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Believe in brand purpose? Clean your own house first


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

September 30, 2019 | 7 min read

True brand purpose is not running a one-off advertisement – it is something that all company actions should exude. And it is certainly not what happened at Advertising Week in New York.


Pitbull at Advertising Week New York

Last week, the major industry event held several sessions on how businesses can help to improve society. Here are just a few titles that I collected from the schedule posted online.

“The Power of Purpose: What Does it Mean for a Company to be Values-Based and Purpose-Driven?” “Always Bet on Equality: Why Brand Purpose and Inclusivity Win Every Time.”

“The State of Women's Representation in Advertising.” “Raising the Stories of Women Who Came Before Us.” “Eyes on 2020: Fearless Female Voices Reshaping Media and Impacting the World.”

Sounds good, right? But just like the hypocrisy at Cannes Lions earlier this year, Advertising Week’s walk did not match the talk. Just see this astute observation from The Drum’s Katie Deighton on musician Pitbull’s wrap party performance.

Pitbull Advertising Week

Reactions to Advertising Week New York

From the replies to Deighton’s tweet and this additional one by Marc Lewis, founder and dean at the School of Communication Arts in London, here is just a sample of the responses.

Steve Dawson, co-founder and chief executive of the agency Ratio Creative: “I just can't believe this. What were they thinking? There's no excuse for this. If it was an agency who booked this act, they'd be quite rightly hung out to dry.”

Rebecca Fennelly, head of brand and communications at sport and entertainment website “I’m actually disappointed that the disapproval toward this hasn’t been louder and blown up more. Was utterly sickened when I saw it.”

Mady Morris, founder of The Society of Very Senior Creatives: “I’m gobsmacked. Properly depressing. What were they thinking? It’s like going back to the worst of the ‘80s.”

Lewis: “Like a party of coke-fueled stockbrokers from 1986.”

Johnny Lawson: “This is truly the reason I gave up on the advertising industry.”

Ad executives talk about brand purpose at Cannes Lions but ignore a literal opportunity there to help the world. Advertising Week celebrates women in advertising but parties with a singer who uses twerking, scantily-clad women as decorations.

Might as well just bring back booth babes and be done with the hypocrisy. It is almost as bad as companies running pro-woman advertisements for International Women’s Day while treating their own female employees terribly.

“In an industry that sells first and foremost to female consumers but continues to be male-dominated, to keep women out of leadership, influence and power (especially in the creative department) and to talk gender equality, diversity and inclusion but spectacularly fail to deliver on it, it is wholly inappropriate to feature a closing Advertising Week musical act that objectifies women,” ad industry veteran and activist Cindy Gallop told The Drum’s John McCarthy.

Still, put down the pitchforks for one second. In my career today as a professional marketing keynote speaker, I have attended dozens of events. I can tell you first-hand that conference planners never have complete control over what happens on their stages. It is a stressful job.

A speaker might unexpectedly tell a very inappropriate joke. A musical performance might flop because the band was partying too much the night before. Part of the audio-visual system might simply fail. It is possible that Advertising Week did not know in advance the full content of Pitbull’s entire act.

But I doubt it. I simply cannot imagine the wrap party not doing at least one full dress rehearsal for a conference of this importance. And I cannot envision any meeting planner hiring anyone without at least seeing videos of past performances.

How to do real brand purpose

The B Impact Assessment

So, Advertising Week and Cannes Lions – as well as the companies that attend such events – probably have some work to do if they truly want to help the world. Here is the best way: clean your own house first. Talk is useless.

For inspiration, take the Creatives for Climate Summit in Amsterdam last week at which more than twenty agencies signed a collective declaration of emergency on climate change that was also approved by the Art Directors Club Netherlands (ADCN).

To help the world and serve a real purpose, there is one specific thing that all brands, agencies and holding companies can do.

The B Corp Certification is an affirmation administered by the global non-profit organisation B Lab that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. B Lab was founded in 2006, and the first 82 certifications were granted the following year.

The initial assessment process evaluates how a company’s operations and business model affect its workers, community, environment, and customers from the supply chain to input materials to charitable giving to employee benefits. There is a further review process that requires supporting documentation.

Many businesses today focus only on shareholders and not all the stakeholders. B Corp certification also requires the use of its legal requirement tool to integrate stakeholder consideration into companies’ governance structures. Depending on the size of the business, the certification fee is between $1,000 and $50,000 and must be renewed every three years.

In return, companies receive benefits such as a listing in the B Corp Global Directory, a registry of 2,750 businesses in 64 countries that consumers can use to determine where to spend their money.

Here are a few of the notable brands that have supported activism in some significant way: Avon, Airbnb, Axe, Ben & Jerry’s Coca-Cola, Dove, Gillette, Lego, Levi’s, Lyft, Nike, Patagonia, Pepsi, Starbucks and The Body Shop.

I searched the B Corp list. How many were included? Only three: Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and The Body Shop. (Brand holding companies Nestle, P&G and Unilever and major agencies WPP, Omnicom and Publicis were not listed either.)

If your company truly believes in brand purpose, stop the advertising. Stop the speeches. Stop dancing to Pitbull. Put your balance sheet where your mouth is and get a B Corp Certification. I’m waiting.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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