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Advertising is hooked on culture-washing. I think there's a better way


By Conall McAteer, Creative director

March 4, 2024 | 9 min read

M&C Saatchi S&E’s Conall McAteer agrees with brands that say they ‘want to get close to culture,’ he just thinks few do it very well.

Jose Mourinho in Adidas Predator campaign, a positive example

Credit: We Are Social

People in advertising care too much about advertising.

Sorry, but it’s true.

I came into advertising not really caring about advertising. What I did like - coming from an arts and football-culture background - creating hustle projects with high passion and low revenue - was the opportunity our industry gives you to make. And not just little things, but big things. Identities, campaigns, history. It gives us the opportunity to truly impact culture.

But our industry has started thinking this too. And the last few years have seen an influx of the same briefs littered inanely with the same C-word: Culture

Every brand wants to attach to culture. Why wouldn’t they? The problem is they don’t really know why, how or - more importantly - have the self-awareness to know if they even have the right.

Culture is broad, it is niche, it is diverse, it is cliquey, it is high brow, it is bottom of the barrel. Culture can mean lots of things. But making work that truly dances at the faultline of culture, that brings different worlds together, that makes an audience care about a brand because of the value they add to a fleeting moment in their life; be it an instantly shareable post or unmissable piece of content. That’s something, right? That’s a feeling. That’s true cultural creativity.

The problem is our industry is awash in work that purports or feigns cultural impact. It’s a rinse-and-repeat formula of shallow links and tired tropes. No original storytelling, no creative authenticity. Our industry is drowning in what can only be described as culture-washing.

We don’t need to dwell on it, you already know the examples. Here’s a football shirt photoshoot taken outside a London block of flats. Here’s the same influencer being rolled out again. Yawn.

We know culture-washing is happening, yet valuable cultural work is so important that it shouldn’t be lost. We should strive for it. It’s more vital than ever.

But fear not, while there are good clients and good agencies in the game, there is hope. While lots of work that shallowly attempts to have cultural impact may fall flat, there are examples of brands that have added genuine value to their audience by tapping into some key principles. I’ve even written them down for you in a digestible format. Isn’t that nice of me?

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1. Give something back

This is about having a meaningful impact. This is about contributing something rather than merely extracting. This is how Arsenal have used their voice and position to great effect for campaigns like ‘No More Red’ (now in its third year) to raise awareness of an issue prevalent yet often ignored in London. This is Salomon - a brand-playing benefactor - working with cultural collective Bone Soda to create Dijonss, a space for young Londoners to learn new skills, forge lifelong connections and celebrate ideas.

2. Reflect back audience behavior with credibility

This is about doing representation well and ingraining our brands in cultural conversations. Creating moments of joy and excitement through understanding what audiences need and want, and therefore creating something relatable. It’s culture-in rather than brand-out. This is LA Chargers meeting the world of anime for their fixture list reveal. This is Adidas Predator utilizing credible ‘influencer’ sources around Transfer Deadline Day to spark rumors of a move in the brand family. This was what ‘Nothing Beats A Londoner’ did so well, that so so so many have since tried to vacuously imitate. [Editor’s note: It must be one of the most copied campaigns in history.]

3. Find an authentic cultural root

This isn’t about jumping on trends or fads to feel relevant. This is about finding your own space to call home. This is about understanding your own role in culture. This is about brand-world building. This is Arsenal showing ties to local community businesses with heart and humor. This is JD going back in time to assert its cultural relevance and role in culture through its iconic drawstring bag. This is Corteiz defining a unique style of communicating with their community: an authenticity that allowed it to grow from feeling ‘London’ to feeling like ‘Corteiz’ to a global audience.

I’ve pinned down 10 changes we as an industry can make to produce better, culturally creative work.

  • Stop looking at advertising so much. Be aware of the competition but don’t take much note of the content. It won’t help.

  • Less advertising people in advertising. Please. Hire more talent from the communities we want to impact. Oh, and when these people speak, listen.

  • Think bottom up, not top down. Make for the community, not just for the client.

  • Talk more. Don’t be precious about your ideas. Share them so they can become more than you. Ask ‘why?’ more than ‘what?’.

  • If you see a pattern forming, shift direction. Be aware of homogeneity in the work. Rinse and repeat drowns the good with the average.

  • Don’t assume you have the right to enter certain cultural spaces and communities. Formula Dank is what it is. Advertising, leave some things alone.

  • Always swing big. Incredible work can get beaten down to very good, but OK work gets beaten down to bad, sorry.

  • Find your own cultural love. This will inform your creative truth. Not everything culturally valuable is ‘cool,’ and not everything ‘cool’ is valuable to the culture.

  • Be interested. If you’re not, move on or use your position to empower and develop the ideas of the people who are.

  • Make some space on that mantelpiece for cut-through, not just Cannes Lions. It’s impact over awards. The impact on culture is our greatest award.

Conall McAteer is the recently appointed creative director of Sport at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. He’s on X @conall_mcateer.

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