Glamorous: Betty and Don Draper in TV drama Mad Men about US advertising executives
Think of Britain’s most iconic adverts and a gorilla playing the drums for Cadbury or Diageo’s surfers and horses may be the first that come to mind. These famous TV ads are part of a rich heritage that saw the UK’s so-called Medialand in the heart of London become a world-renowned hub in the 1980s and 1990s.
The advertising executives of New York’s Madison Avenue first styled themselves as the ‘Mad Men’ who gave rise to the US TV drama of the same name. But the UK’s own ‘Mad Men’ are still thriving in an increasingly competitive – and online – global stage. And they are helping boost the country’s exports to boot.
Overseas groups spent a record £15 billion on British ads and related services in 2021, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics that were analysed by the industry think-tank Credos. This is already far ahead of the £11 billion recorded in 2019 before the pandemic rocked the business world.
Ministers have heaped praise on the sector, with Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch lauding it as ‘one of the UK’s strongest exports’. Badenoch said the record figures will provide a ‘great boost’ for Government goals to sell £1 trillion of goods and services a year to the rest of the world by the end of the decade.
Mark Read, chief executive of the world’s biggest ad agency WPP, says: ‘UK advertising has long had an outsized impact on the world stage and demand for our creativity and skills from global clients has never been stronger.’
Madison Avenue has been the global hub of advertising and was brought to life in the TV show through lead characters Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Peggy Olson.
But the lustre of the ad agencies in New York is not as strong as it was and big US brands are making use of creative minds in Britain instead.
America is the biggest spender on UK ‘advertising and market research services’, at £3.9 billion. Bagging US clients Cadbury – once British-owned but now part of American giant Mondelez – and PepsiCo’s Walkers has helped independent, London-based VCCP take over as Britain’s single biggest ad agency.
American firms spend on advertising services in a number of ways. They might just pay a British group to make ads for the UK. But an increasing boost to exports is when a US brand is looking for a global campaign that can be used here, in the US and across the world – with a new voiceover and a tweak to spellings, for example swapping an ‘s’ for a ‘z’ in America.
VCCP, which has set up offices in New York, in 2021 landed the global account for the US alcoholic fizzy drink White Claw, which only launched in 2016 and has grown sales to £3.2 billion a year in America alone.
Its ads, by London director Sam Brown, feature a surfer negotiating a crowd of beach-lovers running from a storm so he can find the perfect wave. The agency’s co-founder Adrian Coleman explained why the likes of White Claw are going for ads created in Britain.
He said: ‘The UK is famous for backing the underdog, for its love of irreverence and individualism.
Crisp product: Gary Lineker advertising Walkers crisps; the surreal gorillas ad for Cadbury; and the Guinness surfers and horses commercial
‘These are key ingredients for successful challenger brands and we think they help in the export of British creativity.’ Charles Vallance, who founded VCCP with Coleman in 2002, added: ‘Every business needs continually to reinvent itself if it is not to be overtaken.
‘If you act like an incumbent then the challenger brand behind you will soon be in front of you.’
Brands seem to agree. Last year, VCCP won 37 new accounts, including those for Old El Paso, the maker of Tex-Mex-style food, animal welfare charity Dogs Trust and Thames Water.
It has just launched a new ad for Tango – a modern take on the Tango’d ads of the 1990s.
A police raid on a Breaking Bad-style ‘Tango Dark Berry lab’ leaves an officer ‘completely Tango’d’ after tasting a drop of the soft drink.
Last year, VCCP expanded billings by 34 per cent year-on-year to £483 million – £100 million more than nearest rivals, according to the latest annual report by the industry bible Campaign.
Disruptors: Charles Vallance and Adrian Coleman at VCCP
It took top spot from Adam&Eve, which dropped to fourth. Saatchi & Saatchi, which works with Toyota, Visa Europe and the US travel group Expedia, and McCann UK were second and third.
While America is by far the biggest foreign market for the UK ad business, Germany is next, splashing out £1.36 billion a year, with Ireland third at £894 million a year.Ad bosses have ambitious targets to reach more countries – especially after the UK became the first European country to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade bloc covering 11 Pacific states with a population of 500 million.
Alice Enders, at Enders Analysis, said the fact that English is such a global language will always keep the UK on the front foot.
She added: ‘There is also a pool of educated young people who have all the right skillsets.’
But Enders emphasised that the data is more complicated than it first appears as the Office for National Statistics does not provide a detailed breakdown. As well as direct ad sales, it includes conferences and events, making it more difficult to gauge the impact of specific parts of the industry.
It should also be noted that the UK imports advertising services – but at £12 billion a year this is an annual net gain of £3 billion.
UK exports are expected to carry on growing by a third each year.
And the strength of the UK’s broader creative industries such as video gaming, a key new platform, puts the country in good stead to keep up with the shift from traditional TV ads to digital marketing.
Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder and long-time boss of WPP who now runs digital-focused ad group S4 Capital, describes advertising as ‘one of the great UK success stories, one of our top industries’.
He said: ‘It’s simple, all the great creative brains are here.’