Can adland really commit to sustainability?

The advertising industry has a golden opportunity to help transform business and save the planet, but how serious are we about it?

Last month, a little-known group of adland activists (ad’tivists?) replaced all the billboards in London’s Clapham Common tube station with pictures of cats.

Through a crowdfunding campaign, C.A.T.S (Citizens’ Advertising Takeover Service) organised by GLIMPSE, a group of creatives and strategists want to call attention to the effect of They Live! levels of imperative bombardment on our lives.

It’s an attenuated situationist logic of Reclaim the Streets applied to advertising.*

C.A.T.S. comes at a moment in time when the advertising and branding industry is desperately trying to prove it can make the world a better place.

Purpose, purpose, purpose

‘Purpose’ seems to be experiencing a Steve Ballmer moment as the most fashionable marketing concept.

It’s all over the place these days, with Campaign Magazine already asking, after years of the stuff, whether we’ve reached ‘peak purpose’.

The Drum marketing magazine recently declared their conviction that ‘Marketing can change the world’ with an eponymous award show. Last month, Campaign magazine entered the fray with a commitment to advocating for ‘humane capitalism’ (without asking if it could ever exist).

This ties in with what some have called the ‘purpose turn’ in marketing.

In 2015, The Comms Lab published ‘Reclaiming Agency’, a deep dive into what’s wrong with the world and the world of advertising. The report says that for agencies to save themselves in a context of mounting global crisis, they need to make a real, positive contribution to society and our environment. To reclaim its status, the advertising industry needs to re-define itself as an advocate for purposeful, responsible business and consumption.

I can see why. People just aren’t having it anymore. 86% of US and UK millennials believe brands should be responsible for their actions. 88% think they should ‘do more good’ and not just ‘less bad’, and 75% of millennials actively research the behaviour of brands they buy.

A growing cohort of people expect brands to pay employees fairly, do not harm the environment and have responsible supply chains.

So, naturally, brands and marketers are listening. Right now, people want ethical brands. Customers of the future want brands that reflect their values.

Brands today are being forced to be transparent — cracked open by the twin forces of the internet and people’s infinite capacity for moral indignation. ‘Do what I say, not what I do’ it no longer possible for most brands — they need to do what they say.

They simply cannot become part of culture if they don’t become part of the solution.

Not only that, purpose being a conceptual bucket, brand purpose can be shallow (i.e. cynical) or deep (i.e. genuine). Brands can make social purpose a gimmick — fill the bucket with crap — or a central strategy driving what they do — fill it with … not crap. People don’t want to buy ethical products because they’re worthy, they want to buy products happy in the knowledge they’re not destroying the world.

Are we serious about the UN Global Goals?

But here’s something. At this year’s Cannes Lions awards, the six biggest advertising networks in the world agreed to each take on promoting one UN Sustainable Development Goal.

Havas has taken climate change, IPG safe water, Publicis has committed to food, Dentsu will deal with health, Omnicom education and finally WPP’s will take on gender diversity, with possibly one other taking on refugees and immigration.

This sounds amazing. The six biggest persuasion companies in the world joining forces with the UN to help tackle the world’s 17 biggest problems.

But their announcement — couched in characteristically evasive international diplomatic language — doesn’t make clear what they will actually do.

Fine, sometimes these things take time. But there was a deeper problem. Something more elephant-shaped.

No one was saying anything about Goal 12, the one about responsible production and consumption.

No doubt, advertising can be pivotal in shifting beliefs and behaviours around social and environmental issues. Playing its part in relation to climate change, water, education, gender, etc. are areas advertising can impact.

But Goal 12 is really the heart of the matter for our industry. Goal 12 is focused on industry and commerce reducing waste, reducing energy use, playing a positive role in culture, society and lifestyle.

So what?

As the Comms Lab makes clear, our industry needs to provide real leadership in business, to act as a real advocate for a better, safer, more sustainable world, which includes convincing brands to go deep on purpose. To go beyond mere awareness raising before dusting off your hands and moving on.

Goal 12 may not be the sexiest of the lot, but it’s the one we’re mostly responsible for. Maybe some think a goal like this would never lead to Tap Project, or maybe it’s too close to the bone.

Either way, constraints are beautiful and we need to be able to make the case that sustainability is actually good for business. We need to honestly convince more clients this is a sound strategic investment — enlightened self-interest that may have a small up-front cost, but a much larger long-term return. And we need to do that in ways that also inform, delight and influence culture.

That’s what we do, right?

This starts with adopting Goal 12.

*But is it really?