Purpose is a an overused word in the field of Advertising, PR, Marketing and all other forms of corporate creative communications. It is not only overused, be it in the industry press, unimaginative briefs or conferences where overpaid trust-fund gurus and tech evangelists bandy the term around freely, it is deliberately evasive, almost cowardly. By pontificating about ‘purpose’ industry leaders can pay lip service to the fleeting ‘good causes’ that come around in cycles via your social media feeds without any long term commitment to real social and economic change. A nice write-up in Campaign or The Drum will follow shortly, your business director will see it and ask you to pull together some examples of brands doing ‘purposeful’ things for a power-point deck that your client won’t ever read.
The stakes are high at the time of writing. The free world is lead by an individual who believes that complex and multifaceted issues can be resolved through the blunt instruments of forceful rhetoric and wall-building. In order to do this he had surrounded himself with a ghoulish line-up of arch conservatives and proto-fascists, cherry-picking the most reactionary individuals from the upper ranks of military and industrial institutions as well as politicians with proven records of racism, misogyny, homophobia and climate change denial. As with Brexit and other reactionary populist movements sweeping the western world and beyond, the recent developments have lent legitimacy for a range of views that have been largely confined to the fringes for decades.
Agencies are predominantly places where the political spectrum ranges from centrist liberal to social democrat. Sure, your boss complains about the 40% tax rate that he pays and there’s that young copywriter who joined the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn and occasionally retweets articles from the Daily Mash mocking Theresa May , but essentially everyone is happy to turn up to work and make something cool that a corporation can use to sell household products and we’re all cool with immigration, women’s rights and gay marriage. It should strike us as ironic, or perhaps tragic, that most ad agencies are dominated by middle and upper-middle class white people and that women are traditionally kept out of the creative department at senior management level. It has gotten to the point where clients are telling us to be more diverse which is embarrassing because we are meant to be the cool kids and they are meant to be ‘the man.’ It is common for petitions to be passed around work email accounts and social media feeds among right-on colleagues but it is extremely rare to hear any of us consider that we might be where we are at least partly due to circumstances relating to the advantages of our birth and upbringings and that real change can only happen through decisive structural adjustments. Many agencies are trying, this has to be noted however it is not enough to mandate light-touch Diversity and Inclusion seminars which seem to be constructed to cause the least amount of discomfort possible to privileged people.
Structural change, like the brilliant initiative employed by Saatchi & Saatchi where entry level salaries have been raised to enable new starters from more disadvantaged backgrounds to feel economically stable enough to pursue a career in the industry are needed now more than ever. Another fantastic example is the recent initiative at Ogilvy & Mather whether planners are dispatched to areas around the country to immerse themselves in communities that are often radically different in terms of lived experience, perceptions and economic reality to what we know in London. Despite this, we need to be going further. We are in a position to influence culture and the broader social consensus so we need to be influencing the beliefs and behavior of our clients at the same time as working on ourselves because we make brands much more famous more than we make ourselves.
There are two levels to which we can push brands to take moral leadership in the communications that we make for them (we can’t unfortunately make them pay the level of tax that they’re meant to but that’s a debate for another day). Firstly, let’s insist that a certain percentage of our creative output actually commits to a long term project that does something worthwhile for society’s most vulnerable (wherever they may be in the world). The client’s short term business, marketing and campaign objectives obviously have to be met and/or exceeded but real rigorous strategy and groundbreaking creative work can and will do that whilst also being able to produce something that serves a more noble purpose. An obvious example would be Grey London’s Volvo Life Paint work from 2015 which saw a multinational automotive giant tackle the issue of safety head-on. This campaign demonstrated how agencies and brands can work together to break advertising orthodoxy and carve out exemplary models of behavior for brands. We can also point to how traditionally female-targeted brand Rimmel has followed L’Oreal and CoverGirl in embracing a more inclusive attitude to gender with the help of BETC or J Walter Thompson has created the 10th Month campaign for Bayer which includes a website ran in partnership with motherhood journalists which is packed with useful articles for first time mums and their partners.
Volvo Life Paint- Grey London
Bepanthen 10th Month by J Walter Thompson London
The second level to pushing our clients to become moral leaders in an age of ugly political rhetoric and even uglier policy proposals that threaten to divide us even further is through leveraging pop culture in order to connect with the public. We are currently seeing a phase of heightened political activism among pop culture figures. Beyonce might be the obvious example but we should also consider how Kendrick Lamar has been able to balance commercial success and artistic integrity creating art that brings a nuanced and story-based approach to stark socio-economic realities. The younger activists who make up a huge chunk of those you might see out on the street protesting against Trump or the rise in xenophobia after Brexit often express their sentiments via popular culture motifs. Popular youth trends such as the re-emergence of the Grime scene are strongly anti-establishment without the complications of ideology and mirror the grim realities currently facing racial minorities and the working class. The recent collaboration between artists such as Skepta and Wretch 32 and Levi’s (The Levi’s Music Project) is a scheme which aims to deliver greater access to music in the famously underprivileged yet creatively dynamic area of Tottenham. The reason why this scheme is so important is that it demonstrates how brands need to be beneficial to society in order for consumers to allow them to exist and grow in the long term.
Brands, and the companies of which they are the face and intangible essence, are not the answer to society’s problems. They do however find themselves in the critical position of being the one of the things that individuals in a free society use to define themselves. As our new and disorientating reality takes hold and the social, political and economic impacts become apparent in people’s every day lives, brands will have to prove that they are worthy of the public’s attention, their tolerance and their money. If agencies cannot lead their clients to act and lead in the interest of decency, tolerance and fairness then they are not doing their jobs.