Baillie Gifford festival headache shows growing challenge of activism in sponsorship world

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has announced it is ending its partnership with Baillie Gifford, the latest episode in what has proved to be a considerable headache for the asset manager.

The frustration and resignation in the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s statement announcing the end of the 20-year partnership was palpable.

“The pressure on our team has simply become intolerable,” said Jenny Niven, chief executive of Edinburgh International Book Festival. “We have a major global festival starting in 10 weeks’ time and we need to focus all of our efforts and energy on delivering a safe and successful event for our audiences.

“Undermining the long-term future of charitable organisations such as book festivals is not the right way to bring about change.”

Nick Thomas, partner at Baillie Gifford, also issued a somewhat combative statement:  “The activists’ anonymous campaign of coercion and misinformation has put intolerable pressure on authors and the festival community. We step back with the hope that the festival will thrive this year and into the future. We hold the activists squarely responsible for the inhibiting effect their action will have on funding for the arts in this country.”

The opposition from activists had focused on Baillie Gifford allegedly profiting from fossil fuels and investments in Israel during the conflict in Gaza. It started last year, after a Scottish publication called The Ferret criticised Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the Edinburgh Book Festival over its holdings in companies that profit from fossil fuels, leading climate activist Greta Thunberg to pull out of the festival.

Last week also saw Hay Festival announce it was suspending its sponsorship from Baillie Gifford. Festival organisers had come under pressure from speakers at the festival, including musician Charlotte Church and politician Dawn Butler, to not accept sponsorship from Baillie Gifford, arguing that it should divest from investments in fossil fuels and in the state of Israel.

In a recent statement, Baillie Gifford directly contradicted the allegations, saying that the view presented by activists was misleading, and concluded by noting that the firm was managing other people’s money, not its own.

Baillie Gifford responded by emphasising that its investments in fossil fuel companies were below the industry average.

It is not just the asset management industry that has faced challenges. Many artists recently pulled out of the Great Escape music festival in Brighton due to headline sponsor Barclays’ alleged ties to arms companies whose weapons are being used in the Israel-Gaza conflict.

It may simply be that certain sponsorships, particularly in the arts world, become increasingly off-reach for the financial services industry.

Musicians and authors tend to skew towards more left-wing and liberal views. Financial services is a complex world, and ultimately any financial activity can be scrutinised and criticised. For example, part of the criticism levelled at Barclays was over providing loans. As the NatWest-Coutts debacle shows, banks can also face huge issues if they do refuse service to people over political views.

And ultimately whatever its merits, a sober statement from Baillie Gifford critiquing the allegations will get less traction than the more “viral” calls for a boycott.

Commenting on the episode in November in an interview with the Financial Services Forum, Marketing Director James Budden told the Financial Services Forum that while the festival has helped the asset manager reach its audience, the sponsorship was “not something we’re wedded to.”

He added: “All businesses face that kind of moment where the poor publicity outweighs the benefits and you have to make a decision but we haven’t reached that stage.”

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