Sustainability needs to be more than just a Cannes-do attitude

Executives from far and wide converge on the Cannes adland summer camp lured by the scent of opportunity. The opportunity to make deals, make contacts and make a name. But this should also be the year they set out to make adland sustainable. Because beyond the glittering Lions and blinged out boats, we’re entering an era where sustainable business is the only opportunity around that will keep the mad men and women – and the client craft they sail in – afloat.

It’s not about trying to be less bad, or trying to look ‘good’ even. The world’s moved on from greenwashing. Sustainability isn’t just something that’s nice to do, it’s absolutely business critical. If we can get that message across at Cannes in 2016, we might just have a future.

There are three trends right now that should be making ad executives sit up and take notice. They’re driving CSR to the heart of the advertising agenda, taking us right back to the 1950s and 60s. This isn’t a retrograde step. That was a time where, instead of fighting through a ton of noise to gain a temporary jump on a competitor, adland was all about shaping business growth. As advertisers, we’re not just here to plug and sell.

The first of these trends is neatly encapsulated by Ikea’s chief sustainability officer, Steve Howard. He said recently that he wondered if we hadn’t all reached ‘peak stuff’. Many wrote that comment off as his ‘Ratner moment’ but this ignores that a crucial tipping point has been reached.

What Howard meant isn’t that we should just shut up shop. Shrinking isn’t an option. Instead, we need to look to the circular and sharing economies. It isn’t just about wanting new jeans, it’s about what happens to the old ones. Customers need to know their brands engage on this level and it’s up to adland to tell them.

Ads have always been aspirational but we need to reassess what ethics we’re putting out there. We need to have our own Bechdel test (which assesses if female characters in a work of fiction really have an active presence or are just window dressing). We need to sense check some of the content we put out there. Perhaps then that much - rightfully - maligned ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad would never have made it onto London’s tube platforms

Our second challenge lies in adblocking. Customers are really going for it and voting with their browsers. The message is clear - we don’t want your rubbish. Yet ad land’s answer has been to try and reach them only in different and equally annoying ways.

This is going to need a real mindset change and the subject of a recent MediaCSRForum event. There’s a responsibility in creating content and the effect it has. Have you even thought about the impact your ads are having on people? We estimate that Dentsu Aegis alone influences 1 billion people on what to buy. We’d advocate training all client-facing staff on responsible marketing principles while increasing the social responsibility of our supply chain by 25 per cent. Every year we spend £10bn on suppliers so the incentive to secure at least a quarter of that through sustainable business practices should be motivation enough.

The third and final challenge that demands adland pulls its finger out, sustainability wise, is the battle for talent.

Marketing communications, PR, advertising - they all rely on us engaging with a new generation of digital natives and we are really struggling to get them through the door. If we don’t have a clear purpose, the next generation will be off to Google. If our competitors are addressing sustainability - beyond lipservice and greenwashing - they’re offering much more appealing career prospects.

We can only credibly get on the sustainability train if we have the basics in place. Even getting to this point has taken us five years. We can either just be one cog in the process or reclaim a position where we grow business value. Sustainability today is on everyone’s to-do list.

Frank Krikhaar is global corporate social responsibility director at Dentsu Aegis Network

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.