Why agencies are vital in closing the gap between brand actions and words

When social movements take hold, it's important that agencies help to make change happen when brands declare their call to action, writes Carat Australia's Nicola Watkins.

“Procter & Gamble is right. Now is the time to be anti-racist. It’s also time to match words with action.”

Richard Wilson’s call-to-arms highlights the discrepancy between P&G’s words against racism and their advertising investment in highly partisan platforms such as Fox News, who are often called out for their amplification of hate-speech. This ethical dilemma is not solely of P&G’s making, nor is it unique to America. Australian Agencies must do more to understand the impact our advice, and our investments, have on amplifying potentially destructive polarisation within our society.

An agency’s traditional role is shielded from these discussions under the guise of remaining ethically agnostic. However, as society evolves, our role to facilitate effective and efficient connections between brands and people might not be ‘apolitical’ for much longer.

The Business Roundtable, a lobbying group comprised of 181 CEOs from the world’s largest companies, recently redefined the purpose of a corporation as one that promotes ‘an economy that serves all’. This sounds like a big deal because it is a big deal. These CEOs have turned on their twenty-three-year-old ‘shareholder primacy’ position in favour of collectivism.

Business is changing. To quote Andrew Winston from his piece in Harvard Business Review, there are four key reasons why:

  • Employee, customer, and investor expectations are being changed by social norms
  • Focusing on one key stakeholder is as flawed as only looking at cholesterol to measure your health
  • Investors are pressing companies to focus on their purpose and their societal contributions – suggesting they have some level of varying responsibility
  • Businesses are feeling world challenges which require systemic efforts, cooperation and pricing of ‘externalities’ that have previously been pushed onto society

As the driving force behind our client’s change, agencies must also change. An agency’s traditional role has been to get the attention of our client’s customers, regardless of partisan environments. Although brands have withdrawn funding when perspectives of publishers don’t align with their brand values, these stances aren’t always permanent.

The ethical dilemma occurs when publishers retain the brand’s customer base. But the reality is that balancing Byron Sharp and ethics is bloody hard. The solution isn’t as simple as following the values of a customer, defunding media moguls or simply backtracking on previous stances and resuming investments into the platforms we ‘punished’. A successful brand with great mental and physical availability will be purchased by people with diverse backgrounds, political views, or stances on issues.

However, we need to think differently if we are to continue building on the foundations of movements like “Stop Funding Hate”. We must practise what we preach by prioritising long-term value in our desire for growth. If not for morals or ethics, to ‘promote an economy that serves all’, future proof our businesses, do better for our clients, as well as attract and retain good talent.

Ethical investment may increase CPMs but channelling our budgets into publishers purely based on reach is a short-sighted. This approach encourages a negative cycle which impacts the quality and diversity of our media landscape. Chasing reach results in less revenue and resources for ethically minded publishers as well as creates an imbalance of expressed opinions.

This imbalance fosters a negative environment for the underrepresented side of the equation, creating ineffective options for advertisers and ultimately draining investment. A Pinterest survey found that most participants believe a brand showing up next to negative content equals endorsement. “Negative environments make people less likely to remember, less likely to trust, and less likely to purchase.” Beyond morals and ethics, brands simply can’t afford to show up in environments that aren’t pertinent to their values.

Closing the gap between brand words and ad investment also addresses the burgeoning concerns of our growing Gen Z and Millennial workforce. By acting, employees will witness senior leaders take responsibility and be accountable in the wake of society’s evolving expectations. It directly addresses this generation’s desire to work for companies whose values align with their own.

To close the gap between words and action, we must start by encouraging frank conversations with clients about their values, and how these translate into media investment, to ensure our recommendations ladder into their greater purpose.

Secondly, we must redefine brand safe environments to encompass alignment between content, context, and support of client’s brand values. If this isn’t feasible, consider how messaging can be evolved to stay true to these values while appearing in these environments.

Thirdly, as Richard Reeves suggests, our industry must introduce a standardised approach to ethical metrics and substantiate meaningful benchmarks to encourage collective action. Becoming a member of The Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) is a fantastic starting point, as Havas Media, Merkle and Gyro: have done already. Beyond this, industry innovators will find a way to include these metrics and measurements into real-time bidding models.

Agencies are bound to our client’s decisions and values, but we can take steps to ensure we’re ready for these conversations, to implement solutions, and to ensure we’re promoting an economy that serves all Australians. As chief brand officer Marc Pritchard stated when Cannes Lions awarded P&G Brand Marketer of the Decade, “It’s important now, as ever, to continue to use our voice and creativity to be a force for good, a force for growth and a force for change”.

Nicola Watkins is a strategist at Carat Australia


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