While I was working in advertising sales at the Municipal Journal in the early 2010s, I read about wave after wave of funding cuts hitting local government.

Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, mentioned web advertising in a ‘helpful’ list of things councils could do to generate income, although he didn’t really get it. And local council communications teams that did get it faced multiple obstacles that made the idea too hard to pursue.

I pondered on how these obstacles could be overcome. I discussed it with a couple of other people – experts on the inner workings of local government and the technology involved in delivering digital advertising. Together we came up with a solution: to centralise the advertising technology and ad sales into a single advertising network for local councils.

This would give all UK local authorities a safe environment in which to generate revenue to plug some of the deficit caused by those funding cuts. We kept it simple and called it the Council Advertising Network – and it launched in 2014. Writing at the end of the decade, more than 50 local councils (plus over 100 other organisations involved in local government) are generating income from digital advertising thanks to our network.

That far more councils haven’t wised up to the ‘no-brainer’ of making an income from an asset they already own (it costs nothing to adopt our tech) – is down to the constantly bubbling debate over whether public sector organisations should get involved in advertising at all from an ethical point of view. And this debate is now further complicated by concerns over perceived risks to web users’ privacy from the tracking cookies needed to deliver some forms of digital advertising.

Advertising environment, public sector principles

Local authorities are careful organisations designed around delivering a public good, and they don’t take risks lightly. So, we’ve tackled their ethical, aesthetic and privacy concerns around advertising on their websites head-on:

  • Impact on user experience? Councils get a maximum of three ad formats per webpage – much less than the industry norm. No takeovers nor sound nor animation.
  • Dodgy adverts? We only work with brands that align with public policy and we block unsuitable ads. So, there are no ads on council sites for gambling, payday loans, fast food, alcohol or politics.
  • Cookies without consent? Our management of data consent goes further than the websites of many top brands and news organisations and exceeds current legislative requirements. All tracking cookies (and ads) are withheld indefinitely on those websites with our consent tool until a user says yes to them.
  • Misuse of personal data? If a user gives consent for cookies, the advertising companies who collect data from them are all contracted to use it only to deliver adverts.
Adtech as the good guy

When we started what is now known as CAN, I had a notion that the technology we used to deliver ads on local government websites could have uses beyond income generation. But I must admit I couldn’t foresee its full potential.

Data collected online is increasingly being given a bad rap because of the underhand ways in which it could – and sometimes unfortunately has – been used to peddle fake news to users who had no idea their personal information was being ‘repurposed’ in this way.

But we are using this data to help comms teams communicate more effectively and achieve more with less. We’ve so far run over 200 marketing campaigns for councils online and on social media, using data collected from public sector website audiences, that have helped deliver positive policy outcomes, including take up of training and education by parents so they can return to work; increasing volunteer and foster carer numbers; encouraging hard-to-reach groups to register to vote in elections; and raising awareness on recycling.

Councils on our network can also utilise a percentage of their website ad space to run these campaigns across all their webpages, so someone looking for leisure facilities can be made aware of changes to recycling collections, for example. This is particularly helpful to comms teams who need to promote initiatives with little budget – like the Shared Lives schemes that offer better quality of life for elderly and disabled couples.

The ad space on council websites can help support local economies too, by selling it at an affordable rate to local businesses or by free promotion for guarantees they will undertake corporate social responsibility programmes that deliver social outcomes. 

And audience technology can be used to nudge residents through retargeting towards interventions for smoking cessation or weight loss, reducing impact on public services in future. We are also helping to nudge drivers towards the adoption of electric cars (using parking and congestion charge data) to support clean air targets.

I’m a believer

There will always be doubters and sceptics. There will always be those who favour the distant ideal over the pragmatic. But the bottom line is local councils need income. And that need is highly unlikely to diminish. For years they have run advertising in their print publications or on poster sites they own, after all. (We’ve recently launched a sales service for this offline advertising and are busy creating a national sales team of people, like parents, who need flexible part-time work to drive it.)

I am a member of a wonderful team whose business uses advertising and audience technology in a way that benefits local government. If you question our intentions or the motivations of our public sector partners, please join the debate.

My hope for the future is that the now Lord Pickles – and other doubters – might eventually get to appreciate what advertising can bring for both the public purse and for the greater good.

Yet to be convinced? If you work for a local council and want to ask a question about any aspect of advertising, please get in touch.