To sell or save the world? Adland can do both


After reading Steve Harrison’s recent piece for Campaign, I was riled. 

As I continued reading, the reason for my reaction began to crystallise. As it turned out it was something personal. It was the feeling of being told we can only ever be one or the other. Never both. Believe in socialism OR the free market. Right OR left. Sell OR save. 

Yes, the advertising industry has been built on the good old “sell”. But let’s not forget that we have only ever been able to sell stuff by understanding and engaging with what it is people want. And people want change.

Not only that, but they expect brands to take notice and engage in that dialogue with them. In advertising we’ve become accustomed to the saying that the “customer is king”. We tout strategies with consumers at the heart, so when did we decide to stop listening to them? 

What do the Facebook ad boycott (AKA the Stop Hate for Profit campaign), r/wallstreetbets (where Reddit users helped to drive up the share price of GameStop) and 41K+ Ofcom complaints about comments coinciding with Piers Morgan leaving Good Morning Britain have in common? People wanted change and they made it happen. 

Advertising has always, and will always, be an industry powered by people. And yes, people are flawed and irrational. They don’t always do what they say they will. They are multifaceted and contradictory. People are not just one thing, and it is reductive and restrictive to pretend otherwise. 

Of course, not everyone can afford to choose a product or brand based on their values alone. But why should that stop us from trying to make our marketing better?

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To future-proof brands for a landscape (that we’re arguably already living in) where consumers have all the choice and information in the world, and where, given the choice between two of the same products, they can choose the one that they feel aligns best with their values?

Good advertising sees that internal desire people have to do a bit of good and marries it up with enabling them to buy that thing that they need.

I completely agree that our commercial purpose is key, but we need to think long-term. 

Commercial purpose does not have to be counter to social justice. In fact, it makes good commercial sense for us to help future proof brands and businesses this way, if they want to flourish in a world of increasing choice. 

Look at the Top 100 Most Reputable Companies in the World for 2020. These brands are not missing their commercial opportunities. These are clear examples of how the balance of both doing and saying the right thing drives not only reputation, but also sustainable profitability.

Levi’s (a new entrant in the top 10), a brand that has been around for over 140 years, has actively chosen to lean into the sustainable fashion movement and has been reaping the benefits in brand perception growth in the last few years, quickly recouping profits throughout the tough year that was 2020.

Every time someone buys something, we enable someone else to get paid. So, it’s all the more important to those people (the retail workers, factory workers, delivery people) that we challenge brands to think about how they get paid in a more sustainable way. We should ensure that our work represents the mainstream – including all of the people who need to buy our products, but haven’t ever seen themselves represented in advertising, until now.

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It’s clear, we need more good marketing. Yes, we may not always get it right. In fact, we will definitely get it wrong as we continue to learn and develop. However, we shouldn’t diminish those who are taking risks and trying to be better. We should never be afraid to hold ourselves up to a higher standard. Or to try something, get it wrong, and learn from it.

We might not think of ourselves in advertising as “saving the world” exactly, but we should reflect the reality of the world in what we do. We should amplify it and we should shape it. We live in it. And if the world wants advertising that saves the world, who are we to say they don’t deserve that? That we don’t deserve that?

Wanju Lee is an account director at Starcom and one of Campaign’s Faces to Watch 2020



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