2021: that was the year that was…

Unpredictable. Opportunistic. Forward looking. Complex. Testing. Whatever words you think of when casting your mind back on the bizarre rollercoaster of 2021, it will be a mix of challenge and opportunity.

In December 2020, the 29th to be precise, my inbox started to ping with news ports and freight were bottlenecked affecting supply chains across the EU and the UK. With a call well before Christmas to beat the ‘Brexit exit’ deadlines, anyone who had goods in transit that weren’t needed until January planned to deal with the new customs border after the break. We were prepared, right? Wrong… oh so wrong and as the BPMA lines and emails started to go into overdrive, I am reminded of a call that sticks in my mind from a distributor just a few days into January 2021 who asked me ‘Are we all going mad or is this new customs stuff insane?’. Far from insane, the industry could be forgiven for thinking their Government had pulled a fast one and left them dealing with red tape of the most extraordinary nature. We expected more challenge with legislative areas like UKCA so the customs rug being proverbially ripped from under us wasn’t what we expected. Carriers just added to the confusion, and some stopped altogether as they retreated to the benches for a time out and work out what to do whilst their customers screamed for their parcels to be at least shipped within the month. Deadlines died and were replaced with ‘honest conversations’ about how long goods would take, whilst we stared at a crystal ball waiting for the clouds to clear.

For those still able to trade and doing business during the pandemic, the fragile lifeline they had been given suddenly started to snap and contracts were at serious risk. Working closely with the supportive and proactive Board at the BPMA enabled us to activate the right support for members and whilst not claiming to be export experts, we were able to help de-mystify some of the customs aspects. With members reporting the losses running into telephone number figures, we stepped up and got the information needed for everyone fast.

Fast forward a few months and webinars on every aspect of customs, rules of origin, VAT, fiscal representation and tapping up our Government contacts and the Institute of Export for expert help, we were not only becoming the go-to place for sign posted advice, we found some gaps in the way we operate as an industry vs the reality of the customs and VAT process. The BPMA Board and representing export Board director Andrew Langley worked with his local MP to present an important question in the House of Commons to the Minister for Exports Graham Stuart, sparking further discussions with HM Revenue & Customs. Some answers were found but not all. Answering questions as candidly as possible during the meeting, Department of International Trade’s Martin Cook asked the costs of supporting export for members. Hearing the numbers involved, Cook commented on the very expensive shirt we’ve had stripped from our backs. The response to Mr Cook was clipped when we asked what the alternative should be. Tough talking for tough times.

In the meantime, myself and the BPMA team had behind the scenes been busy rebuilding the BPMA’s website and education platform. With exceptional help from the Board and some very clever minds, we re-launched both the education platforms and the website delivering back to the members the services and information they need to grow and develop. Moments of great relief and pride and thanks to everyone involved including Angela Wagstaff, Helen Brennan, Melissa Chevin to name a few.

As lockdowns lifted and some sense of life as we knew it returned over the summer, the conversations with distributors and suppliers turned to a more optimistic tone as orders started to build and confidence return. The stinger that was waiting in the wings was the growing shortage of pretty much everything, raw materials, stock, drivers… petrol. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were stuck on page 20 of the disaster movie script still such were the blows to the back of the knees just as we were trying to climb back to profit. We issued a price alert to the membership to aid the conversations underway across the industry and with end users, helping address the demand and response to orders coming through. Continuing into 2022, the strain on supply chain is global and not limited to promotional merchandise which whilst challenging makes the universally difficult trading conditions an ‘all in’ problem.

With order books filling and an air of optimism, we were able to attend Merchandise World in September and a few gloriously warm days hailed a much-needed reconnection of the merchandise soul at the trade only show – and my chance to meet some of the amazing people and businesses in person for the first time I’d got to know through distant digital means. A great way to approach the first step back into ‘business as usual’ exhibitors and visitors weren’t disappointed with the quality and quantity of conversations.

At the timing of writing, we are busy planning the Awards with the team here and the Board, looking ahead to a brighter 2022. Our sustainable agenda is taking shape, we’ve joined the AdNetZero group and UK Advertising Export Group to help us promote the exceptional industry we are – and that’s just some of what we have in store. After the incredibly hard two years we’ve just been through, to look ahead to the exciting agenda for the industry is just what we need to drive the momentum that’s built in the last quarter.

This year has been one of change for many of us; we’ve welcomed two BPMA babes to the team with the safe arrival of Amelia William’s little girl and a long-awaited baby boy for Daniela Arena. With promotion for Georgie Yeats and marriage at last for Tom Robey, the team has been amazing and we’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time. I’m so proud of how hard they have all worked for members and it’s been good to look back, see how far we have come for members in this time. It’s been a huge privilege as the BPMA team to support this industry and personally, it’s taught me so much about the businesses I’m lucky enough to work alongside and be backed by the best board a CEO could have.



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