Matt Bourne: „The discipline of the way we use the words is really at the heart of PR”

He leads the communications programme for the Advertising Association, the only organisation that brings together advertisers, agencies, media owners and tech companies across the UK advertising industry. His role includes supporting the industry’s plan to rebuild Public Trust in Advertising, steering the industry’s work around Climate Action including the formation of Ad Net Zero, providing communications support for its Inclusion workstream, All In, driving forward its Export strategy through the UK Advertising Export Group and fulfilment of the association’s responsibilities as the UK representative for Cannes Lions.

He oversees the association’s communications on key policy areas, working closely with the Public Affairs team on areas such as the Covid Recovery plan, the economic contribution of advertising, self-regulation of key sectors such as HFSS, gambling and alcohol advertising, and the UK’s online advertising market.

I talked face to face, at IAA Romania’s Creativity 4 Better conference, with Matt Bourne, Director Of Communications, Advertising Association & Ad Net Zero, and found out more about his start and PR and the passion for it, about how he sees the industry today and what needs to change and why.

an interview by Romanita Oprea

Matt Bourne, Director Of Communications, Advertising Association & Ad Net Zero

How did you discover your passion for PR and how did you start in the industry?

I was a paper boy. I delivered newspapers at the age of 30. Well, and I had 60 newspapers, and they split into different news. Probably about six or seven newspapers at the time. And so, I would put ten copies of The Sun through front doors and five copies of the Times through other front doors and other copies of the Daily Mail through the front doors. And as I went round, I would read each front page. And what I realized was that it was pretty much the same story on all newspapers. But they were written differently. Depending on the newspaper.

And that sort of kept my brain going and made me think: what if I was ever in a position where I could put the story on the front page of the newspaper that goes through the most letterboxes in my town? That would make me really quite powerful.  So, how do you do that? Therefore, from there, I then went on to study media and business psychology. And the two sort of came together for me with sort of the understanding that actually behind those news stories on the front page were people that worked in PR and were creating that news. And looking at how you get those new stories into the newspapers. So, it started as a curiosity.

What were the best pieces of advice you received in your career and would love to pass on?

Spell everything! We are only as good as our words. So, our weapon as communicators really are the words we use. And it starts with being able to spell. So never, ever make a spelling mistake! And, build on that!

I, rather than take a PR vacation, I did my degree in major in business and my masters in creative writing. Which is all about becoming a professional copy editor so that I could look at a headline or ten and turn that into several words that carry even more impact. And I think that the discipline of the way we use the words is really at the heart of PR. Sure the importance of a great image as well. But when you’re a communicator, you don’t communicate through images. I communicate through the words I use. So, if I give you an example of what we do and say at Ad Net Zero, when I talk about decarbonizing ad operations and behaviour change campaigns. It’s simple. There are two things we need to do. We need to change the way we work. And we need to change the work we make.

Would you change anything if you could go back and why? And also, in the industry you are working on.

In my own experience, probably I spent an awfully long time at one company because I was the managing director of that company and so in a way it was good because I was in control of that company and we ended up selling it. And we went through a reinvention of that company three times. But I was there for 10, 12 years. And in hindsight, it would have been interesting maybe to have moved different companies and, perhaps before children, maybe to move to different parts of the world. I’ve always been working from London. I do everything from London, so that gives me a very UK view of the world.

With Ad Net Zero and going international, it’s really interesting to get the opportunities to do things like this.

How would you characterize the marcomm industry in the UK right now? What do you think are its best and its weakest parts?

We are famous for our creativity, the brilliant sort of creativity that comes from it. What’s happened is we’ve really accelerated into digital. 75% of our ad spend is online. And so that’s a strength because it’s made it a very tech sort of focused industry. But I also think that it’s a challenge because we’re right at the front line of regulations and how to make sure that we know we’re trying to solve the big issues. Like there’s a fantastic piece of work by ISBA called Origin, which is looking at being able to track across a multi-channel ad campaign, how many times I serve you my ad. Because in the moment we can’t. We don’t know. And an advertiser ultimately needs to know that. So, the acceleration into online created this opportunity to advertise all the time to lots of people, on all their devices. But we’ve got to solve the well. How many times are people seeing that.

Not to be too much?

Yes. So, bombardment is a challenge of what we call excessive frequency. The same ad being served and served and served. And some people, you know, say, well, you know, with the technology, you can indicate that you don’t want to see that ad. But is it really the public’s problem? I don’t think it is. I think it’s the industry’s problem to fix, rather than the public.

Even the industry is very much digital, as you said, how much were you still impacted by the pandemic and how did you adapt to the situation?

So, the impact of the pandemic on our ad spend it accelerated the shift to online because the link between online ad spends and online shopping is really strong, they are so intimate. The UK is the most developed in terms of percentage of GDP. With online shopping. We Brits are very happy to put our credit card in anywhere and buy things from anywhere. And advertising online is all about pointing us to those things.

The two big things that came out of COVID were one, really faster shift to online. We essentially trained the entire population how to shop online in the first week in the first lockdown. And secondly, the next effect of that was the advertising money, which would have been about getting them to go in-store, followed them in the online shopping. And I don’t think we’ll come back from that. There are some readjustments, but still…..

Besides the aspect that you pointed out, are there other aspects that changed and will forever be this way, as in not going back in the way it used to be before?

I hope that one of the things that we’ve learned is the power of behaviour change campaigns, public health, advertising. The government was brilliant and did some very, very clear and strong public health advertising. And we need to do that again around the climate issue to help people understand what they need to do. So that’s a big lesson that came out of that as well, is that leadership comes from all parts of our society. And one important part of that leadership comes from the government. And with what government communicates during times of a crisis. We are in a crisis which is climate change, and we do need clear communication from government on what people should do.

How hard it is to communicate on such a topic? Because it’s being communicated before and the results are so and so. How do you make it creative and interesting and trying to make a real impact?

In my talk what I did was I picked out ads, which aren’t obviously climate change ads, they’re more about behaviour change. One was about how people need to remember to charge their car when they go to bed because we charge our phone and we charge our laptop when we go to sleep. And the other was about plant-based alternatives to meat. There isn’t a climate crisis image. There’s no polar bear floating on ice or no kind of monsoon footage. I think advertising can create lots and lots of positive images of behaviours that we need people to take, without necessarily directly connecting them to the climate crisis. We just need to support a net zero way of living.

I remember that you said that you are working on rebuilding public trust in advertising. And so that would be an example of how you are doing it. What else do you do more?

We’re actually advertising. On public trust, we’ve just launched a huge advertising campaign for our Advertising Standards Authority. One of the biggest pieces of research and findings we discovered was that the public would trust advertising more if they know they can complain about. And something will be done.

With the ASA we did a test in Scotland and the results were excellent. That the public’s trust after the advertising campaign run had improved because people are more confident if they know that there is a regulatory system, if they know that an ad is wrong, they can complain about it, that they’re more likely to trust them.

But when we look at the other big issues, we see that the biggest other issue apart from trust and apart from climate, is inclusion. Our big other workstream is around DNA, and most recently the new one that’s coming through is talent, because we’re short of people. We need to be retaining people. And we need to encourage people to come and work in advertising.

They don’t consider advertising sexy anymore. But why do you think that happened? Do you think that is something related to the generations that are totally different than ours or the fact that the advertising industry in general did? For people not to be excited about it.

I think there are many different issues. I think people are concerned when advertising is promoting things that are bad for the planet. If it’s bad for the planet, it’s promoting consumption. So why should I work in an industry that’s damaging the planet? So there is that issue. I think pay is an issue. It’s entry level. I think it’s become even more sort of tech focused. So, there’s a big need for tech skills and we’re short of tech skills generally. Yeah.

We need to keep making amazing creative work. Even if it’s driven through online platforms, it needs to be brilliantly creative.

Has Brexit impacted the UK marcomm industry?

Well, it’s interesting because Brexit it’s attritional. We haven’t seen it go like that. And pandemic sort of hits us anyway. We’ve seen agencies setting up in Amsterdam or in Ireland because they can still be in the EU. I don’t think we’ve seen the real effects of Brexit yet. I think it will be attritional year on, year on year.