We must not let self-appointed online mobs draw the regulation line

Wootton: Don’t let self-appointed online mobs draw the line

The online space is already a minefield for brands. An important consultation about the future of online advertising regulation threatens to disappoint.


The recent Sunday Times magazine piece on the downfall of Winston Marshall, hedge fund scion and erstwhile banjo player for platinum-selling Mumford & Sons, offered an interesting perspective.

He’d tweeted his appreciation of a book – Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy by journalist and author Andy Ngo, considered by some to be an alt-fascist, and was taken down by the woke mob including many fellow artists.

(Yes, he’s white and privileged, but that cuts little mustard in the viciously competitive music business.)

A swift apology was not sufficient. Disapproval spread and within months he felt obliged to resign from his hugely successful band lest it engulfed their (and their singer’s successful actress wife’s) careers too.

Much chastened, he bemoans the fact that the music industry, alongside other creative and academic fields (including, I would argue, ours) has become overly righteous and cancelling.

Unsurprisingly, his experience has nudged his own politics and activities towards the right.

We now face imminent legislation by Governments seeking simultaneous protection of free speech and curbs on hate, violence and misanthropy (by which I mean misogyny and misandry, as I do not accept the lazy and biased enshrinement of one without the other).

According to the IAB no less, our own government’s consultation on its ‘Online Advertising Programme‘ (OAP), which closes in two weeks, will impact “everybody – from brands to publishers to ad tech, anyone whose business is involved in creating, serving or is funded by digital advertising”.

Why, then, leave it so late to exhort submissions and have such a narrow focus?

If Elon Musk does acquire Twitter, he intends to protect freedom of expression on the influential platform.  But how will he square this? And, if not him, who?

Twitter’s capable UK managing director Dara Nasr argues that kindness is overtaking militancy. Nice pitch, but I have my doubts.

The internet –  or, to be more accurate, peoples’ application of it –  has astonished and disappointed in equal measure.

I’m all for stifling the hate etc, but where is the line to be drawn and by whom? Not self-appointed mobs of academics, students, fashionistas and virtue-signallers.

The online space already presents a minefield for brands, whether we’re talking about the veracity of sales claims, negligible ability to hold it to account or being assured of the safety of the environments in which they appear.

Will things get better (per the promise of GDPR, for example) or worse (per its delivery)?  There are few signs things will improve. More likely the OAP will merely move things sideways. Again.

Will fine words butter any parsnips this time?

To much understandable fanfare, the IPA and ISBA (supported by CALM and NABS) have launched their Pitch Positive Pledge which “seeks to improve the behaviours of agencies and advertisers around pitching for the benefit of its people, the planet and profit”.

Given the dynamics, finding public agreement on something like this is quite an achievement and surely a testament to patient diplomacy.

Inevitably, there were more agency signatories at launch than advertisers, though those that have signed up are mainly large and influential.

A good spread of intermediaries adds to the traction. A clear commitment which anybody can point to when seeking to address such behaviours.

Will it make a difference? Everybody certainly hopes so as accounts of poor behaviours, all too often by clients, are legion: poor briefing, obscure and fragmented process and decision-making and gratuitous attitudes towards time management to highlight but three.

Hopefully the signatories already garnered will have sufficient momentum to carry others with them.

Whether it can stand up to the day-to-day challenges in a highly-competitive environment remains to be seen but having staked out their joint position, both bodies will doubtless be rightly seeking to promote uptake, adoption and success.

UKOM’s helpful intervention

And finally, UKOM CEO Ian Dowds has added a characteristically considered and timely point to the current debates about cross-media measurement.

The gist is that audience and campaign measurement may overlap and orbit each other but are not one and the same.

It should lead to some useful reconsideration of some of the looser current talk around measurement.  I for one certainly hope so.

Bob Wootton spent 40 years working in advertising, first as a media buyer at some of the UK’s leading agencies  before joining the trade body ISBA in 1996, where he was advertising and media director for 20 years. He is also the founder of Deconstruction, a media and tech consulting business, and presents The Guitar Show on YouTube.

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