As 30,000 people gather in London’s Piccadilly Circus for Advertising Week Europe, the issue of whether Britain will vote in June to stay in or leave the European Union is dominating much of the discussion.
The prospect of “Brexit” is not supported by the ad industry. In an ongoing poll by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the U.K.’s ad agency association, 89% of members want to stay in Europe, with only 4% actively preferring to leave.
WPP CEO Martin Sorrell said in one Advertising Week Europe session that he is “worried” by the prospect of an exit. He said, “I think it’s going to be a tight vote. And a decision of this enormity and this significance is a little bit scary.”
Mr. Sorrell said, “The economic negatives [of Brexit] are very strong … There would be a damaging impact on trade, investment, and jobs. Clients have said to me that on June 24 if we’re out, they will close plants and move them to Eastern Europe.”
Although he conceded that the European Union’s “massive beaurocracy” creates “inefficiencies,” Mr. Sorrell added, “I think we should be inside the tent arguing to change the rules rather than outside banging on the tent.”
Lindsay Pattison, global CEO of WPP-owned media agency Maxus, also strongly supports Britain’s place as an EU member. Speaking at a session about Brexit, she said, “It’s better for business and better for talent mobility. A big part of working for an ad network or media company is the idea of mobility of talent. I worry [if we vote out] it will be seen as entirely negative, harking back to the days of empire, and we’ll look ridiculous and out of touch.”
Despite their strong pro-Europe stance, the advertising and marketing communities have failed so far to come up with any persuasive campaigns to capture the imagination of the British public, which polls show still evenly split between the Brexit and “Bremain” camps.
While politicians argue and scaremonger — claiming each U.K. household will be $6,000 worse off if Brits leave, or that 3.3 million migrants will cross the border if the country stays — the opportunity for a positive, impactful campaign has not yet been seized.
Ms. Pattison is frustrated. She said, “None of those campaigning to stay in are popular. What we have is a mismatch of deeply unpopular politicians from every party. We need a powerful, mobilizing, positive voice. The campaign I think is interesting is #HugABrit [a group of Europeans living in the U.K who want Brits to know they are loved and valued], because I think it has real emotion in it. Those are the kind of campaigns I think will capture the imagination.”
Even Adam & Eve/DDB, creator of the blockbuster Christmas ads for retailer John Lewis that get the whole nation talking and weeping, has struggled to spark real interest in the referendum. The agency created a film for the “Britain Stronger in Europe” campaign, featuring different people giving positive messages about working together, employee rights and economic benefits.
“Talk to Gran,” a separate effort for Britain Stronger in Europe, has been more impactful, but only because it has been so widely ridiculed as patronizing. It aims to mobilize the younger generation that is traditionally more pro-European to persuade their older, Eurosceptic relatives to vote “Remain.”
Young people are invited to log on to Talktogran.co.uk and send an e-card to older relatives pointing out that there is a “brighter future” in Europe. One example reads, “Gran, please vote Remain so I can enjoy a life of opportunities in the E.U. (though I promise I’ll be back for Sunday lunch).”
Rupert Turnbull, group international publisher of Time and Fortune, summed up the rising panic around the possibility of a Brexit. He said, “The Europeans started off bemused and now they are worried. It’s a bit like [Donald] Trump — it was a joke to start with, but now it’s a genuine concern. What’s going on? It’s splitting the government.”
Industry execs who want to keep Britain in the EU had better get organized — and register for an absentee ballot. The referendum is scheduled for Thursday, June 23, when many of them will be in France at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity — enjoying some of the advantages that Europe has to offer.