question of the week

Global Britain or Little Britain: Is The UK Ad Industry Future Fit?

The UK's annual export of advertising services reached £15bn in 2021, up 32.5 per cent year on year. We ask how the industry is preparing for the next decade of growth

By Creative Salon

The UK has a rich history and strong global reputation for creativity.

The UK's annual export of advertising services reached an impressive £15bn in 2021, up 32.5 per cent year on year, according to latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data. It places the nation second only to the US for exports in advertising and marketing services worldwide. It means that there's been a strong rebound from 2020 when advertising exports were valued at £11.7bn. This is compared with £11bn in 2019 and £7bn in 2018. Therefore, making our advertising industry now of the UK's strongest exports and a critical driver of economic growth.

This brings the sector back to its pre-COVID growth trajectory and showcases its resilience, as well as the power that the British advertising sector has on the world stage.

So how do we continue to sustain our place in the world as a creative superpower and play a key part in UK export growth? We ask industry experts on what can the UK advertising industry do to prepare for the next decade of growth and ensure that the sector continues to prosper? And at a time of talent crisis, is the industry prepared to showcase its power as a true force for economic growth?

Julian Douglas, international CEO and vice chairman, VCCP

When it comes to the UK ad industry preparing for the next decade of growth, we need to be doing 3 things: Double down on talent, double down on tech, and get out more!

The UK ad industry is a creative powerhouse delivering world-class advertising and experiences, so it is no surprise to me that more clients around the world are procuring our services. It’s time to take it to the next level. Here’s how

Double down on talent

We have always punched above our weight in the creative industries. To stay ahead, we need to continue to invest in attracting and developing diverse talent from right across the UK and beyond.

Double down on tech

The UK is a digital economy leader. To stay ahead, the UK ad industry must invest in digital skills - both in upskilling existing staff and recruiting new talent with relevant digital expertise - and embracing emerging technologies to stay ahead.

Get out more

Collaborate with other industries and be more aggressive in marketing ourselves in other countries. It’s time to make some noise and showcase our creativity on a global stage.

Charlie Rudd, CEO of Leo Burnett UK and Publicis Poke

The UK ad sector has been a global centre of excellence and a major exporter for UK plc for many years. Indeed several agencies have been honoured with Queen’s Awards for Exports in recognition of this. With the rapid development of the ad industry elsewhere, the UK’s position has been challenged with new centres of excellence growing across Asia, LatAm, the Middle East, the US and within Europe too. It is hugely pleasing in this context to see the big increase in exports in 2022. But the data shows a big increase in imports too and the historic picture shows a shrinking balance of payments surplus; advertising services imports are increasingly close in size to our exports.

And we’re also contending with the fact that we’re seen to be more Little Britain than Global Britain by the rest of the world right now.

However, we are a resilient and talented bunch in the UK ad industry. We have got an inherent time-zone advantage of being able to truly work globally, we operate effortlessly in the world’s most accepted common language, we have a history of promoting and celebrating multi-culturalism (despite the attempts of Farage et al) and, most importantly, we still have a relatively high standard of creativity compared to most other markets.

For this success story to continue we must double down on ensuring we have agencies with a wide range of diverse high-quality talent representing the world we want to operate across. I want our agencies to be thinking about diversity in the broadest sense – cultures, nationalities, life experiences, languages. Petty visa restrictions and hurdles obviously undermine this. And as ad practitioners we need to be looking for commonalities across markets to ensure work travels as far as possible; and we need to be developing and executing work that adapts and translates easily. If we do this, I’m very confident we can once again make the UK the definitive global centre for advertising and so do our bit to power the British economy.

Kate Howe, executive director at MSQ

It doesn’t surprise me that the UK ad industry is doing so well. We are adept at solving complex problems and very capable of rising through adversity. I love Stephen Woodford’s description of the UK as a Creative Superpower. And in that lays the answer to this question. We will become ever-more data driven, more tech-enabled and, I sincerely hope, more diverse. We will inevitably become more and more enabled by AI. But above all else we will need to stay focussed on that special alchemy that gives us our unique brand of engaging, entertaining and effective creativity.

As an industry we need to remind ourselves daily where this creativity comes from and what inspires it. We need to keep creating the right environments for creativity to flourish. This includes keeping teams together in office spaces they want to return to, and creating cultures that encourage original thinking and innovation without fear of failure. One of the joys of our industry has always been its ability to embrace, celebrate individuality and that needs to continue.

Personally, I love a little eccentricity and I hope that in the pursuit of equality and political correctness we don’t accidentally police that out of the system.

Michelle Whelan, UK joint CEO at VMLY&R

The world has changed massively, and the UK advertising industry has shown a wonderful ability to adapt and prosper. The only thing that’s certain is that we’re going to see more dramatic change over the next ten years.

Technology, culture, creativity…all shape how people interact with and buy from brands, which is why VMLY&R works at the point where the three intersect.

No-one knows yet exactly where web 3.0, AI, robotics or digitally-enhanced experiences will land. But they’ll have profound impact on how people behave and what they expect from brands. As an industry, we need to evolve quickly to help clients navigate this fast-moving future. Keeping up isn’t enough; we need to be leaders in both thought and practice.

It may be a cliché to say that culture moves at the speed of digital – but it’s a cliché because it’s true. The rate of change is only going to accelerate. Agencies need to develop the right tools and ways-of-working to make sure brand radar systems are working 24/7, empowering a jump to opportunities as soon as they emerge. And we need sensitivity to a zeitgeist that will be re-shaped by big issues like climate change and income inequality.

Above all, we need to remember what makes this industry different and valuable: creativity. Precisely how creativity is expressed may look very different in 2033. But it needs to deliver the same outcomes: securing an unfair share of consumer attention, building trust through empathy and consistency and making people feel good about what and how they buy.

We should never forget we’re a service business - technology leadership, cultural insight and effective creativity are services brands will need most over the coming decade. If we can deliver all three, our industry will have a very healthy future.


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