Why I’m not ashamed to work in advertising

In our purpose-driven world, being ashamed to work in advertising is a reality. Here, Colenso BBDO's Kim Ragan makes the case for why adland's detractors are wrong.

The other day, one of the young people from the agency said to me “my friends think I should be ashamed of working in advertising.”

As someone more senior, what do you say to that? Particularly when you may have wrestled with this at some point during your career, too.

A new generation are entering our industry; a generation more globally conscious than ever before. This is the sort of question they’ll be asking themselves before they dive in.

Fortunately, things have changed. Perceptions of advertising have changed. The brief has changed.

To the globally conscious who feel like they’re selling their soul along with the brands we promote, there’s evidence that both agencies and brands are starting to make the world a better place.

With their ability to circumnavigate political policy, big brands do have the power to step in and drive meaningful social or environmental change when politics cannot. And agencies have the power to not only help navigate this for brands, but to make it good for business, too.

Take the recent example of Dick’s Sporting Goods in the US. How long have Americans been waiting for The White House to argue their way towards some sort of gun reform?

Big retailers could be forgiven for sitting back and waiting for someone to force them to do something about the guns they sell, or they could take a position of leadership in the debate. That’s what Dick’s Sporting Goods have done. They’re implementing the same restrictions upon themselves that the majority of Americans are asking for. This may have cost them some of their far-right customers, but it has also added a powerful voice to the debate that maybe others will follow.

Another well-floated example is Chipotle. “Food with Integrity” is a moral code Chipotle have been holding themselves to for quite a few years now. As an occasional consumer of fast food, would I rather eat ‘vegetables grown in healthy soil, and pork from pigs allowed to freely root and roam outdoors’, or some veges dipped in an unhealthy dose of chemicals with meat from poor soulless animals, heartlessly stuffed into a farrow crate?

Sure, Chipotle have stumbled along the way. Customers are quick to hold them accountable when they slip. But they’re quick to put things right. In 2015, Chipotle stopped selling pork at more than a third of its restaurants when a supplier violated the conditions of Chipotle’s animal-welfare standards. The chain came out of the debacle on top – all because they chose to be honest and stand up for what they believe in.

And while nowhere near as big as these US brands, but no less important to the world, here in New Zealand our two largest supermarket chains are finally making a move to reduce single-use plastic.

At a time when most of us are feeling pretty guilty about what we’re seeing on our Facebook newsfeeds about the sheer quantity of plastic in our oceans and inside our sea creatures, to have New Zealand supermarkets step up and lead the anti-plastic charge goes some way to alleviate that guilt.

Should our government be doing more to make all retailers conform before things become ecologically irreversible? Absolutely. In the meantime, these brands are leading by example. New World have pledged to remove plastic bags from their supermarkets by the end of 2018 and created a 10-cent voluntary donation for every plastic bag used.

This shift to become more globally conscious won’t be an isolated thing. With a millennial target audience quickly becoming the biggest and most desirable slice of the audience pie, brands will be scrambling to meet their expectations of them. And that expectation is for brands to practice more sustainability, more responsibility and to instigate more positive change in the world. The brands who pioneer this charge will inevitably win over the hearts and minds of this traditionally fickle audience.

So where does that leave us as agencies? Well, I strongly believe we have a responsibility to be leaders too. Even when things are logistically and politically hard, I’d rather be in the weeds helping our brands do better. And for millennials who are working in our industry and selling brands to their peers, working with purpose-driven brands will mean bright young minds aren’t leaving us for greener and more globally conscious pastures.

Yes, we have to be practical and there’s plenty of room for pragmatism – but why not sell milk, pet food and beer while cleaning waterways, making the world a better place for dogs, and improving the environment?

Forging a better world makes the brands we work with better. It makes the industry we work in better too. And is that something we should be ashamed of striving for? I don’t think so.

Kim Ragan is creative group head at Colenso BBDO in New Zealand.


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