I was fortunate enough to be invited on to Radio 4's Today programme last week to talk about brands. The show's (increasingly cantankerous) interviewer John Humphrys was mulling whether advertising actually worked. "Do we really buy this rubbish," he asked me.
The answer, of course, is no – consumers don’t "buy" rubbish. Strong brands are about emotion, inspiration and relevance to our lives. Good advertising helps create these values. But, essentially, brands are about trust.
So when Tesco or Findus sells us horsemeat dressed up as beef, or Barclays fixes the Libor rate, advertising alone will fail. There is a trust deficit.
The same thing applies to media. This week, I attended a debate on post-Leveson regulation of newspapers. One side backed the Conservatives’ argument that statutory legislation was unnecessary – a view also taken by British advertisers. ISBA says: "We know self-regulation works, it empowers consumers and keeps companies in check. There is no reason why it cannot be applied to the press."
Indeed, ad agencies, through a fiercely independent judiciary, the Advertising Standards Authority, have achieved an exemplary system of regulation. ASA rulings are robust without government interference, yet based on law and backed by the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom. The public seems to trust this.
So when Tesco sells us horsemeat dressed up as beef, or Barclays fixes the Libor rate, advertising along will fail
But the other side of the debate, led by Hacked Off, used the compelling argument that only legislation would truly reassure sceptical consumers after years of appalling behaviour by some tabloid journalists.
We should perhaps remind ourselves of the acute crisis of trust in our newspaper business. Events in 2011 quickly destroyed the News of the World, depriving the ad and media sector of one of its most powerful vehicles.
The nub is that, however newspaper regulation is taken forward, it must have the necessary teeth – and, crucially, gain buy-in from the general public, rather than just the politico-media establishment.
It must lead to prolonged good behaviour by newspapers. In British society, where faith in many things is at a low ebb, this trust in quality journalism – as well as in big brands – is more important than ever. It underpins our vibrant, world-leading advertising and wider creative sector.
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