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Ad industry disillusioned after 10 years of New Labour

LONDON - A survey of some of the advertising industry's most senior leaders believes New Labour has been over-zealous in its regulation of the industry.

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The general feeling towards Tony Blair's party, as the government this week celebrates a decade in power, can be best summed up as lukewarm.

David Wethey, the founder and chairman of Agency Assessments International, the agency search and selection consultancy, believes New Labour's overall impact on the industry during the last 10 years has been negative and blames the increasing weight of new rules and regulations "as a restriction on its freedom to market and advertise".

Wethey cites recent examples such as strict limitations on food advertising as an example of "creeping regulation".

He said: "We are in a pigeon hole marked 'cynical exploiters', with no significant public support."

It's a view shared by many in the industry, as evidenced by the support for Campaign's Action for Ads petition.

Charles Vallance, a founding partner of VCCP, said: "After 10 years, there is a real danger of over-regulation. It was Jefferson who said 'they govern best who govern least' and, relative to regulatory regimes in a number of other European countries, we have been historically regulated with a light touch."

Vallance said the UK is "beginning to lose the competitive advantage which helped make us a centre of excellence" and argues there is no reason to assume New Labour's controversial food advertising rules will be the last piece of major legislation to undermine the industry.

"The trouble is that just as a turkey wouldn't vote for Christmas, a regulator wouldn't vote for de-regulation and, because by definition they make the rules, we'll get more rules."

It's a fear shared by Chris Hirst, managing director at Grey London, who said: "I believe government should be as non-interventionist as possible. This government has been too keen to legislate -- in all areas of our lives."

Hirst suggests that there's a feeling of betrayal in the industry, based on the party's courting of the industry in the early years and its move towards using it to score cheap political points in the latter half of the decade.

He said: "They have tried to have their cake and eat it. They very strongly associated themselves, particularly in the early years, with the 'sexy' and 'creative' industries, but at the same time have introduced too much legislation and have taken too many easy, 'crowd- pleasing' options on difficult issues, such as childhood obesity, rather than providing strong, thoughtful leadership."

However, there is a minority of voices in the industry who feel New Labour have been a force for good in the area of regulation.

Alison Burns, chief executive of JWT London, echoes this view. She said: "I think that Labour has shown a healthy interest in the responsibilities of our industry, but haven't materially interfered. Our sense of responsibility, and our clients' in the areas of childhood wellness and nutrition in particular have been heightened over the period of New Labour's tenure and rightly so."

Looking ahead, many would like to see the industry given a breather by Blair's successor in terms of new legislation and hope the economy continues to remain in good health.

Burns said: "Rather Gordon Brown than the media-savvy David Cameron, in my book."

While Wethey takes the opposite view, he said: "My hope is that Cameron wins the next election and doesn't become too seduced by the over-exuberant green lobby. My greatest fear is another Labour government."

Hirst concludes: "I would like to see a non-interventionist, liberal, domestic policy, absolute adherence to the free-market, low taxes and an entrepreneurial culture."

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