Should Marketing and Media Consider a Little Protectionism?

Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman), c.1905 by Gustav Klimt

Mother and Child (detail from The Three Ages of Woman), c.1905 by Gustav Klimt

Protectionism is not a concept we would commonly employ in the world of media, marketing and communication. But it’s an increasingly resonant theme in the broader world of politics and economics. So, I wonder, where would protectionism take us?

Good government seeks to manage the tension between enabling and protecting: enabling individual, collective and commercial freedoms; protecting the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and the things we hold dear.

For the world of business, in the era of globalization, enabling has been the order of the day. There’s been a centrist consensus around the social and economic benefits of free trade, free movement and free markets. But, across the political spectrum, people have been asking questions about globalization: from Trump and Sanders, to Corbyn and Piketty, to assorted protest movements around the world.

What about the increasing inequality, the personal and corporate tax avoidance, the imbalanced housing market, the warped financial sector? What about the exported jobs, failed industries, mass migration and environmental damage? Are these not in some part the unintended consequences of globalization? There’s a renewed interest in protectionism in its broadest sense: protecting local hospitals, housing and high streets; jobs, services and small businesses; libraries, pubs and the planet.

Now it would be easy to dismiss all this as economic naivety, parochial radicalism, or the inevitable response to the challenges of austerity. But I think the interesting thing about protectionism is that it forces us to ask some simple questions: What do we want to protect? Which communities, activities and institutions are so precious to us that they merit particular support? Maybe protectionism also prompts us to reorder our priorities. Let’s start by indentifying the things we hold dear and then build an economic policy around them.

So what could protectionism mean for the media, marketing and communications industries? What are the things we would fight to preserve?

I’d imagine many of us would begin by saying that we believe in protecting the value of ideas and creativity, and in protecting the individuals and institutions that generate them.

And yet creative businesses haven’t got a great record of defending creativity. We’ve been powerless to prevent the devaluation of the music industry and the erosion of the publishing sector. We’ve looked on as writing has been commoditized; as photographers’ fees have fallen; as creativity has been re-categorized as ‘content.’

We’ve aligned ourselves with the themes of the new economy: empowerment, freedom and sharing, but failed properly to address the challenges these themes pose for our own industries. Sometimes consumer empowerment has come hand-in-hand with the disempowerment of creative professions and individuals; sometimes customer freedom has entailed giving creativity away for free; sometimes the sharing economy has compromised intellectual property.

I think a more confident creative industry would be more bullish about the value of its output; and more assertive about realizing that value. A more confident industry would be looking to secure a fair value exchange. Consumers should be expected to pay for great music, literature, entertainment, opinion and knowledge. Or they should at least be prepared to receive the advertising that subsidizes those services.

So I guess I’m a protectionist where these things are concerned. We should do everything we can to protect the value of our creativity and to protect our journalists, writers, art directors, photographers, film-makers and musicians. We should support pay-walls, memberships and micro payments; tariffs, taxes and trademarks. And we should block the ad-blockers.

And what if our new protectionism didn’t stop there? What if we were more assertive in using our creative and communication talents to protect the things that matter to us in the broader community? What role should media and marketing play in protecting our health, our privacy, our towns, our environment? In the age of Purpose all brands have been exploring how they will leave the world a better place. In defining Purpose the modern brand manager should more specifically ask: What are we going to protect?

This piece was first published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 18 April 2016

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