The 2020's Our Great Sustainability Journey

January 31, 2020

I believe sustainability offers the largest, most exciting opportunity for our industry, allowing us to tackle our problems of collapsing consumer trust and the relentless competition from big tech.

At the start of this new decade it seems there is some agreement about what needs to be done regarding trust in advertising but the question of the climate crisis is much more controversial.  Indeed highly respected commentators question whether we play much role at all https://mediatel.co.uk/news/2020/01/13/adlands-messiah-complex/

I fear my attempt at marketing alchemy could end like Lord Percy and Baldrick’s (generating just a nugget of purest ‘green’), but it seems to me issues of consumer’s trust and sustainability inter-relate.

There is increasing demand for two types of‘sustainability’that are both intrinsically linked to advertising and marketing.  The first is more societal - the need for a sustainable media model to allow information to flow freely, not to actively undermine trust.

The second is wider – consideration of the ecological environment, a more responsible approach to capitalism.  Both require cultural change and I believe this should be the ambition for advertising in the next ten years.

Sustainable Media Model

The IPA, Advertising Association and ISBA are all rightly talking about tackling the crisis in advertising trust.  There is a consensus we need to swing back from too much ‘actionable’ advertising to a greater emphasis on ‘brand building’ advertising, as argued through the work of Les Binet and Peter Field.

Similarly, most media owners are calling for the need to improve trust, with Newsworks suggesting a way forward by separating quality ‘journalism’ from just ‘content’ and the need for advertisers to understand the difference and operate accordingly.

Dr Steve Waygood Chief Responsibility Officer at Aviva argues why advertising and media have failed to lead: “The media industry has traditionally been seen as a critical part of a healthy and well-functioning society, educating all on the integrity of politics and capitalism, and holding actors to account. It brings better awareness to its readers, who make more informed choices as citizens when they decide which politicians to vote for; as consumers when they decide which companies to buy from; and as investors when we decide which companies to back. But, what happens when these very same media institutions become politically undermined or unduly step on the rights of their users? And what happens when they become victim to the short-term myopic focus on quarterly earnings driven by stock markets? The result is a collapse of our intellectual and investment model for a healthy and informed society.”

Time to challenge the ‘Math Men?’

The impact of the ‘Math Man’ approach means the emphasis has swung away from what produces ‘good’ advertising and ‘good’ media planning.  Instead we have a depressingly narrow definition of what successful advertising is. Over-stating the importance of ‘short term myopic’ metrics whilst choosing to ignore the downside effects of unwanted marketing techniques. Deliberately skewing the way advertising is measured so the ‘art’ is taken away.  As Douglas McCabe of Enders analysis says “Art is not the opposite of science, it is a cultural complement to science, defining our species.  The opposite of science is wilful ignorance, and sometimes, at its worst that’s what’s going on in the marketing industry.” 

Advertising and a responsible approach to capitalism

Rather than take a lead our industry is lagging behind others, especially Finance. According to a recent study by the University of Oxford “more than 80% of mainstream investors now consider ‘ESG’ – environmental, social and governance – information when making investment decisions. Globally, there are now $22.89 trillion of assets being professionally managed under responsible investment strategies, an increase of 25% since 2014. This number exceeds the GDP of the entire US economy” (Tim Mohin, Chief Executive of the Global Reporting Index).

There is patently a difference between ‘good’ growth and ‘bad’ growth and ‘good’ growth is where the money is. This isn’t about ‘brand purpose’ or ‘green washing’ it is about sound business.  According to the Harvard Business Review: “50% of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products.”

If it is going to be successful and impact on society, advertising has to be nurtured, to be loved, to be honed and be delivered in a compelling context.   Bill Bernbach, the founder of DDB wrote about why: “The average person doesn’t come to many decisions purely on an intellectual basis. He (sic, diversity is another crucial issue but not tackled here) must be touched.  He is confronted everyday by people trying to sell things.  Unless you reach him, this becomes a wall.  He becomes numb.  Dig down deep into instincts, aspirations.  You’re never going to touch people intellectually. Relate to what they feel passionately about.” This is our opportunity.  The climate crisis is something we all care deeply about and we have reached a tipping point - 77% of UK consumers said that would boycott a brand with poor environment or sustainability credentials (source https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/consumers-are-punishing-brands-for-their-environmental-track-record/42989).

Dominic Cummings has received great credit for his ‘marketing’ achievements.  ‘Get Brexit Done’ was an over-arching message that worked.  Much of the execution may well have been micro-targeted and personalised on social media, the message harvested from data analytics. But it was a broad campaign that not only changed politics but changed culture.  I am no Dominic Cummins but I am the same age and have the same initials. I suggest the work he has done sets a great example for us all.

Sustainability offers us a great opportunity.  We must be ambitious, taking the lead by producing great campaigns inspired by data that change culture and drive demand for ‘good’ growth. Playing our role in helping to nurture a more sustainable capitalism through an advertising media ecosystem that restores trust and works for everyone, not just Silicon Valley.   

We have allowed too many businesses to become overly reliant on tech companies to drive sales. They no longer make the effort to be loved. Advertising has lost its soul.  We are being replaced by automation and algorithms.  Consumers are reacting by turning their backs on us.  We are less popular than estate agents.  Advertising should be concentrating on what we do best, creating experiences that resonate on a human level, in a trusted context building long term value for clients but also wider society.   Not short-term unsustainable sales.  Leave that to big tech.

Daniel Coleman is Strategy Director at Starcom UK. 

See original article in Mediatel