VIEW FROM THE TOP: Peta Buscombe

As mass media promotion comes under attack, the Advertising Association's new head, Baroness Buscombe, plans to fight fire with fire. Adam Hill reports.

Peta Buscombe, the new, four-day-a-week chief executive and director general of the Advertising Association (AA), has been busy since joining in January.

This is partly because the UK's advertising industry believes it is under constant attack.

Vigorous campaigns by highly organised pressure groups such as Sustain have questioned the way young people are targeted by advertisers. Then there are Ofcom's new TV advertising rules on promoting HFSS (high in fat, salt and sugar) foods to children. These already apply to under-nines. Next year this will extend to under-16s.

The advertising of toys to children is widely believed to be the next target for campaigners and the rise of the environmental lobby means car ads are coming under scrutiny too.

Bringing out the big guns
So the £16bn industry is hitting back, and the AA is leading the charge. In addition to Buscombe, the AA has brought in Jonathan Collett, a veteran of both the Tory party and News International, to fill a newly created comms and strategy adviser role.

Industry title Campaign (owned by PRWeek publisher Haymarket) has launched an ­online petition, Action for Ads, aimed at the Government and protesting against increasing restrictions on what it calls ‘commercial freedom of speech'.

It suddenly seems appropriate that the AA should have its HQ in a building named ‘­Artillery House'. You can almost see the sleeves being rolled up for a fight.

Baroness Buscombe is a former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, and ­until last year was shadow minister in the House of Lords for education and skills. Unsurprisingly, there are times she comes across like a Tory straight from central casting. Under her, the AA is clearly not going to be a place for bleeding-heart liberals.

By way of introduction, she sums up the advertising industry for PRWeek: ‘There is a plethora of choice out there and advertising helps us make those choices. It is the pre-eminent way of imparting a message. And advertising, when used responsibly, can be a powerful source for good. Anti-drugs, drink-driving and disability rights campaigns all fall into this category.'

Buscombe believes the most damaging per­cep­tion about the industry is that it contributes to a ‘toxic Britain' - a country that spends millions of pounds persuading children aged three and above to demand certain brands.

This puts her at odds with Sue Palmer, ­author of Toxic Children, a treatise on the technological and cultural changes which, Palmer argues, are ruining children's lives. It is fair to say Palmer is not a favourite at the AA. At the mention of her name, Buscombe says: ‘Don't quote her - she'll love it.'

Buscombe adds: ‘Advertising has an influence in terms of choice, but children don't hold the purse strings. It is up to the parent. My kids enjoy the odd McDonald's and so do I. I taught my kids self-restraint.'

She is right, of course but, not for the first time in this interview, she still sounds a little nanny-like. Indeed, some of her comments make her seem older than someone who is actually a youthful-looking fifty-something with three teenagers.

Lionel Zetter, president of the CIPR, thinks Buscombe was a little tied down by her role on the front bench at the Lords. ‘It was quite restricting,' he says. ‘She likes to run her own show. The time is right now for the AA to go on the front foot and she is speaking out for what she believes in: freedom, essentially.'

Buscombe says: ‘Political correctness makes us a diminished people: we shy away from what needs to be said. There's a "PC creep" that has come in. We're frightened of being misunderstood. This means private prejudices could be entrenched - the classic one is immigration.' A pause. ‘But we're getting off advertising.'

Back on message, Buscombe has a predictable ­trust in self-regulation. ‘The industry is surprisingly tough on itself. We've got to be thinking of ways to demonstrate that the ­industry is being responsible: initiating ­research, working with members on the regulatory process, and with the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority).'

Take the example of 4x4 vehicles, Buscombe says. Anyone who has one is somehow ‘ruining the environment'; campaigners have already started to condemn certain vehicles, and messages about the vehicles' safety and the fact consumers like them get lost.

‘Campaigners have simply been better than us at getting their message across,' she admits. ‘So we've got to engage them.'

So,media relations, and particularly ‘having the right facts in front of journalists', is a key weapon in the Artillery House arsenal. And this, explains Buscombe, is where Jonathan Collett comes in.

‘I want to build a stronger research base at the AA. I'd like to look at the convergence of PR and advertising. If there's any synergy, that's good. I want to spend some time in members' agencies getting a feel for how comms agencies are working as one.'

Such synergies already exist, of course. Buscombe could do worse than starting with uber-adman Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP Group, whose PR interests include Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller and Finsbury.

‘With fast food, for example, it's important that PR works in tandem with advertising,' Buscombe says. ‘You can't talk about food [on TV] without a picture of a Turkey Twizzler [being shown], as though everything we eat is somehow infected. McDonald's is doing a huge amount to change its ingredients.'

Many observers would argue that the fast food outlet was in effect forced to do this following a shift in public opinion, but Buscombe brushes this aside: ‘I eat McDonald's,' she says for the second time in this interview, ‘and I'm not fat.

Kids now are being driven to school. There is a culture of playing games on screen rather than on the streets or playing fields - if you are lucky enough to have them. But it is very difficult for food manufacturers to say this because they'd be offending customers. A generation ago thousands of children were brought up on bread and dripping and chip butties. But they were running around!'

She pauses. ‘I'm feeling nervous about talking to you like this.'

That is not surprising. She is nervous ­because few people in advertising - or any other sector - would dream of saying anything like this on the record. But Buscombe is not afraid to make a point, or even several.

What the AA urgently needs is a comms strategy that explains - at the very least - what the advertising industry might do to encourage healthy eating. That is some messaging challenge for her organisation.

Collett will be worth his weight in gold if he manages to put all that into a strategic comms campaign that engages the AA's disparate collection of stakeholders.

Networking and lobbying skills
What is clear is that the AA has realised urging self-restraint will only go so far. ­Recent press releases (one headlined ‘Baroness Peta Buscombe: Advertising has a great story to tell') point the way that the AA wants to go forward. It is a start, but more sophis­ticated and persuasive arguments than this are needed to convince stakeholders that it is an industry worth sticking up for.

So what will Buscombe bring to the fight? Networking and lobbying are, one suspects, where her real skills lie. The baroness tries to spend some time in the Upper House every day. And if, as Campaign editor Claire Beale believes, David Cameron and Gordon Brown are ‘competing to be the most protective of childhood', then advertising to children is set to become an even hotter political issue. ‘They clearly see it as a vote-winner,' says Beale. This means it will be in the corridors of power that Buscombe will earn her corn for the AA.

On policy, she is white hot. The 2003 White Paper had 91 initiatives from the Department of Health on improving the health of the nation, one of which was advertising. ‘I want to find out what's happened to the other 90,' she says. ‘We're not reading much about them.'

This is more like it: sensible fighting talk. Less of the ‘political correctness gone mad' stuff would probably help the AA's case. But it would make the baroness a lot less fun too.

CV - Peta Buscombe

Advertising Association, Chief executive and director general

Shadow minister in the House of Lords for Education and Skills

Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Opposition spokesman in the Lords

Made a life peer as Baroness Buscombe of Goring

Made vice-chairman of the Conservative Party

Buscombe and Fiala (International Art Business), Joint managing partner

Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, Assistant secretary and legal adviser

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