Hate something, change something: how marketing agencies can make a (real) difference

Thomas Kolster

If you need change, who do you call? As ad land begins to embrace sustainability, purpose and goodvertising like a kid in a candy store, I witness agencies slide down the client’s calling list as fast as that ex who just won’t let go.

The marketing industry prides itself on its innovative thrust, but frankly it doesn’t seem ready to deal with sustainability and come up with real solutions. Instead it is stuck with short-termism, chasing quarterly results and an everlasting vanity.

Invite difference inside – hire a farmer

We are blinded by our own genius, and after all those commercials that have made millions of people laugh and moved market shares by the truckloads, who can blame us? It is this same vanity that stands in the way of tackling the complex sustainability problems that demand collaboration, not egos.

We are the creative army of uniformly black-clad marketing types that stand in stark contrast to the eco-entrepreneur (read: farmer) in boots arguing halophyte agriculture can be the saviour of the food crisis. We should not only think different, but dare to invite difference into agencies and marketing departments.

Count those impact apples

I judge a fair share of impact and do-good awards over the year. To be perfectly honest, for the most part, they’re gimmicks. What I miss are those exciting standout solutions I see from the sustainability-nerd-club where people are using coffee waste to grow successful mushroom businesses, as if it was the most natural thing to do.

We need to refocus from short-termist sales results, superficial social media metrics and clickbait campaigns to realise change cannot be compared to a click or a YouTube thumbs up. We need a discussion around real change metrics – what about tons of emissions or lives saved? Road accidents prevented? Kilos of extra waste collected? Behaviour changed?

If we as an industry are to be taken seriously as agents of change these metrics need to be an incremental part of every brief: how can you measure or quantify the impact of your initiative or campaign?

Sweaty balls beat creativity

Creativity is not the (only) solution. If you think about it, ideas are cheap, they happen everywhere (when you’re in the shower even – what’s that for cheap?) Real change demands balls or “nosser” as they’re called in my native Danish tongue (in my opinion a far more important Nordic word to know than the trending “hygge”).

To keep pushing for change, we need balls (or its female equivalent), because the real ingredient behind change is relentless, passionate drive. Not a flimsy one-year initiative that curiously fits into the award cycle. The business of impact is hard work, as any impact entrepreneur will tell you. Everyone can get an idea, but making it happen demands endless dedication – ie sweaty balls.

Think like Buffett on speed

It’s high time we revolutionise this age-old industrialist client-serves-brief-agency delivers-solution process. If we want sustainable change, we need to think in partnerships and new economic incentives or models. Clients and agencies need to work better together – and that begins with really valuing each other (including economically). Let’s move away from the Ford-assembly-line-style hourly rates to partnership-based revenue models!

Make it as scalable as a virus for good

How can you add the right business acumen to make sure your initiative lasts and is scalable as a virus for good?

The multiple award-winning Aland Index from a tiny Baltic bank has now been adopted or put to test by 35 banks around the world. Think also about how the #IceBucketChallenge travelled around the world and not only raised money for its original beneficiary but was successfully copied and raised money for many others. Impact should be sustainable, including economically.

We need business models akin to Buffett on speed, that demand organisations or systems to counter the rapid marketing rat-race where most marketing directors seem to be playing musical chairs: the average CMO is only staying in his or her position for under 48 months and most ad people are hotfooting it to wherever they can find their next award or payrise. How can you create a viable engine for change in these conditions?

Brand is still king

Most clients I work with don’t look to the ad industry when they need real stuff solved or when they’re looking to transform their business in a sustainable direction. They look to the vast ocean of entrepreneurs and startup accelerators that are armed with the business model canvas that promise big brands innovation, transformation and impact. I’ll argue though that in that process an important piece of the puzzle is forgotten: brand is still king.

In today’s business environment where everybody can start a business and everybody is an entrepreneur a differentiating brand kicks above the rest. The inconvenient truth is that most businesses are generic, but a strong brand story can cut through the noise.

Hate something, change something

Real impact happens because people are drawn to solving a challenge. Something they really hate even. Take young designer Dave Hakkens, who set out to transform planned obsolescence of phones with #PhoneBlocks. Frustration (or protecting what you love) can provide powerful fuel for change. As the chorus sang on the old Honda Grrr commercial: “Hate something, change something”.

There are plenty of things I hate about the ad industry and its relentless consumption push, but I also treasure its brilliant people and through my years I’ve witnessed several product punches and market knockouts from the industry’s creative muscles. Today, the call for change in our industry is more apparent than ever, but I do believe that with the right mindset, the right training and the right systemic changes ad land has many years of impactful punches left to be delivered.

Your ingredients list for sustainable impact:

- Sweaty balls (“nosser”) beat creativity

- Make it as scalable as a virus for good

- Think sustainable business like Buffett on speed

- Don’t create campaigns, solve stuff

- Count those impact apples; measurement matters

Thomas Kolster is a speaker, critic and author of the book Goodvertising. Follow him on Twitter @thomaskolster

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