Peter O’Brien – advocate for vibrancy

“Neither sponsorship or advertising will change attitudes and I think what we need in Ireland is a change in attitudes to sponsorship via education” - Peter O'Brien.
“Neither sponsorship or advertising will change attitudes and I think what we need in Ireland is a change in attitudes to sponsorship via education” - Peter O'Brien.

The new Chairman of the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland wears another hat -- as Corporate Relations Director for Diageo Western Europe, a division headed up by former Diageo Ireland MD John Kennedy. Pat Nolan spoke to him about leading the DIGI in today’s climate.



18 April 2013

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As an umbrella group for publicans, restaurants, hotels, suppliers and independent off-licences, the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland meets around five times a year to review the industry and represent a common position which can become DIGI policy. If any member grouping finds itself in disagreement, there’s no common position taken, explains its new Chairman Peter O’Brien.

An ex-public servant, Peter also spent 12 years with the IDA, working in its Food & Drink division, before his career path eventually took him to Diageo as Corporate Relations Director in January 2009.

Peter’s DIGI role is to lead the organisation (with no full-time staff) to be the voice of its members and to make it relevant to the alcohol debate “… and to promote what we think is a vibrant export-orientated industry in Ireland to give it its fair share of voice”.

In this he prioritises maintaining focus on the industry’s ongoing economic contribution to the economy and emphasising the role the hospitality industry plays in tourism – particularly in this the year of The Gathering that cites the pub as one of the main reasons visitors come here.

“I’d say to Government that they should be putting a huge focus on the pub,” says Peter, “Anywhere else, if you’d 64,000 working in an industry that’s declining at the rate it’s declining, everyone would be calling on the Govenrment to set up a task force.

“We need to plan to bring vibrancy to the industry and stop the haemorraging.

“Ireland is well-known and famous for the pub and its products but how do we get people seeing the pub as somewhere they can go back to and see it as being relevant to the community once again and not simply caught up in the alcohol debate?
“Pubs should be treated as a collection of 8,000 small businesses rather than seeing them as being ‘involved in alcohol so it’s OK to let them go’,” he says.

“That’s the part that’s declining the most. That’s the biggest employment opportunity in the industry and with Ireland being a very convivial environment, that’s the responsible place to drink.

“Indeed the broad church of what we’re involved in is hospitality and we therefore need people back out spending money in the hospitality sector.”

Budget mode quickly
But right now we need to get back into ‘Budget mode’  – this October as announced – for 2013.

“The Budget has to be submitted to Brussels before then so we need to start lobbying now,” he says, pointing out that it would be completely unacceptable to have any increase in excise duty in this Budget as Ireland’s already a high tax location for alcohol.

In the longer term, Ireland needs to continue to be a location for the export of quality alcohol products and a provider of employment in this area.

“Guinness, Jameson, Bailey’s, Tullamore Dew – where’s the next one going to come from? To me, that requires a vibrant industry in Ireland where we can conduct our R&D and be subject to investment here.”

The work of the DIGI

While the DIGI’s brief has not changed that much down the years, the environment in which it finds itself working has changed. Considerably.

“The last few years have been the tougest with discretionary income at an all-time low,” he points out, “As a group, the DIGI still operates in a reasonably similar way in terms of representing the groups constituting it but the environment is much tougher with so many retail closures.”

Even-handed approach from Health?

He’s quick to agree too that the industry has had a less than fair hearing from the current Minister for Health and his Junior Minister in regard to the alcohol debate.

“I think the debate’s been on the wrong topic. It has now become almost exclusively focused on advertising and sponsorship. I genuinely believe the focus should be on education. There’s no evidence to link advertising to alcohol misuse, none to link sponsorship or cultural activities to alcohol misuse.

After all, we changed our attitude to drink-driving.

“It’s now unacceptable to even mention such a thing among friends,” he says, “Ultimately it was about people’s attitude to it that made it publicly unacceptable. Now it’s how do we change people’s attitudes to public drunkenness?”

The advertising/sponsorship conundrum

Ministers Varadkar, Coveney, Deenihan and Rabbitte have been very supportive of the DIGI’s broad premise that advertising and sponsorship are not the problem. The DIGI wants to sit down with everyone in Government including the Minister for Health and come up with some solutions around education and awareness.

“There’s only one programme that’s genuinely meaningful in Ireland” he claims, “and that’s – the most recognised and accepted source of information on responsible drinking. It’s exclusively funded by the drinks industry and I’d ask Government to join in it with us to make it as good as we can make it.”

But should the Government move ahead with a ban on alcohol sponsorship and advertising, the companies involved would simply stop investing in Ireland.

“Sponsorship is one way of engaging with our customers so we’d move to a different way and those who we currently sponsor would be the first casualties.

“If it’s to be phased out, our decisions about when we think about reducing our investment start right now as we use sponsorship to build up brand loyalty.

“This is a small country in a large world where huge amounts of media come to us from a variety of sources, so it will disproportionateliy hurt domestic brands. It will impact on Ireland’s ability to attract big international companies in the future.
“We should instead use the sports bodies, for example, to educate their members on responsible alcohol consumption.
“We’re now at 11.6 litres of alcohol per person, so we’re close to EU norms,” he points out, “Some of this is related to the economic downturn but the piece we need to look at hardest from here is binge-drinking or underage drinking. This needs a holistic approach.”

And we all have a responsibility in getting there, he adds.

 “Neither sponsorship or advertising will change attitudes and I think what we need in Ireland is a change in attitudes to sponsorship via education” - Peter O'Brien.

“Neither sponsorship or advertising will change attitudes and I think what we need in Ireland is a change in attitudes to sponsorship via education” – Peter O’Brien.











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