PwC’s Leo Johnson urges advertisers to stop using technology to ‘squeeze demand out of a dry, flaking sponge’

The advertising industry has used technology the “same way bankers did in 2008” to perpetuate a false market of consumer demand, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) partner Leo Johnson. But advertising agencies now have an obligation to do more at board level to help big businesses become sustainable.

Speaking at Advertising Week Europe today, Johnson said: “I’m talking about advertising that is based on real-time bidding, native advertising, content farms, click farms, that is based on trying to squeeze more out of a dry flaking sponge that is unsaturated in the demand for people that will buy more stuff.

“There will be geniuses that will come up with more data harvesting techniques that will create some more demand. Is that a long-term future-proof model?”

But, in the face of changing patterns of consumption and shifting global trends, he urged advertisers to think about the intent of the technology they use in campaigns and whether it helps address the wider issues.

“Advertising is at a point of inflection. There is the possibility for a form of advertising that operates in isolation from the world, that uses tech to incubate itself. There’s the possibility for a form of advertising to address the problems that it has built,” he said.

Joining Johnson on stage was Richard Hytner, Saatchi & Saatchi's deputy chairman. Hytner accepted that the industry has been an “ally” in creating a model of mass production and mass consumption.

“What we can’t do is look back at the way the world was and what we want it to be now, but look at what it is and what it’s becoming,” he said.

Hytner said the creative industry now has a responsibility to stop simply executing campaigns and obsessing over “our craft skills” but get involved at board level to bring a creative solution to make big businesses sustainable.

“We need to use our creativity in a totally different way. I’m absolutely wowed by advertising's ability to tap into people’s emotions, to unleash movements to get people to participate, and if all we do is dance on that tiny part of the process then shame on us,” he said.

“Creativity needs to be unlocked in the boardroom and that’s all based on purpose. What is a brand’s vision of the world they wish to see and what’s going to be the - albeit modest - contribution to shaping that world. It’s a dream but it’s something they need the very best creative talent to help them chase.”

He cited the rise of Chipotle against the backdrop of declining sales at McDonalds as an example of a business which makes positive social and environmental contributions alongside sizeable profit for shareholders.

“Many businesses that are capturing value, are delivering growth without using finite resources,” he said.

Lego and Ikea are also examples of “smart brands” which have encouraged their employees as well as consumers to join them in movements to improve the environment and wider society.

Hytner said brands need to start with a statement of intent “not cooked up by leaders on an away day” but that is genuine. The renewed obligation of the agency is to go beyond cooking up ideas to communicate that vision but to creatively advise on how to deliver it as a sustainable business model.

“We have to make irresistible brands sustainable, and sustainable brands irresistible,” he added. “It’s confronting truly difficult stuff and using our rare and unique qualities as people who have ideas to create something world changing.”

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