Work & Wellbeing Brand Purpose Business Leadership

Can we re-imagine advertising to be in service of a thriving future?

By Lisa Merrick-Lawless | Co-founder

November 18, 2022 | 8 min read

Lisa Merrick-Lawless of advertising change catalyst group Purpose Disruptors shares her reflections on the recent Anthropy conference, and whether advertising can truly change.

(from L to R) Lisa Merrick Lawless, Dr Victoria Hurth & Rory Sutherland at Anthropy 2022

Left to right: Lisa Merrick Lawless, Dr Victoria Hurth & Rory Sutherland at Anthropy 2022 / Image courtesy of Purpose Disruptors

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to speak alongside the legendary Rory Sutherland at Anthropy: a unique gathering dreamed up by John O’Brien, who amassed 1,000 eclectic, forward-thinking leaders at The Eden Project in Cornwall to discuss the qualities needed to build a positive, sustainable and equitable future.

With the magic, wonder and pure delight of the tropical setting (if you haven’t been to the Eden Project, go!) juxtaposed with the backdrop of climate chaos warnings at Cop27, the case for building a different future felt glaringly urgent.

Imagination deficit

Finding solutions relies on our ability to re-imagine our lives, something key thinkers like Amitav Ghosh and Sir Geoff Mulgan have argued we find very hard to do. Historically, culture has found it easier to imagine utopian or apocalyptic narratives, neither of which bring us closer to a future that is both desirable and realistic. Famously, scholar Mark Fisher said, "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism". Breaking beyond the structures of thought and experiences baked into the fabric of our lives does not come easily.

This might be why we find it so difficult to picture alternative futures for the systems creating and exacerbating problems. Take the ad industry. Our industry now adds 32% to everyone in the UK’s carbon footprint, through our role in driving increased consumption. Yet recent bone-chilling climate reports say we need to almost halve emissions by 2030, and “only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster”.

Can you think of a future in which advertising takes on a different role? How could the industry operate for good? What would make us proud to work in advertising? How might the advertising industry be in service of a thriving future for all?

These are questions that need radical thinking. Got it. But how do we activate that type of thinking? That’s much harder.

Sitting in Anthropy’s magical setting inside the Eden Project’s rainforest biome, listening to the gentle buzzing of bees and delicate drops of dew, I was reminded that the green shoots of imaginative work are often more visible than we think.

Dreaming beyond the deficit

The Eden Project began as a dream in 1995 when Sir Tim Smit discovered a derelict clay pit in Cornwall, then transformed it into a greenhouse of life, welcoming more than 19 million visitors, as well providing local regeneration. Smit was able to reimagine a problem as cradling potential for something much greater. “Dare to dream, organize to deliver”, he said, opening the first day of Anthropy and encouraging us all to keep exercising our imagination muscle.

Looking to examples like Eden could help shift our mindset, something Dr Sally Uren, chief executive of Forum of the Future, called for at Anthropy. We have to start with mindsets if we want to reimagine the goals of the systems we operate in.

But what are the conditions we can create to shift our mindsets to embrace change?

The scale and complexity of the world’s interconnected, ill-defined systems paralyze action. Uren’s first step: try and understand the boundaries of the wider system, then home in on where to leverage change. Consider the food system. Its mission is to bring cheap, massproduced food to market, without paying attention to nutritional quality, ecosystem boundaries or livelihood return to farmers. Our health system operates to fix people when they are broken, instead of keeping people well. Our economy is focused on profit maximization, not the social and environmental outcomes we so desperately need. The mindsets and the stories we tell ourselves must change.

Mary Portas agreed: it’s new stories that are desperately needed. On stage at Anthropy, she quoted economist Robert Shiller who said, “the most powerful stories in our economy are the stories that seep into culture”. Today’s media discourse is dominated by negativity and fear, causing a flight-or-freeze response rather than a fight for new possibilities.

Porter says we should celebrate the huge shifts we’ve seen in the retail industry in the last decade (rising popularity of charity shops; investment in thriving high streets designed for communities rather than commerce; brands like Patagonia reframing what it means to serve people and planet). From them, we can learn to keep a narrative of hope and possibility alive.

Disrupting the imagination deficit

What else can stimulate our ability to imagine a positive future? Greater collaboration, especially between existing and future leaders. Without the constraints of working for years in institutional structures and against archaic systems, young people can bring radical creativity to boardrooms, something Duro Ode (founder and chief executive of 2020 Change) Xavier Rees (group chief executive of Havas) and Matt Hocking (founder of Leap) spoke passionately about on Rob McFaul’s (my fellow co-founder of Purpose Disruptors) panel, ‘The Power of the Disruptor.’

There’s an echoing cry from leaders like Andy Haldane (chief executive, Royal Society of the Arts) and Jane Craig (chief executive, Otherkind) to nurture creativity. We must lean into courses, events and new ways of gathering knowledge to disrupt unhelpful ways of thinking; to be more imaginative! We’re on a lifelong learning journey that doesn’t stop at school.

Radical, imaginative thinking is hard. It requires us to think in terms of possibilities, not problems. To redefine unhelpful goals and stories, to work with those outside our industry, and give new meaning and value to opinions often unheard. But dare to dream we must. We need to urgently find ways to break down barriers, and take time to be inspired by what’s around us. Throughout history people have demonstrated how imagination and sheer determination drive change: turning waste to flourishing life and transforming sketched-out ideas like Anthropy to a gathering of thousands. Imagine how advertising’s collective creativity could help shape a better future. Let’s put our minds to work.

Good Life 2030 is an open invitation for the industry to collectively re-imagine the future. For insights and inspiration visit our website.

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