Dear Lions: stop being nice, be brutal

Cannes Lions for once didn’t miss a heartbeat in supporting a growing business community that stands behind the Sustainable Development Goals agenda and this year introduced a Sustainable Development Goals Lion of its own, which will be in good awards company with The Glass Lion and Grand Prix For Good for years to come.

Great work to be inspired by

Before I turn brutal, I want to congratulate all the winners and dear reader, I’ll encourage you to take a look at one of my favorite pieces of work and the Sustainable Development Goals Lion Grand Prix winner (plus two other Grand Prix) the 'Palau Pledge'. The campaign asks tourists to sign an environmental pledge on a dedicated stamp in their passport as they enter the country.

There were also the three gold-winning campaigns, 'Nature Represented', 'Black Supermarket' and 'Trash Isles' that are each criticising current thinking on real-world problems and suggesting better ways. I’m thrilled to see many great environmental campaigns rewarded, marking 2018 as the first year the social issues aren’t getting all the attention (and creativity). It also shows that the SDG framework can inspire creativity in many directions.

The 6 trillion dollar argument

But why are we doing this? I’m terrified that people see the SDG Lion as yet another do-good-initiative rather than an enabler of business transformation or what it really is: a killer of business-as-usual.

The case for companies to contribute positively to society comes from the very top. As Larry Fink, chief executive of the world’s biggest asset manager, Black Rock, which represents $6trillion of value, wrote in his annual letter: “Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”

A statement like that creates ripples, because it shows that business is transforming and the likes of Natura, Tesla Motors, Ikea, Whole Foods and Unilever outperform their competitors on the stock market.

Redefining growth as we know it

And I get excited when I see companies like Interface taking an innovative approach to sustainability and business by developing a carpet that sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere like it was a living tree. This is not a business minimising its impact, but cleaning up the mess it’s done in the past (carpet manufacturing is usually heavily dependent on fossil fuels).

Or what about Phillips transforming its business model away from selling more light bulbs to selling light as a service, turning the whole system on its head? Sustainability is baked into the very business model as it’s in the interest of Phillips to make light bulbs last as long as possible and use energy more efficiently.

Or what about rethinking the cancerous growth of our cities? One attempt is ReGen Villages that’s right now breaking ground on the first 194 homes in Almere, Netherlands with a global ambition to scale up and create self-sufficient, off the grid, thriving communities that produce their own energy and food.

These are not nice ideas, but brutally transforming what we know as business today and I wouldn’t like to be in their competitors' shoes. The exponential transformation we’ve seen with digital will surely replicate itself within the sustainability space. Ideas like that keep me awake at night as they ultimately redefine growth as we know it.

What’s the planetary and societal need for advertising?

We uphold our industry and its talent as creative geniuses, but quite frankly it’s not the tiny competition on La Croisette one should worry about but the millions of hungry, angry and change-ready social and environmental entrepreneurs that are disrupting products, services and systems for breakfast.

As an advertising industry, isn’t it time to self-disrupt and discover how we can redefine our role as mainly drivers of consumption? How can we disrupt our products, services or maybe the whole system? By the end of the day, what’s the planetary and societal need for advertising?

What’s the business case for ending life on earth?

The SDGs offer an unprecedented opportunity for everyone to work together on solving the world’s toughest self-/man-made challenges. But we've got to end our short-term thinking, our campaign periods and our do-good-halo-approach to marketing and as an industry of creative commercial excellence aspire to create brutal business transformations.

The arguments (and threats) are getting stronger by the day, but when all comes to all, we simply need common sense. As the founder of Interface, Ray Anderson, cunningly reminds us: “What’s the business case for ending life on earth?”

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

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