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Two years on, has Common Ground proven rival agencies can work together for good?

The 'big six' heads at Cannes Lions, 2016

Common Ground has spawned a multitude of projects for good, but the lack of a high-profile coordinator and advocate has slowed down its momentum.

It’s been two years since the heads of the ‘big six’ agency networks stood at the top of the Palais steps in Cannes, flanking Ban Ki-moon as they committed their respective companies to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Common Ground initiative saw WPP, Publicis, Omnicom, IPG, Havas and Dentsu promise to employ their collective creative prowess in solving the global issues of gender diversity, food, education, water, climate change ad health respectively.

Now that photo looks very different. Gone is Publicis’ Maurice Lévy, who was replaced by his protégé Arthur Sadoun in June 2017. Gone is the cream-suited figure of WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, who recently departed his own company in a swirl of unsubstantiated rumours.

Sorrell was a key player in Common Ground, having set the groundwork for the initiative with Al Gore at Cannes Lions in 2016. The S4 Capital founder also called on the industry to tackle issues regarding refugees and immigration – a challenge the independent Wieden+Kennedy took on in June 2017.

Now that he’s left WPP, the programme lacks a figurehead, despite Common Ground leaders being installed at each separate network. The day jobs of this group of leaders varies, and the way in which the programme is implemented also differs across the seven players.

Omnicom, for instance, has formed two Common Ground teams in London and New York; the latter is headed up by Janet Riccio – executive vice president, dean of Omnicom University and founder of Omniwomen – and project coordinator Nathan Grimm. Meanwhile planning director Ben Kay leads at WPP and an ambiguous ‘team of top leaders’ are in charge at Havas.

Cumulatively, the Common Ground partners have produced a substantive amount of work over the last two years. Most networks have opted to work with a handful of charities whose work is related to their assigned goal, and – although it’s unclear if the dedicated website of the Common Ground is updated regularly – each group looks to have contributed at least three pieces of work at minimum. Havas/Climate Change ranks the lowest on project uploads, and Dentsu/Health the highest.

The work created as part of Common Ground is no doubt appreciated by both the UN and the charities involved. It has also focused the efforts of the holding companies in their quest for purpose – be it in terms of CSR or something deeper to their core brands – as well as forcing them to look inwards and assess how their day-to-day operations contribute to a sustainable future.

“CSR is an essential part of our mission, which aims to make brands meaningful,” explains Lorella Gessa, chief communications officer at Havas. “Our sixth commitment to progress in our CSR strategy is our continued commitment to collaborative efforts in reducing climate change, which includes Common Ground.”

Over at Omnicom, Riccio believes its focus on quality education has sharpened the clarity of its internal commitment to “ensuring inclusive education through client work, fundraising, volunteering and advocacy campaign”. WPP, on the other hand, found itself in a jam earlier this year when the work J Walter Thompson had produced for UN Women was overshadowed by its own “terrible” gender pay gap.

Frank Krikhaar, global corporate social responsibility director at Dentsu Aegis Network, wants his company to improve its internal response to the SDG of health. Of all the Common Ground leaders he appears to be the most likely to succeed Sorrell as the unofficial driver: not only is he enthusiastic about the programme but he’s realistic too, arguing that although great progress has been made, he’d hoped the awareness around the project would be greater by now.

“Two years in, I wish this could have been a bit more of a juggernaut,” he says. “I would have wanted for the awareness of the initiative to have been bigger by now.”

Awareness is certainly an issue for Common Ground. After the headline-grabbing launch at Cannes Lions 2016, many projects carried out as part of the initiative have not been publicly labelled under its moniker. This has led to many working on the periphery of the project to erroneously believe it to be a PR stunt from an industry obsessed with naval-gazing purpose. One source close to the UN, for example, categorically told The Drum: “Common Ground hasn’t done anything”.

Krikhaar is also frustrated by the lack of interest from independent agencies other than Wieden – a problem that’s likely to have been caused by the one-network-to-one-SDG set-up. If it requires a giant such as WPP to tackle gender equality, how could an indie be expected to take on the goal of ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’?

“I think we need to find a way to grow Common Ground so it’s not just seen as the agenda of six holding groups but of the entire industry,” Krikhaar says. “We need to find a way of creating an impartial and independent platform where no matter if the agency has five employees or 50,000, they can say, ‘we want our people to engage with this’.”

While pragmatic, the structure also appears to have unintentionally driven agencies away from collaborating – one of the key purposes of Common Ground. There have only been a handful examples where more than one network contributed to a project, and those tend occur when the PR or media – not the creative – has been handled by another holding group.

Change is occurring on this front, however, in three directions: the implementation of cross-network events and hacks such a as Common Futures, the development of the Google-supported Gen Z platform Little x Little and P&G’s decision to create an in-house agency made up of talent from a range of networks. If the latter’s ambitious model succeeds, it’s likely more brands will follow suit and agencies may soon find themselves working together more than ever before.

Krikhaar admits that he could be too “pessimistic” and notes that by all accounts “the United Nations is very pleased with the progress [of Common Ground]”. The majority of Dentsu’s partner networks are upbeat about how it’s all going (Publicis and Wieden did not respond with request to comment), with Riccio asserting: “I can confidently say that we have been successful in putting our differences aside to address these issues head on – whether it be through our independent partnerships, cross-industry workshops or providing localized support and expertise to communities in need, every action counts.”

Tonight (22 June) will see the first SDG Lion awards handed out at Cannes, no doubt sparking a renewed interest in the project for the short term at least. What is still lacks, however, is a public-facing coordinator who’s hellbent on driving it forward.

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