Agencies, it’s time to pick a side, or get left behind

In the same week that Zuckerberg left Capitol Hill conceding that Facebook “should have taken a broader view”, WPP, the organisation that supported it with $2bn of ad spend last year, saw its leader and the founder of modern advertising, Sir Martin Sorrell, step down.

Coincidence is less likely than these being signals of a shift forward for business. It’s time for advertising to pick a side; does it want to defend the old order, or help bring attention to and scale the new?

At the beginning of the year, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink issued letters to 1,000 CEOs insisting that their companies make a positive contribution to society in equal measure to financial performance. With around $6.3tn in assets under management, Fink’s instructions are clear: be good with your company decisions or else.

Activist capital is on the rise, and not for altruistic reasons. People are increasingly of the view that current models of big business are failing them. Given all markets have consolidated into a monopoly or a handful of conglomerates, there’s a sense that where there is power there is corruption, and people don’t like it.

Advertising has tried to square up and support a shift towards more positive business outcomes, but so far it’s been an uncomfortable start. Efforts to bolt the word ‘purpose’ on to existing consumer models have been varied, with some campaigns causing big public backlashes.

Under pressure from the old guard of clients, adland has pursued a parallel quest for short-term efficiency: creativity as a process to be squeezed, not a power to be unlocked. The comms conglomerates have responded, moving towards high volumes of interruptive, poor quality communications; small format ads that chase you around your screens or incessant amounts of digital landfill posing as ‘content’. Side effects include the rise of adblockers, advertising’s diminishing role in popular culture and declines in long-term marketing ROI. Even if the Capitol Hill hearings were bogus, the platforms that adland held up as the digital future are now exposed for underhand use of data and being weaponised with fake news.

Facing twin issues of legitimacy and declining return on capital, Fink’s thinking is this: the good thing needs to be the main thing, not a side-hustle. With the funds to back it up, others will follow. So what is the role of the ad industry in helping to accelerate this move forward?

First, we should be discerning about the clients we choose to partner with and challenge the ones we already have. Those poised to disrupt and succeed are those with positive ideas baked into the business model, not just bolted on to the marketing. This will be the fastest growing tranche of clients over the next five years and we’ve a clear role to help them get heard above the din.

Second, we will need to help these businesses scale faster. Even disruptive business models face counter-measures from incumbents. Helping bring these genuinely better choices to light is critical before they get co-opted, undercut or undermined. In challenging the oligopolies, we will be less reliant on efficiency through intrusion; instead we will be able to extend more creative and effective invitations to be part of a better world.

Third, we need to help them shape their briefs to be consistent with their business models as they scale over time. This means understanding that the people formerly known as consumers have more agency in the world than just buying stuff. Everyone will continue to vote with their hard-earned cash for better goods and services. But businesses allowing people not just to buy stuff, but to buy ​into​ stuff, is where brands will be relevant. In these instances, advertising will not be a call to consume, but a call to participate in things they and their audiences collectively believe in.

It seems a big week in advertising, but really it’s just a moment of inevitable forward motion. As a B Corporation, and one about to publish its (and the industry’s) first impact report, 18 Feet & Rising’s choices will be made clear. The business world is reminding itself that it was designed by people, for people, and that it too can be reshaped towards their changing needs. As such, all agencies now have the same opportunity to take back control of advertising and achieve exciting creative outcomes for all. If they choose to do so.

Jonathan Trimble is CEO of 18 Feet & Rising

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