Trade Associations: my journey from sceptic to supporter

Following on from The Whitehouse Webinar on ‘How Trade Associations can help your campaign’, we hear from panel speaker ABHI’s Director of Policy and Communications Richard Phillips on how he came to appreciate and harness the power of trade associations.

Do you remember Victor Kiam? He was the charismatic American entrepreneur whose catchphrase was, “I liked the shaver so much, I brought the company.” It is a saying that I think is sometimes apposite for my involvement with trade associations. Twenty-odd years ago, as I was transitioning from sales to strategic marketing, my boss at the time advised me that a great vehicle for personal development and the garnering of industry knowledge, was to spend time working with trade bodies. I took him at his word.

In the intervening years, initially as a company employee, I have worked with trade bodies all over the world. We have tackled market access, value-based procurement, trade sanctions, modern slavery, sustainability and any number of other public policy issues. It has been rich and rewarding, and many of my better friends are now people, often former competitors, who I first met during these interactions. I did not, then, have to think for long when, five years ago, I was offered the opportunity to join ABHI to lead its policy and communications function. Like my colleagues here, I often describe this as the best job I have ever had. It is certainly the most fun, sitting at the interface of an industry that has so much to offer, and the policy makers who dictate the environment in which we operate. Whilst we are here, a word on policy. People often feel that policy is something mystical that happens a long way removed from the everyday. In fact, policy is just a way of organising and getting things done, in the same way the expenses and annual leave policies everyone will be familiar with do. It affects us all and it is only right and proper that we have a say on how it is crafted.

I am, clearly, not an entirely impartial commentator on the value of industry associations, but they are a number of reasons why I feel strongly they offer something unique and very tangible for their members.

Firstly, there is insight and intelligence. Industry associations are filled with people who are focused on the fine detail of, yes, policy. We pour offer legislation, government announcements, the outputs of key opinion leaders and take an informed view of where lay media and public opinion is at on contentious issues. All this so you do not have to. Most associations base their subscriptions on turnover, and for SMEs, who characterise over 90% of my own sector, the cost of an annual fee is well below the monthly retainer they would have to pay a PR company for similar sorts of analysis. Additionally, the analysis from your trade body is typically coming from people with many years’ experience in that sector. This element alone should justify the outlay if you are serious about being on trend and up to date with your competitors.

There are then the enormous networking opportunities membership provides, and a chance to benchmark your own knowledge and capabilities against those of others in your space. Larger organisations, like the ABHI, are usually comprised of specialist groups, looking at issues relating to very specific areas of the sector, or else providing forums for individuals involved in the same type of activity, be it HR or research and development. Meetings are held under the terms of codes of ethical business practice to which members subscribe, strict protocols prohibiting the discussion of commercially sensitive topics, and minutes and actions are captured diligently. In this way, associations provide a safe space for companies, who would ordinarily be fierce competitors, to advance the collective aims of their industries. More than anything, your industry association should be a key element of your market development strategy.

Associations also provide a source of expertise that can compliment even the most well resourced organisations. ABHI was formed 30 years ago to help companies understand the new European regulatory framework emerging at that time. As I write, those regulations are being updated, a process clouded by Brexit, and we are awaiting the publication of an independent review into the safety of medicines and medical devices and its associated recommendations. Coordinating responses to this work and ensuring members are fully aware of the implications, remains probably the most important thing we do every day.

One thing the COVID pandemic has demonstrated to those that might not have previously been aware, is that government often prefers to discuss issues with representative bodies rather than individual companies. Well led and organised industry associations are recognised by governments the world over as legitimate and valuable interlocutors.  In any given week, we will speak to Ministers and officials on an almost daily basis, being seen as a conduit to the views of the industries we represent. Formal platforms for ministerial engagement have been created and are maintained by associations in multiple sectors. Members have the opportunity to shape, and where appropriate, take part in these interactions, as well as joining delegations to government departments as necessary.

For those of you yet to sign on the dotted line, I would offer the following advice. Firstly, be sure what you want to get from your membership. The secretariat of any association will be happy to describe, in detail, how their work can best help you and which elements you should focus on. It is, after all, in our own interests to ensure you get value from funding us. And to get value, you need to take action. It is no different to joining a gym, if you do not go, you will not get anything from it. (Guilty as charged.) If you just want the insight and intelligence, be sure to read it religiously. But if you have the bandwidth, take part in working groups and, where you can, lead them. It is back to that personal development thing. Senior leaders in many of the large corporations we work with, have, as part of their personal objectives, the aim of joining industry association Boards. Their organisations have a reason to want them to do that.

My boss, all those years ago was an enlightened fellow. He went on to become the Chair of ABHI and received a gong for his leadership of the work that produced 2004’s joint government and industry report of the Healthcare Industries Task Force. He is now retired in Australia, but I still see him as he returns to the UK regularly, not least as a Non-executive Director of some of companies he got to know during that period. I cannot promise you that your involvement will result in similar recognition, but I can guarantee you will meet some great people, learn a tonne of stuff and play a key role in shaping the future of the industry about which you care.

The Whitehouse team are experts in trade association building and management as well as maximising member and industry influence across the United Kingdom and European Union. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at