Relearning growth: an evolution of weeds and trees

As we start to emerge from lockdown, Omar El-Gammal, a planning director at Wunderman Thompson who has been awarded the President’s Prize for Outstanding Body of Work, asks what kind of industry do we wish to return to?

A lifetime ago, back in February, I wrote an essay attempting to answer a question I’ve been unwilling to face for the majority of my career. It’s often kept me up at night. It’s pushed several to question their careers in advertising and marketing all-together.

“Aren’t we part of the problem?”

We live in an era of burning rainforests and widening gaps of inequality between rich and poor. Now a microscopic virus that wears a crown has reminded us all of our place in the world and deemed every distraction that gives us a false sense of comfort a ‘non-essential activity’. It’s left many of us with nowhere else to look but within. Perhaps that’s why the news cycle in 2020 has felt like an onslaught and we may have finally been forced to face the gaze of the elephant in our own room.

In research spanning three decades, Andrew Oswald discovered that an increase in a nation’s advertising spend was consistently followed by a decrease in overall life-satisfaction. Advertising has literally been making people unhappy. This devastatingly consistent fact, combined with a rare moment of enforced pause, draws us to the necessity of how – not if – we must reimagine our industry and the role it plays building brands fit for a 21st century steeped with new challenges. New challenges that are far more existential than any disruption in media or technology. The futurist Alvin Toffler said best that, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

So it is time we unlearn and relearn everything we know about growth.

We work in an industry that prides itself on creating demand for yet more consumption and with an insatiable appetite for growth. We’re obsessed with it. “Killer charts” that always show a steep rise to the promised land of the top right corner, where you’ve earned the right to remain wilfully blind to the facts that we’ve entered an era of unsustainable limits. Charts of growth that economist and author Kate Raworth likens to “being on a plane that is never allowed to land”. Does all this growth really always equate to a healthy brand? David Pilling, author of 'The Growth Delusion', argues: "Only in economics is endless expansion seen as a virtue. In biology it is called cancer."

I would like to propose we call it a Weed.

Why we need to unlearn the Growth of Weeds

While all weeds aren’t bad, the worst kinds grow aggressively fast at the cost of everything around them. Sucking resource to grow efficiently at breakneck speed for no one’s benefit but its own. It’s the kind of philosophy that breeds the belief that a company’s only responsibility is to grow its shareholders' wealth and that the only meaningful job in advertising is to sell, sell, sell. Professor Cait Lamberton makes the point that: “We’ve spent a lot of effort getting people to buy things, but then we don’t necessarily worry about whether they use them." Which explains why the average American home has 300,000 items and why a UN report estimated that the world’s top 3,000 companies cost the earth $2.2trillion in environmental, social, and human health damage. It’s time we uproot this mindset once and for all.

As lockdown has shown us, putting an end to capitalism isn’t a solution either. We want the brands and businesses we love to be around and healthy when we all re-emerge. Raworth argues that "today we have economies that grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need is economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow."

Which brings me to the opportunity we have as an industry: to rediscover the growth of Trees.

Relearning the Growth of Trees

Trees are less aggressive in their growth, but they build long-lasting roots in the communities they help thrive. Their branches reach far and wide, providing shelter, fruit, and grow sustainably into the future. If we’ve learnt anything from this pandemic, it’s that no one thrives alone – people, businesses, communities are all connected more deeply than we ever imagined. So when thinking about how we help brands grow in the 21st century, we need to consider the context of that growth and impact it drives for everyone it serves, not just shareholders. This isn’t about altruism and a much maligned sense of purpose. This is about understanding that Trees can thrive and bring everyone along with them. They put more into communities than they take out.

Not only is it a convenient analogy with great potential for puns, the public demands it.

They are demanding brands provide valuable services that genuinely make their lives better or easier. Not more product extensions they don’t really need.

They are demanding brands that fairly pay their taxes.

They are demanding brands that help communities thrive, not just the shareholders.

They are demanding brands take care of the health and wellbeing of their employees.

They are demanding that if you claim to care for diversity, you’d better show it in your boardrooms and talent.

With sites like DidTheyHelp.com, they are separating the Weeds from the Trees in the biggest crisis of our lives. We now see movements, even within our own industry, calling this not just a crisis – but The Great Reset.

A lifetime ago

Since February, it feels like our universe has changed.

It hasn’t – yet.

Inequality is still rampant – from classrooms to our own boardrooms.

We’ve spent more time in lockdown appreciating nature, while still contributing to its destruction.

We don’t need thought pieces on the new normal, we need to build a better one.

Luckily, we’re in the business of changing attitudes, not just selling more stuff.

It’s been said that “management deals most with the status quo and leadership deals with change” – well we don’t need any more managers. We need leaders willing to face the elephant in the room and understand that the industry is desperate for reimagination like never before.

When this is all ‘over’ and we can leave our homes, we’ll be confronted yet again with a choice – do we want to go back, or do we want to move forward? One can only hope we will find a way to transition to a more thriving, sustainable future. Yet in the words of the Brazilian philosopher, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, “Hope is more the consequence of action than its cause. As the experience of the spectator favours fatalism, so the experience of the agent produces hope.”

Omar El-Gammal is a planning director at Wunderman Thompson. Omar was awarded the President’s Prize for Outstanding Body of Work on the IPA Excellence Diploma, which includes his opinion piece Why Fearless Alienation Can Be a Powerful Brand Strategy, his essay The Wide and the Narrow of It and his 'I Believe' essay, An Evolution of Weeds and Trees.

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