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Why ad agencies need to drive the conversation on sustainability

Tim Lindsay

The advertising industry is under pressure.

Spare some sympathy for the poor ad people? Probably not. But there’s a serious issue here that goes way beyond an understandable distaste for designer spectacles. I’ll try to explain.

leafsThe world pretty much agrees that businesses have to behave more ethically, more sustainably, with more concern for the social and cultural outcomes from their activities. And it doesn’t really matter what the motivation for this improved behaviour is – a genuine concern for the fate of the planet or a cynical hunch that doing the right thing will drive growth and profit – if the improved behaviour is real. In fact, many would argue that the move to ‘doing well by doing good’ will only become truly mainstream when the corporate social responsibility agenda and the growth agenda become one and the same.

The advertising business – despite its reputation for loucheness and excess – is brilliant at one thing; lightbulb with leavespersuading people to change their behaviour. Often this comes down to making consumers want product B instead of product A. But there’s also a fine record of charity, NGO, health and public service work that has brought many benefits to many people. Political advertising too, but let’s not go there.

We’re in a place where major behaviour change is required; and where governments are too inert/broke/ill-intentioned/in thrall to vested interests to take effective action. Which is why business and the people who sustain businesses – us – have to take up the challenge.

And in order to take up the challenge the ad business needs to develop new vocabulary, processes and strategy tools to help their clients understand the new landscape and discover a purpose beyond profit for their brands and businesses. We need new metrics and measurement tools – and new bonus and remuneration systems to underpin them.

The urgent always gets in the way of the important.

But here’s the problem. The experts in behaviour change are under the cosh. Client company procurement departments have systematically ratcheted down agency compensation to the point where talent and resource is thin on the ground – too thin, in fact, for the necessary ‘R&D’ to happen. In the past agencies habitually took new ideas and initiatives to their clients. Now, not so much. Doing the day job is hard enough. If agencies aren’t getting CSR briefs from their clients and being asked o develop purposeful thinking for their brands, who are they to argue? They’d love to do more, but it doesn’t pay the bills. The urgent always gets in the way of the important.

This has created a capabilities gap. There are, of course, many admirable companies operating in the CSR space, helping clients understand the issues and stumble towards solutions. But they are in the main small operations and they tend to lack the consumer understanding, brand expertise and creative firepower of the big ad agencies. In addition, they often lack the right client relationships. These conversations need to happen in the offices of the CEO and CMO, not the CSR department.

If the agencies aren’t initiating the CSR conversation, driving the program, demonstrating that good behaviour is also good business, illustrating the points with compelling case histories and coming to their clients with new ideas and programs, then clients are going to look elsewhere for their needs – to the world of consultancy, design (where these issues have been thought about more deeply and for longer), media and technology – and to their own resources. At the moment, the client community is further ahead on this than its agency partners.

sustainability advertising

But the key skills, the necessary skills, still reside in the ad agencies. How, then to light a fire under the business, to force it to address the deficiencies and meet the needs of business? There are a number of things happening…

The awards and creative education charity D&AD in association with social enterprise collective Swarm has recently launched ‘Break the Silence’, to encourage the ad and design industries to start the climate change conversation with their clients. And there’s a cross-industry group of interested planners, strategists, creative and others that is beginning the process of identifying the skills and tools gaps and trying to fill them.

But – and here’s the encouraging bit – the biggest pressure is starting to come from people in the business, in particular the millennials, who are often more conscious of the issues and more literate about them than their ‘seniors’. This generation understands the power of communication to be a force for good, are born social media adepts and want at least part of their professional life to be focused on the ‘good’ part of ‘doing well by doing good’; social enterprise and commercial enterprise coming together in a natural and unforced way.

There’s a long way to go and a lot to be done. The ad business, with strategy tools and processes that were, for the most part, developed in the 60’s to accommodate the advent of commercial TV, is a lot closer to where we started the journey than where we need to get to. But there’s movement, and that’s good.


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