I’m too young to have any personal memory of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Britain’s prime minister. When she left office in 1990, I was more concerned with my Thomas the Tank Engine train set than possible privatisation of the railways. So it has been fascinating these past few days to see the overwhelmingly passionate responses from people, whether praising or damning, at the passing of the UK’s first female prime minister.
Regardless of personal opinions, “Iron Lady” Thatcher was arguably one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. One of the many highlights of her time in office was how she indirectly drove the UK’s creative industry to become braver, more creative and possibly the best in the world.
Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power was assisted by an advertising agency. The year was 1978, the first time a creative agency (Saatchi & Saatchi) had managed to secure a British political party as a client. The agency’s “Labour isn’t working” campaign helped push Thatcher through the front door of 10 Downing Street. This campaign gave advertising agencies a new level of validity. Thatcher’s triumph had illustrated the true powers of creative thought to the widest audience.
Throughout the 1980s, Maragret Thatcher and her government looked to agencies to promote and sell ambitious social and economic changes. The subjects ranged from health and anti-drug messages to the great economic changes of mass privatisation and financial deregulation.
In the early ‘80s the discovery of HIV and AIDS led to panic and fear. The Thatcher government turned to creative agencies to convey a serious public service message. The dark tone scared children and led to paranoia, a typical Thatcher-like approach, some might say. However, the ads developed by TBWA were praised as a success and credited with minimising the spread of AIDS within the UK. These scare tactics were imitated throughout the Western world. Given that the UK has one of the lowest levels of HIV infection rates in the world (around half that of France, Spain and Italy—countries that adopted the UK’s creative tactics later) may even be credited with the creative agency’s approach combined with Thatcher’s government addressing the issue early on.
Advertising agencies helped lead the successful introduction of privatisation, which opened up share ownership to the general public through the selling off of nationalised companies. The famous “Tell Sid” campaign by Y & R for British Gas helped turn millions into shareholders overnight. By encouraging ordinary people to buy shares, it can be argued that the real importance was the message that stocks and shares were no longer the domain of the exclusive elite—a real political change.
Perhaps one of the key elements of Thatcherism (according to her fans, at least) was change, the need to modernise and an opposition to the status quo where it fails—the very same trait that defines iconic and successful marketing and advertising. Maybe the one thing those in marketing today could take from Margaret Thatcher’s time in office is to be brave and resolute in the pursuit of change, even if it hurts.
Nick Theaker is a Senior Account Executive at gyro London.