Day in the life: How UK watchdog ASA polices 30,000 advertising complaints a year

Policing online advertising in the U.K. is becoming an increasingly complex affair. Around 60 people out of the 110 Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) staff wade through a sea of around 30,000 complaints a year related to about 20,000 different ads — both TV and online.

Last year, the ASA ruled that over 4,500 ads must be changed, or were banned outright, the most infamous being betting company Paddy Power’s national press ad in 2014, which offered incentives to bet on the outcome of Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial. The ad received 5,525 complaints and was banned after the ASA deemed it caused serious offence by trivializing the issues surrounding a murder trial, the death of a woman and disability.

ASA communications manager Matthew Wilson has an eye on all facets of the company’s output. He works closely with the public affairs and complaints teams to help ensure the ASA stays on top of its ever-growing remit.

Digiday asked Wilson to share a journal of what he does on a typical day. Here’s what he does, slightly edited for clarity:

8:15 a.m.: I endure the daily delight of contorting into imaginative shapes amongst the throng of commuters on the Central Line before arriving at our offices in Holborn. First things first, a brew. I’ve checked emails on my work phone before getting in (bad habit), so hopefully there aren’t too many surprises in the inbox.

8:30 a.m.: My immediate task is to check for any ASA mentions in national and regional U.K. media. I package it up and circulate amongst senior-level colleagues. I also assess whether anything in the press cuttings poses a reputational risk. If it does, I’ll flag it internally and decide on next steps. That might mean dropping a journalist a quick line to introduce myself, correcting any misconceptions and outlining our position or penning a “Dear Sir” letter in rebuttal.

9 a.m.: I scan a live calendar that we use to map out upcoming project work, key policy announcements, events and stakeholder engagement activity. It helps us coordinate the work of other teams and to schedule in where a piece of work needs communication’s input and support. There are some significant upcoming policy announcements and consultation launches, so quite a bit of my time is devoted to putting together media and PR plans to help promote this.

9:15 a.m: I feed into the work of teammates. The communications team is a close-knit unit of 10, with expertise in different area – research, marketing, events, public affairs – and we work closely on team objectives. The overlap between public affairs and press is considerable, and we work closely on policy announcements that are of interest to political and media opinion formers.

10:30 a.m.: I complete and send a briefing note to our chief executive, Guy Parker, for a forthcoming media interview with The Independent, in which he’ll speak about the progress made in the five years since our online remit was extended to cover marketing claims on companies’ own websites and in social media under their control.

11 a.m.:  I dip into our social media channels to see who’s saying what about or to us and whether or not we need to engage or respond. Or just to scan if there are any interesting developments in adland that might be relevant to us, or if complaints about a particular campaign are starting to bubble up in the Twittersphere (we don’t actually accept complaints via our feed) and that I need to flag internally.

11:30 a.m.: I catch up with my colleagues in our sister organization, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). It writes the advertising codes that we administer. Its copy advice team offers expert advice to non-broadcast advertisers on how to create ad campaigns that stick to the rules. Their manager, David Hollis provides me with content for the latest e-newsletter, ‘Insight’, and I sign-off on it before we send it to thousands of marketing professionals to keep them up to speed with regulatory and policy developments.

12 p.m.: CAP is due to launch a full public consultation on introducing new rules around the advertising of food and soft drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar. I’m developing a communications plan to publicize this announcement. There’s already a lot of interest amongst national media, trade press as well as politicians about the substance of the proposals, so it’s crucial we have a clear and coherent strategy in place.

1 p.m.: Like clockwork. Lunch. Sacrosanct. News sites, sport pages and YouTube.

2 p.m.: Aside from our proactive PR, there’s the daily task of handling and responding to incoming media enquiries. I’m the first port of call for journalists who want to know about our work and policies.

Every Wednesday, we publish the outcome of our formal investigations which put on the public record whether an ad that we received complaints about broke the rules. Our decisions often prompt widespread and high-profile media coverage. So I pull together that information for journalists.

3 p.m.: We receive over 30,000 complaints a year about 20,000 or so ads. Around 90 percent arrive via our online complaints form, but we also accept them via telephone, letter and email. Not every complaint we receive will prompt an investigation. But every case is assessed by our complaint and investigations teams, who establish whether there appear to be problems under the rules and what action, if any, to take.

Given the busy mailbox, it’s important I work closely with our operations support manager, Tony Betham-Rogers. We have a meeting to assess incoming complaints and whether anything controversial is in the offing that might spark media interest. While the volume of complaints we receive is a factor in helping us judge whether something has caused serious or widespread offense, we can’t, and we shouldn’t, be hostage to complaint numbers: We have direct experience of online petitions driving thousands of complaints to us overnight as conversations in social media help mobilize and coordinate protests about various ad campaigns.

4 p.m.:
Given the host of high-profile projects we’re working on – food consultation, payday loans ad review, electronic cigarette ad restrictions, broadband pricing – I need to keep tabs on how the policies around these topics are developing. I meet with our regulatory policy manager, Malcolm Philips, who coordinates the team that looks after the nuts and bolts of the rules. They’re cerebral types, and I nod sagely as Malcolm dispenses pearls of wisdom about how obscure bits of legislation will impact on the ad codes and our work.

5 p.m.: Starting early means the added bonus, if I’m lucky, of heading off early. But as ever, I have my work phone on so will keep checking emails and handling the occasional out-of-office call from journalists.

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