Communication by Association

UK’s leading advertising trade bodies discuss their comms goals and challenges at Propeller Group’s Comms Club 2023 event

Handling comms for a trade body presents a unique challenge for PR professionals. They have to balance competing interests, manage a range of stakeholders and represent a whole sector or industry to the media and regulators.

Communication by Association, one of the five sessions from Propeller Group’s Comms Club 2023, brought senior comms professionals from the UK’s leading advertising trade bodies together to discuss industry and comms issues. The panel, moderated by Kieran Kent, Managing Director at Propeller Group, featured: 

  • Matt Bourn, Director of Communication for the Advertising Association (AA)
  • Abi Slater, Director of Communications for the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA)
  • Tessa Gooding, Communications Director for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)

The session explored the role and mission of trade bodies, the benefits for members, the challenges associated with dealing with different stakeholders and the prevalent industry-wide issues – such as diversity and inclusion, climate action and talent retention. 

Purpose is the order of the day

The panellists explained the remit of their respective industry bodies and their role and mission. ISBA exists to champion advertising and Abi said: “We’re the only trade body that represents the advertisers themselves. We’re there to be advocates for them and give them a voice to constructively challenge the advertising and marketing status quo.”

Tessa Gooding elaborated on the IPA’s mission: “We’re representing the agency side – we’re responsible for the business, we’re there to promote their values. It’s about helping agencies and building better business, and this includes acting as spokesperson and responding to anything that comes in accordingly.”

Matt Bourn rounded-off the introductions by explaining the AA’s role. “We’re unique in the sense that the core AA membership is all the trade bodies across the advertising industry – including ISBA and the IPA. Our job is to be the first port of call on behalf of the industry with the government principally.”

The industry bodies collaborate strongly. For example, Tessa highlighted the Pitch Positive joint venture. “We chat a lot about the Pitch Positive Pledge, which is about improving behaviours during the pitch – think about the people, consider the timelines and understand that there’s an impact on mental health. We began pulling together these principles last year – and it’s still going on.”

Matt emphasised the importance of all bodies having open channels. “Whatever happens, whatever the position that might be developing – we need to be able to talk. Case-in-point, if a journalist called us about a particular issue, we need to know who is best-suited to respond.” 

Join the club

To exist and secure subscription funding the trade bodies need to offer value to members.

Matt highlighted the AA’s value on both a macro and micro scale. “We have the big moments like LEAD, an annual industry event that we collaborate with the IPA and ISBA on. 

“But on a day-to-day basis, we’ve always said you get out as much as you put back in. Benefits include profile, reputation, the opportunity to network with peers – and a seat at the table. You’re on the front line of the biggest issues and you get the inside track on what the government might be thinking about these issues.” 

Abi stressed that everything ISBA does is driven by its members. “They join because they want to have a voice and make a positive change in the industry – and being a part of ISBA allows them to do that. Then there’s the soft benefits like training, best practice, spending time with your peers and going to events. It gives members the opportunity to get involved.”

Tessa explained the IPA’s valuable activities. “Networking is key for a member body because you can go cross-agency – but we also provide a lot of thought leadership. And because we’re a spokesman and servicing body, we do value-for-month reports – we monitor how much engagement there is with our members. We like to feed back to them how much their people are using our service, which is important as I think that can often be hidden.”

Aside from the overt benefits, Kieran delved deeper into how accessible the trade bodies are to members and asked. “In terms of the comms and PR function within the member base, how much dialogue and interaction do you have with that audience on a week-to-week basis?”

Abi offered reassurances about ISBA’s availability. “I’m often asking members if they’ll support a piece of content – a press release, a supportive quote, an interview. That tends to be on a day-to-day basis. I also have events and the website within my remit.” 

Tessa illustrated the IPA’s willingness to engage. “It’s very similar with us. We have a council, we have committees – I’m always picking up the phone if there’s somebody you need to talk to. We tend to go to the people that we need the information from; it’s basically a never-ending stream of conversation.” 

Tackling the big-picture problems

The ad industry faces several challenges but it’s hard to deny tackling the industry’s environmental impact is foremost. Kieran asked about the Ad Net Zero initiative and whether everybody felt that progress was being made against the goals of 2030.

Matt was brutally honest. “To be candid – we are slow. There is a massive challenge to address at the most urgent pace, and this means making changes. You can break these into two things: we need to think about the whole decarbonisation of the ad industry and the way we work; and we also need a better understanding of the products and services we’re advertising and how they’re contributing to a more sustainable future.”

Tessa argued that the groundwork has already been done – but action to drive awareness remains critical. “We need to make sure people are very aware of the calculators, the tools and the training that’s out there. Getting more people to engage is the next obvious phase – we need people to know.” 

Another industry headache is the decline in public trust in advertising. Matt suggested better creative quality as a potential solution. “It comes back to great ads by talented people for brilliant brands – and on the flip side is the concern around bombardment. We talk about the public being our most important customer – this means providing the best customer service, through serving the highest quality ads in a way that engages.”

Dealing with multiple stakeholders can also be a challenge for advertising bodies trying to establish standardised measurement tools. Abi drew attention to Origin – ISBA’s advertiser-backed cross-media measurement project – as a long-term fix. “This project came about because advertisers have wanted, for a long time, to work out who’s been served their ads across different media channels in real-time. It’s now in Phase 4, with 5 advertisers running their data through it. It will be groundbreaking for advertisers – this is how the advertisers themselves are describing it.” 

And Matt highlighted how Origin’s benefits address a number of issues. “Effectiveness and efficiency of ad spend and frequency is at the heart of it – but it’s also about supporting and rebuilding public trust. Furthermore, it’s about reducing frequency which reduces carbon emissions. 

Final thoughts

Our panellists closed the discussion with causes for optimism about the future. Tessa argued that without optimism, there is no scope for improvement. “If you’re not optimistic, it means you feel you can’t change things. It’s all about how we can contribute and what we need to do. I don’t like the way that clickbait and unbalanced articles have risen up over the past year. If people only read the headline or a single sentence – they’re not fulfilling the purpose. People are bored of the clickbait fad – they don’t trust it, and I don’t think it’s doing anyone any good.” 

Abi reinforced the notion that advertising remains a pivotal piece in people’s lives. “There’s still people that love advertising – people look forward to seeing Christmas ads, for example. Advertising is a real force for good. We’ve seen campaigns that have changed behaviour, and that’s really positive.” 

Matt’s final thoughts revolved around the elements that make the advertising industry stand out from the crowd. “Creative minds, strategic minds and technological minds – these are the strengths of the industry. And when you put these together, it’s impossible not to be optimistic about what the UK industry is capable of, particularly when it applies itself to the biggest issues like inclusion, trust and climate change.”