ad agencies handle around £20bn in ad spend a year and that adland's endeavours contribute, oh, about £160bn a year to the economy, you will probably add a few more thousand souls to your original estimate.

If you work in advertising, though, you will know it's a village. A very small village. The people who really make the industry tick all know each other, have probably worked together, sat on industry awards juries or steering groups together, slept together. It's that incestuous.

And since agencies lose 20 per cent of their staff every year (for some it's as high as 35 per cent), everyone gets to know everyone else pretty quickly. And the industry grapevine is short, so gossip wildfires and secrets rarely keep. It's that intimate.

Yet despite the claustrophobia, the latest industry census data suggests that the land of ads is bigger than it has been for many years. Almost back to the boom days of the Sixties, in fact. According to new figures from the IPA there are now 19,077 people working for accredited agencies, up from 1,700 on last year.

Admittedly there is a little slight of hand here. The IPA, mindful of the need to pump its muscle on behalf of the industry it champions and defends, has broadened its membership criteria over recent years (a policy that has had the pleasant associated effect of also boosting the IPA's coffers). So the surge in staff is not quite a simple matter of the same number of agencies employing more people. Nevertheless, the underlying trend is one of growth, with like-for-like figures up 9 per cent, and should be taken as a signal of an industry in robust health.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the people whose ads help to shape our social culture fall sadly short of representing the demographic mix of the country at large. Of course, adlanders are skewed by being almost universally degree-educated and mostly (in terms of influence) living in the South. That can't be helped. But just six per cent of them are from an ethnic background, and the majority of those hold backroom rather than senior positions. Just over 2 per cent of agency staff are Asian and 1.7 per cent are black.

Ethnicity is not the only shortcoming. More worrying is the gender disconnect. Only 16 per cent of management roles are filled by women, despite the fact that lower down the ranks the split of the sexes is fairly equal.

Then there is the age issue. The population at large is getting older, but advertising is still a young buck's game. Almost half of all adland employees are under 30, with the industry's average age being a tender 33.5 years.

There is nothing particularly surprising about these demographics. After all, it has been the same old story, year in, year out. Despite some attempts to raise the issues and encourage change, the IPA has managed to effect only very slow progress. Of course, there is no quick-fix solution. But as long as the ad industry's make-up is so distinctly at odds with the consumers it's trying to understand and influence, surely our competitive edge is being blunted.

Interestingly, if you are thinking of making a move into or around adland, now might not be a bad time. The New Year detox is in full swing and agencies across town have been purging themselves of staff.

Lowe and Saatchis have parted with their new business directors, McCann Erickson's CEO chair is now moulding to a new bottom, PHD's chief exec is out, Grey's deputy chairman has quit, Havas' new media acquisition, BLM, is waving goodbye to one of its founders. And, if the gossips are right, there are at least another couple of high profile adland departures in the offing.

Meanwhile, the industry has a new agency to help shake things up a little. Adam & Eve is a sort of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R breakaway with a generous handful of new and interesting people thrown in. Biblical know-alls will have some fun with the name and its links with sin and our fall from grace. The rest of us will smirk, then get used to it. Should they choose to, the agency will at least have a generous selection of associations on which to build its corporate marketing: apples, snakes, nudity, hospitals (A&E, geddit?).

I suspect, though, they will be far too busy pitching and winning business to have the time or need to dream up such branding wheezes. The agency promises to do things differently, with a collaborative approach to the generation of ideas that crosses disciplines and channels. The concept is not radical; actually being able to do it might be.

We all know that adland is the bull's eye in the fight against childhood obesity. Unfortunately the ad industry has been slow to get off its backside and counter attack by, say, offering the Government more advice/resources to promote better diets.

In the meantime, any attempts to use the industry's talents to encourage healthy eating should be doubly applauded. In this spirit, let us give some oxygen to the British Heart Foundation's new digital campaign to encourage children to ditch the chocs and burn off some calories.

The campaign has been created by Avenue A/Razorfish and stars a bloke with a funny head and nice teeth shouting abuse at the lard-laden. So far, so good. Then there is a virtual-world game. You can win a Nintendo Wii, not quite as gut-busting as a new bike or free swimming lessons, but a damn site more covetable for your average tweenager.

The BHF has gone for such a full-on digital strategy because online's where children hang out these days. Right. But encouraging even more time spent in front of computer screens seems cack-handed for a campaign hoping to promote healthier lifestyles. Isn't the BHF simply in danger of perpetuating our children's lardy lifestyles?

More disturbing for adland is the news that, rather than satisfying itself with using the power of advertising for good effect, the BHF is adding its voice to demands for greater ad curbs. It is calling for the Government to ban all junk food marketing that targets children and is preparing to launch a website where parents can sign a petition. Forgive me if I don't give you the web address of that one.

What seems to pass the protesters by is the fact that the more restrictions there are on advertising so-called junk food to children, the harder it will be to use the power of advertising to leverage more positive messages. Quite a few of the media that currently attract a young audience will be killed off for a start. Then where will BHF advertise?

Beale's best in show: Lynx (Bartle Bogle Hegarty)

It has been quite a time since I was on the receiving end of a young bloke's chat-up line, and pulling has clearly become a more sophisticated art. Getting laid has gone digital, and Lynx is here to help.

The girl-magnet deodorant has launched a new website through Bartle Bogle Hegarty that hopes to help guys get out of their bedrooms and, erm, back again but this time with a woman in tow.

So the new site – – is crammed with clever chat-up tools, such as a "fit girl finder" that you can download on to your mobile, and advice like, "Alcohol and chocolate make for a lady-wowing combination", so click for cocoa cocktail recipes. And yes, there are plenty of sexy pics and the whole thing is beautifully crisp and user-friendly.

But sod what the punters might think of it. The big question in adland is: "Can the non-specialist agencies do digital?" On the basis of BBH's Lynx work, the answer's a big, agenda-setting "yes".

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign

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