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There’s good and there’s good, good: How the industry judges purpose-led campaigns

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red and a passionate advocate of the good that marketing can do, working on social purpose and behaviour change projects for the past 10 years.

As an international festival of creativity, Cannes Lions showcases ‘the power of creativity as a driving force for business, for change and for good’. So, as increasingly creative solutions are required to tackle social challenges, more purpose-led campaigns are bagging prizes on this prestigious stage.

Many of us see this as a cause of celebration: a great opportunity to demonstrate the positive impact our industry can have. Yet not everyone is convinced. Each year an increasing number of voices are calling for purpose-led campaigns to be judged separately from ‘commercial’ work.

Behind these calls there appear to be two stances: one focusing on the ability to get the work made in the first place and the other on the judging process. Underlying both perspectives is a belief that working towards social change gives an unfair advantage over those seeking commercial benefit. As a passionate believer in the power of marketing to do ‘good’, I think these points of view need to be interrogated further.

Who says it’s easy?

This argument centres around a belief that, in a commercially challenging environment where clients are risk-averse, it’s easier for non-commercial organisations to push the boundaries and run groundbreaking creative work.

This must be a view held by those without any first-hand experience working with not-for-profit, charity or public sector organisations. Like their commercial counterparts, these clients have problems keeping them awake at night, a need for strategic rigour and ambitious targets to be met. Only these challenges usually have to be addressed with budgets a fraction of the size, meaning every pound of marketing spend is scrutinised. So, yes, I’ll admit there’s a nugget of truth here in so much as budget constraints often result in creative boundaries being pushed. But it still comes down to the fact that brave work requires a brave client.

It seems there’s still some confusion about the distinction between charity or public sector campaigning and purpose-led brand work. They might tackle similar issues and share aims – think about Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’, the latest offering from Bodyform and Keep Playing #LikeAGirl from Always – but ultimately by centring around a product they are different and this is where the other position comes into play.

Doing well by doing good

In the other camp, critics claim that these brand led initiatives which ‘do good’ are judged more favourably than ‘traditional’ campaigns – a sense that the presence of social purpose trumps creativity and impact.

Taking creativity first. Emotional as many award case study films are, it’s hard to believe that juries comprised of adland’s best lose their collective critical eye when faced with well-meaning but creatively naive campaigns. There is real craft (strategic and creative) required to integrate a cause seamlessly with a brand, and when done properly, purpose-led campaigns easily compete with the best of the rest.

And impact? This is where we finally get to the crux of the argument. Fundamentally, doing good and doing well (aka making a profit) are not mutually exclusive – a view extensively championed by Keith Weed and Unilever. Consumers expect business to have a positive impact on people’s lives and a brand’s ability to demonstrate this is an increasingly important factor in purchase intention.

So these campaigns can and should be judged on their commercial impact in the same way as a traditional brand led campaign is.

That said, when judging these cause-led campaigns, we should ensure that impact beyond these commercial metrics is reviewed. And, that we judge against the social intentions set out. We must make sure that campaigns that set about driving positive change live up to the claims made. Above all we must protect against purpose without substance; yes because consumers are cynical and can easily spot a sham, but most importantly to maintain our integrity.

The recent controversy around the I SEA app [which won bronze at Cannes before being exposed as a fake] painfully highlights that we must also be rigorous in our approach to judging effectiveness for not-for-profit campaigns.

The verdict

Ultimately, I cannot see enough weight in any of these arguments to change the status quo.

Commercial and non-commercial work should continue to be judged side by side, with not-for-profit work going into compete in the Grand Prix for Good.

And should we distinguish between brand work which delivers a commercial benefit and brand work which has a positive social effect AND delivers a commercial benefit? Even writing this sentence makes it sound ridiculous, but when brands are building a business case for doing good which is dependent on purpose being baked into their organisation this would clearly be a backward move.

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red

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