Advertising boss: EU cannot market itself properly

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European institutions in Brussels could learn from advertisers in better promoting the benefits of EU membership to citizens, argues Gary Leih, CEO of Ogilvy UK and President of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) in an interview with EURACTIV.

Gary Leih is the CEO of Ogilvy UK and President of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA).

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

With reference to the CARE awards, can you explain what social marketing actually is? 

You have an opportunity with advertising, which is a fairly powerful force to navigate and to some extent motivate public opinion. I think there are a number of advertisers who use advertising for the greater good, for the ability to help people do better things in a number of areas. There are a number of NGOs across various countries in Europe who employ advertising as a fundamental part of their strategy or tactic in order to achieve their objective. 

Is this something that is inspiring business? 

I think there are a number of businesses that are becoming active in the social marketing question. So what you are finding is that consumers are increasingly looking behind brands and logos to the motivation of companies themselves when they are purchasing products. I think this is going to grow and grow. It is not going to go away. I think mainstream advertisers are becoming more sensitive to their role in society and what they do. 

There is also the criticism that comes with it, which is that it is window-dressing. But is it really changing the way business actually operates? 

David Ogilvy said “the consumer is not a moron, she’s your wife”. That was about 50 years ago. I think it is even more true today that consumers are actively aware and can sense nonsense. They have an in-built nonsense meter. When businesses play to environmental issues, even if they are not environmentally sound themselves, I think consumers find out very quickly because the media and internet are very strong. I think if you go out there and make false claims or make claims that are even vaguely tenuous, they will backfire on you. There is a natural yin-yang in this: if you stake your claim in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) area and you actually aren’t playing the game, I think it could be disastrous. 

So you are saying the media is playing a crucial role – and NGOs as well – in monitoring the message business is trying to send? 

Yeah, absolutely. 

Applying this to the EU, you said it would backfire if someone put out false claims. Europe has suffered a major setback recently with the ‘no’ vote in the Irish referendum. Would you think it would be fair to say that the EU has been putting out false claims in the good that it does? Or has the Irish government not been communicating the way it should have? 

Well this is difficult. I will give you a personal opinion. I think Ireland benefited enormously from the EU over a period of time, and probably more than most. So it is an interesting position that the EU finds itself in now. One of the countries that has benefited most has decided that it is not going to endorse the next treaty. I’m not sure now. You would have to ask the politicians in Brussels what position they would take on that. I don’t know how that relates to CSR. Of course it is key now how Brussels reacts to the Irish situation. 

Do you think they could get inspiration from the sort of thing advertisers are doing? There is a widespread criticism here that the EU generally speaking and sometimes governments themselves are not really doing enough to show how good EU membership is for their country. 

Yes I think they could. I think the bottom line is: if you are doing something of value to the community, you can tell people about the positive things you are doing – then I think that is a role for advertising in the EU. I’m not sure how much people know in terms of what the EU does, frankly. One of the things we have talked about is the protracted tendering process that the EU goes through. It makes it almost impossible for mainstream ad agencies to tender. So the projects invariably go to the same small bunch of Euro-specialists. 

I think the EU could benefit enormously from the power of good advertising business and the getting behind the good things they are doing. 

What would be the key message if you were to improvise an advert for the EU? 

I don’t think you could aggregate everything into one campaign; there would probably be a number of elements. I’ll give you one specific example that we were involved in which was a commercial message. 

One of our clients is Unilever and they had a product called Dove, and Dove has been around for 55 years as a bar of soap and they have decided to go into skincare and there was a whole bunch of research on women’s self-image. They found that 98% of women felt worse about themselves after reading a women’s magazine because of all the stereotypes of what made a beautiful woman. 

So we did a campaign for ‘real beauty’. So we used ‘real people’ as opposed to catwalk models. The reaction to that has been incredible. 

So there are things that can be done. The real issues here are obesity, under-age drinking, emissions from motor-vehicles, etc. There is an enormous amount of power that advertising can bring to the EU and what Brussels wants to achieve way beyond legislation. It is making people think and feel. Great advertising moves people. 

So you would base the campaign around normal people benefiting from a harmonisation of a law and has changed the way they work or live? 

I would almost start from the other end and say “What is it we are trying to achieve here? How are we trying to better life for people generally in this specific area?” Then you would harness the power of advertising to achieve whatever it is Brussels wants to achieve. 

I think they are trying, it’s not like they’re not trying. But I am not sure they are finding the right partners to help them to achieve what they want. I am also not sure they are doing it big enough. Now, of course I would say that because I am in advertising. But I am not sure they are doing it big enough and bold enough to actually make a difference. 

Someone once said that advertising is the last legal way of taking unfair advantage over your competition. So properly used, it can be a powerful force for good. But likewise it can be a powerful force for bad. But in the EU’s case I think there is a much greater scope for using advertising and communication generally to do powerfully good things. 

Maybe to move on now to more specific issues around advertising which are being discussed now in Brussels. EACA is involved in defending the interest of media sales promotion agencies. What do you see as the main challenges faced by advertising agencies nowadays and for the next 20-30 years? 

The biggest issue is the changing media landscape because the age of digital is upon us and media is generally very quick now. We are seeing, as a macro-trend, money moving from the traditional areas (TV, print, radio) into the more digitised area, particularly online. It is an interesting shift and quite a significant one. 

The other thing is there is no way to regulate the online situation. You can have the watchdogs, at national and sometimes at European level, across what advertisers are doing on mainstream media, but it is almost impossible online because things work very quickly. The other thing about online is that it is a two-way street. So you’ve got consumers in an open dialogue with you, you are in a dialogue with them and they are in a dialogue with each other. So I think it is terribly exciting. 

But I think it will be difficult to find a concrete way to regulate the industry as it moves into the online and digital world. 

Would you say national regulation is now outdated to keep up with that sort of change? 

I don’t think you can catch up. I think whatever you pass today will be invalid by tomorrow. So it’s going to be very difficult. I know at country levels people are thinking about it, I know at the EU level people are thinking about it, but I don’t immediately see a solution. I think it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to control effectively. You can go to the host provider and tell them to take it down, but by then 5, 10, 50 million people might have seen it. 

Trouble is at the same time as well is that rules are different for every type of media as you pointed out. So we would be moving to some sort of general rules which are applicable to all media. Do you see that as an inevitable trend? 

I think it is an inevitable trend, but it is going to be more difficult to enforce on some media than on others. 

Typically online? 

Correct. 

On the specific issue of tobacco and alcohol advertising, there is a lot of discussion in Brussels on how to regulate this at the moment. It seems like the EU is moving towards something much more restrictive, maybe a full ban. How do you see that? 

Again it is a very difficult subject really, because in the end, what constitutes a ban and what doesn’t constitute a ban? As far as I know, in most countries right now in the EU, you can’t really advertise tobacco. But you can still advertise alcohol. 

Promotion of these products will never really go away. Whether they legislate against these products or not, it will be very difficult to stop promotion of these products because they exist. They’ll exist in corner stores, cafes, hotels etc. A pack is a form of advertising. I think it is quite difficult. 

I think much more positively, frankly, is to give people an educated choice. And I am a great believer in this, and I think all of us are. Let people make an educated choice. So, no problem whatsoever with people understanding the dangers, whatever they may be, of smoking or drinking or driving too fast etc. But ultimately, people are people and they need to make their own choices. I think that is fair for everybody, but where we end up in terms of legislation I do not know. 

But from an EACA point of view, we would definitely encourage people to decide for themselves what it is that they want to do and don’t want to do. Where do you eventually stop in this? Could you say cereals are a problem because they don’t have enough nutrition in them? When do you stop the nanny state status? You’ve got to allow a free flow of information both ways. 

But allow consumers to make a choice. Back to the old David Ogilvy saying “the consumer is not a moron, she’s your wife”. 

Moving on to the issue of obesity and the fight against obesity, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in Europe and the UK in particular now. Recently, about a year ago, the Commission gave the advertising and food industry three years to self-regulate. How threatened do advertisers feel by this, and can they rise to the challenge? 

I absolutely think advertisers can rise to the challenge. I think it was a very mature decision to make. It was better that the Commission basically gave the advertising industry time to clean up their act rather than impose any draconian legislation overnight. Therefore it is up to the industry to sort itself out. 

So how will it do it? 

Well, in a number of different ways right now. There are a number of countries that ban advertising at certain hours which may be viewed by young and impressionable children. I know a number of fast food restaurants are publishing in front of you, as they are selling, the nutritional content, including the fat content, of what they are selling. So I think that people are reacting. They have introduced salads and various other things into their menus. So I think there is a reaction because ultimately these people want to be in business. 

The Commission is becoming increasingly interested in communicating the good things it does to citizens. For example in promoting consumer rights, capping roaming charges, and things that make a difference to citizens daily lives that views them more as consumers. 

Absolutely. They just need good advertising agencies to do that. Seriously, they do! I believe there is a lot of good coming out of Brussels. But we don’t think they know how to market it properly. That’s our job, and they should be talking to us more about how to do these things. 

Could you give specific examples then? 

I’d probably rather not right now, but there are a number of things that we look at and think “these things could have been better communicated”. 

Could you give just one example then? 

I’m going to hand you over to Dominic to do that. 

(Dominic Lyle) I will give you an example if I can, but I wanted to talk about something else first where DG Communication has been involved. 

We have a foundation to bring academic institutions to teach commercial communications. We run a student competition every year, for people in their third year of marketing communications. The theme we just had was on communicating the EU to citizens. 

DG Comm was very helpful in judging and will help us with rewarding the winners. I thought it was very interesting how young people, who are the future of Europe, view the problems and also what they think might be the solutions. 

Gary and you were talking about how people can travel and work in other countries to create a more homogeneous Europe. Two of the entries were about political messages reaching younger people and the judges were a bit sceptical just about how interested young people would be in political messages. The winning one was completely different, it came from Spain, and was about young people travelling to discover other cultures and learning to love Europe through meeting and mixing with other people. So a much more creative approach. 

I think if you set out, from the EU, to create a campaign about communicating the EU to the citizens you would never come up with that approach, because the agencies that you hire wouldn’t be brave enough to go against the perceived thought. 

So let me give you an example that I was involved in. A few years ago there was a big pitch for olive oil. The EU wanted to support the consumption of olive oil which was falling in the traditional producing countries of Italy, Spain, Greece etc. I was the PR part of the conglomerate that was presenting. 

You could tell very early on that the winning campaign was one which presented a completely traditional view of olive oil consumption. What they wanted was a film with lots of people sitting around in olive groves having lunch outside saying “I’m 108 years old but I love it because olive oil is good for me”. 

What we came up with, which was doomed to failure, was a fantastic campaign, was using icons like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, black and white and in bed with the slogan “dress your life” – I think it was. So olive oil is a modern drink for young people, it’s trendy, it’s hot and it’s going to change your life. And you could tell when we were presenting it that there was a wall of dislike that came down in the room, because it was completely against the traditional view that they had in mind. 

That is the problem with institutionalised advertising: it’s safe, it’s boring and it’s politically motivated. And if you want to get away from that you need something which brings the success of commercial advertising into the public arena. And that’s how you get results. 

But the tender process, particularly the EU tender process, is the most inefficient way of achieving that. 

But they have to go through a tender process. 

I fully understand that. Unfortunately, until they find a way to open that up, to make it easier for people, then they are going to end up with what they get, which is mediocrity. 

That’s very interesting. Do you have any suggestions or possible ways forward? 

What I find particularly soul destroying – because I have done pitches myself for Commission business – is that you spend about six months filling in forms about the mothers’ Christian names of your smallest workers. It’s just endless information. 

I think a lot of that could be done in a simplified way, they really don’t need all that information and it can be done online. They never use it anyway, it just fills up pages and pages. So what they are focusing on in these pitches are all the wrong things. 

It’s good to know that the companies you are dealing with are financially secure, but that is easy to prove. It’s just endless repetition of detail, detail, detail which serves nobody any purpose whatsoever. It doesn’t move forward the creativity of the programme one little bit. So simplifying that process would be fantastic. 

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