Lord Gilbert: Our creative industries have a huge role to play in defining global Britain
Online and digital advertising has come of age. But if the UK industry is to maintain its global lead, we must ensure it is well-regulated and diverse, writes Stephen Gilbert
Advertising is at the heart of the creative industries, the UK’s fastest-growing sector. The industry is a success story – it provides work for talented creatives, such as film-makers, writers, artists and special effects practitioners and enables them to develop their skills. Advertising revenue has historically supported traditional media, both print and TV.
And advertising is an industry where the UK has a global lead. Top practitioners come from all over the world to work here, especially in London. This has given the UK’s advertising industry a distinctive international quality which in turn gives the UK an edge in pitching to clients around the world by using the cultural knowledge of its workforce to make ad campaigns that are relevant to many markets.
Global advertising campaigns are often masterminded in the UK with UK-based workers tailoring the campaign to suit local needs. This has created a virtuous circle: the UK is a great place to work because it has the best people and gets the best gigs.
London vies with New York as the world’s advertising hub, but more than New York it has that truly global outlook. So how do we make sure it maintains its success and its crucial role in supporting the wider creative sector in the future?
When asked in a US senate committee hearing in April how he expected to sustain a business model in which users do not pay for the service, Mark Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” So it is that advertising funds much of the mass of free content and services available online.
In the UK more is now spent on online advertising than on advertising in all other media combined. In the process, the ad income of traditional media has been hollowed out, putting the future of high-quality journalism in doubt. While broadcasters have not yet felt the full effects of this, they are concerned that there is not a level regulatory playing field and that it tilts in favour of online as law makers continue to impose regulatory burdens on linear TV but not the big online platforms.
The forthcoming pre-watershed ban on high fat and sugar content foods looks likely to hit commercial TV but leave YouTube and Netflix unaffected. This highlights an important challenge for lawmakers.
Digital industries have come of age. They have brought huge and positive change and they are not an unregulated wild-west, but we cannot any longer allow that the big platforms are too big, too international or too complex to regulate more fairly and proportionately.
Today’s advertising industry, like many other industries in the creative sector, needs workers with digital and analytical skills. The government is right to champion the promotion of STEM skills and to focus on the digital skills gap. But in the modern workplace, employers look to build teams and look for a fusion of artistic and science skills in young people who can use those skills creatively.
In the face of rising automation, it is these blended skills that will enable young people to thrive in the creative workspace whether in performing and artistic roles or more technical areas. To fulfil this demand for so-called “technical creatives” we need to broaden, not narrow, the education of young people.
Just as it is vital that, after Brexit, the industry can continue to attract skilled workers from around the world to maintain its international lead, it must also better reflect the society that it engages with. A diverse workforce is not just socially the right and responsible thing, it is essential to the business model of modern communications industries. The industry has taken effective measures to improve diversity both on and off screen but there is much more to do.
As with other parts of the creative sector, social class is the single biggest barrier to entry. As many traditional industries are hollowed out by AI and automation, many more of the jobs of the future that are fulfilling and rewarding, nourishing and enduring will be in the creative industries and these future jobs cannot any longer be open almost exclusively to middle-class recruits.
Bringing about this change requires a concerted effort to change recruitment practices, especially the culture of unpaid internships, create welcoming working environments and, crucially, provide comprehensive careers guidance in state schools that opens the opportunities to young people from all backgrounds.
The advertising industry must take a lead. It should invest in supporting outreach programmes and careers support in state schools not just for itself but for the wider creative sector in which it plays such a crucial role and on which it is so dependent for talent and ideas.
Creativity combined with an entrepreneurial spirit will drive our economy forward, enrich lives and strengthen our society. As we enter a period of extraordinary change driven not just by Brexit but by automation, our creative industries have a huge role to play with politicians in defining a modern, open, fair and global Britain. The advertising industry, so equipped with talent and full of enterprise, must play its part.
Lord Gilbert of Panteg is a Conservative peer and chair of the Lords Select Committee on Communications