Caught in Brexit Limbo, UK Ad Industry Prepares for an Uncertain Future

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The Oct. 31 Brexit deadline has been looming over the United Kingdom for months, like a coven of witches flying across the silhouette of a full moon.

Since March 29, when the U.K. missed its first planned departure date from the European Union, all eyes have been on Halloween, when the country’s much-anticipated departure from the continent was supposed to happen.

That was until Oct. 28, when European Leaders approved yet another extension, this time until Jan. 31, 2020—three years, seven months and eight days after the June 23, 2016 referendum that set Brexit in motion. (At that time, experts said it would take at least two years for the U.K. to officially leave the EU.)

The referendum produced a close result, with 17.4 million (51.9%) voting to leave the European Union, and 16.1 million (48.1%) to remain—with the identity of Leaver or Remainer having become a characteristic that speaks volumes about the person who holds it.

Westminster, the U.K.’s seat of power, has been paralyzed since the vote. The political upheaval has been practically nonstop: a change in prime minister; a suspension of parliament, and then a ruling that the suspension was illegal; a new Brexit deal, which failed to pass—and that’s just the major moments.

While the British Home Office has been advertising across the country for people to “prepare for Brexit” on bus shelters, billboards, the Tube and promoted tweets, the constant turmoil has made doing just that quite the challenge—particularly for businesses, among them marketing and advertising.

“Brexit knocks confidence,” said Ben Golik, chief creative officer at customer agency Lida. “It creates a culture of uncertainty. Any business that trades in confidence, as we do in marketing and advertising, is directly affected.”

Brexit has brought protests to the streets of the U.K., from both leavers and remainers

How can companies prepare for an uncertain Brexit?

Brexit will surely have far-reaching consequences—but without knowing exactly what those will be, companies have found it difficult to prepare. In September, the Institute of Directors (IoD), a long-running organization for senior U.K. business leaders, published a survey on corporate preparedness for Brexit. Over half of the respondents from small (0-49 employees), medium (50-249) and large (over 250) companies all said that they had “done as much preparation as we can, but cannot be fully prepared” for Brexit.

But even before it’s happened, companies from banks to retailers and advertisers are already feeling the effects: quick-service bistro Pret a Manger and luxury clothing retailer Ted Baker blamed public uncertainty over Brexit for lessened spending in recent months, and women’s clothier Bonmarche cited it as a factor when the company went into administration (bankruptcy), according to Bloomberg. Barclays CEO Jes Staley said in a post-results call that the “macroeconomic uncertainty” of Brexit was a primary reason why the bank would have a hard time meeting some targets. And this all comes just after U.K.-based businesses have had to overhaul their digital presence to account for the EU-directed GDPR.

“People are trying to prepare, but they don’t really know what to prepare for,” Johnny Hornby, chairman and CEO of London-headquartered ad agency The&Partnership, told Adweek. “Every day, it seems in Europe, something happens and you couldn’t believe the day before that it would have happened, but it has.”

This has caused the British public, from companies to citizens, to prepare for every possible outcome. That includes the so-called hard Brexit, which means the U.K. would leave the EU without a deal in place, leaving free trade with Europe in question. Without any official proclamations, operations have gone on as usual, but the cloud hanging over everyone’s head brings its own damage.

“The physical component of Brexit hasn’t touched us yet,” said Giles Gibbons, CEO of London-based strategy consultancy Good Business. “I think the psychological one is the bit that is affecting most businesses and brands. That is a personal thing as much as a business thing. It’s seeded some doubt, and the chaos has meant that people are finding it increasingly difficult to make decisions.”

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