Has adland lost sight of its purpose?

The industry responds to planner Paul Feldwick and creative Steve Harrison's assertion that advertising has lost its way

Has adland lost sight of its purpose?

Advertising is in danger of forgetting why it exists – to make famous brands with popular appeal and to sell products. Instead, it is distracted by trying to be cool or creating purpose-driven campaigns. At least that’s the argument from planner Paul Feldwick and creative Steve Harrison. You can explore their views here and here. Or read on to see what some of adland’s leaders have to say in response.

'We need to ignite a proverbial fire under our collective backsides'

I’d still like to have a job in this industry in 10 years’ time. Because I believe creativity sells and is our competitive advantage. And because I like the people who come up with those ideas. But for that to happen, we need to ignite a proverbial fire under our collective backsides to make sure we are 1) writing strategies and making work that shift products and 2) proving this to clients. Steve has done a great job at lighting that fire. 

If you strip away the polarising and somewhat inflammatory anti-liberal rhetoric of Can’t Sell Won’t Sell, it’s an ode to creative effectiveness that I don’t think anyone can disagree with. Making ads isn’t like making art. It’s not a hobby we are lucky enough to get paid for. It’s a business tool that CEOs leverage and expect to yield a return from, as they would expect to from a merger or investment. If agencies neglect this reality, our jobs will be relegated to a sentimental junk heap along with cassettes and floppy disks. 

Steve and Paul both identify culprits in the crisis of creative effectiveness. Steve points at liberals obsessing over purpose; Paul at edgy and cool executions that seem out of touch with the mainstream. Both of these points illuminate a more problematic issue – focusing on the output rather than the outcome we want to achieve for clients. Sometimes, having a purpose is the only way to unlock growth, providing a differentiator in a commoditised market. I spent part of my career working on Persil. Its commitment to purpose has grown the brand tenfold. As for acting cool and edgy, sometimes your audience needs to be challenged to access new growth or overcome barriers to consideration. But the reason purpose or cool have allowed themselves to be misused is because the problem they were meant to solve didn’t start with a business objective or growth opportunity.  

Understanding how our clients make money and the role of marketing in achieving this objective have fallen by the wayside or never made it onto the bandwagon in the first place. And here I agree with Steve. This responsibility lies as much at the door of agencies as it does clients. Too often we let the solution define the problem, not the problem define the solution.

We need to grow relationships beyond our own remit. The CFO, CIO, CTO… all of these are important allies in making ideas that create financial value. And we should start charging for that value. Because that’s what our consultant friends are doing. They know their clients’ business. And they can show beyond doubt how they grow profits, penetration and drive future growth. Charging for the impact we are delivering to a business, not the time it took us to deliver it, is how we can futureproof our industry. And motivate the right kind of work that only we are capable of creating. 

Anna Vogt, chief strategy officer, TBWA\London (above, far left)

'Selling is my job and I love that'

Advertising’s obsession with “purpose” could tell you as much about the psyche of the people that work in advertising as it does about the marketing landscape.Have those of us embarrassed about “rattling the stick against the swill bucket” finally found our bragging rights? If we sell conscience rather than a product or service and do it enough, will people stop thinking of us as nefarious gatekeepers of capitalism and we can go to work saving the planet one purpose at a time? 

Steve Harrison, in his book Can’t Sell Won’t Sell, posits that the industry has lost interest in selling and wants to save the world in order to feel better about itself. Is he right? It’s certainly been stomach-churning to hear privileged public-school-educated, white executives in the industry bang on about how they’re bringing about peace in the Middle East with a hashtag or gender equality with a cheese slice. The self-importance of the traditional ad man was staggering enough in the Mad Men years and, now that the notion of social purpose is in vogue, that pomposity has shifted to another level. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love a brand with a strong moral compass. Those whose beliefs rally for a cause have my admiration and my spend, but not everyone is uncomfortable with the notion of selling.  

I’m not embarrassed; selling is my job and I love that. I don’t see popularity as a dirty word or something that shouldn’t be valued or rewarded, and I’m not the only one. Just look at what Mother has done for KFC, A brand that understands its place in the world and talks to its audience in the same way: big, dirty, audacious work; dirty, big price promotions; and a dirty, big awards shelf to match. 

No, what embarrasses me about working in advertising is the pervasive misogyny and shocking lack of diversity. We’re making inroads, but we’re still way off reflecting and, I’d argue, connecting with the consumers we speak to and the issues they face. 

When it comes to the purpose of ad agencies, the pandemic should focus minds. A staggering 77% of brands could disappear and no-one would care, according to the Havas Meaningful Brands survey. As well as promoting products or services, the ad industry of the future needs to ensure people are glad that the brands we’re flogging exist. That doesn’t always necessitate saving the world, but it does require us to make the most of the myriad ways we reach them and the way we speak to them, so we can earn our place in their lives. With pride.

Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer, Havas London (above, upper middle)

'Purpose is a considered response to what works'

Should the future of advertising look more like its past? That is the question some people are starting to ask, as evidence of an effectiveness crisis begins to pile up.

We are, we now know, regularly guilty of poor goal-setting and lacklustre analysis. We have also been exposed as frequently seduced by convenient but useless metrics. 

Making matters worse are the stories of global firms trimming nine figures of marketing spend only to discover that the severed portion of marketing was doing absolutely nothing. 

Who’s to blame?

Some thought leaders want to connect these serious crimes against effectiveness with a specific genre of creative strategy, which we might broadly call “purpose” (but incorporates anything cool, woke or political). The argument is that, in becoming more provocative, we have lost our ability to grasp the masses. A fate we would have sidestepped, the thinking goes, if we had stuck to the conventions of advertising’s golden era, which emphasised entertainment and populism.

It’s trendy to contrast causation and correlation in conversations about effectiveness, so let me say here that I’m not convinced the latter follows the former.

It’s tempting to look at our industry’s more ambitious, disruptive work and presume it is our guilty conscience writ large. To see it as evidence of a collective shame born from our involvement in the grubby business of business. I see its origins in something far more ordinary: a realisation of how advertising works.

As we became aware that we sell less through direct persuasion, and that we are in the business of creating fame, memories and feelings, we realised we needed to find ways of putting brands at the heart of conversations. Where heat, attention, passion and interest exist. We needed to place them in breeding grounds for fame and conversation. 

In breaking brands free from the world of light family entertainment and putting them closer to the stuff that actually matters, we weren’t trying to turn people away, we were trying to bring them closer.

If we’re to command attention, we must reward it with meaning and substance. Purpose isn’t an industry’s protest against capitalism – it’s a considered response to what works.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always successful.

Then again, funny ads aren’t always funny.

Tobey Duncan, head of planning, Uncommon Creative Studio (above, lower middle) 

'It’s a mistake to conflate what award shows look like with the bread and butter of agencies'

Come with me. Take off your headset. But please, it’s the 37th lockdown, so feel free to stay in those stretchy trousers. Step into my future of advertising, a beautiful industry run by humans. Be cool, this isn’t an anti-tech stance. 

Truth is we’ll go where tech tells us, and no doubt it’ll be a few years later than other industries, like porn, because, actually, we’re not the fastest when it comes to early adoption. 

But regardless of the tools we or our clients invest in, the vital bit that drives everything is the wonderful human bit, the real engine of this industry. Smart, creative people who feel increasingly that if they’re hauling their asses out of bed for a reason beyond a pay cheque, it stands to reason their client is, too. As seismic changes are being made by businesses to respond to a flailing world, because we’re human beings, we also feel that urgency. It’s a mistake to conflate what award shows look like with the bread and butter of what agencies do on the daily. But the proliferation of books and award entries dealing with “issues” is a good indication of what’s in our hearts as well as our vainglorious heads.

That anyone working in advertising might want a world that isn’t on fire and where everyone is treated equally, isn’t some boujie, metropolitan-elite notion. According to Ipsos, two-thirds of us want the climate prioritised in our economic recovery from Covid. And that was a poll across the whole country, not just East London. Without understanding what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it with or who we’re doing it for, then eventually they will ask themselves: why exactly, am I doing it at all? That’s as true for a network like McCann asking itself important, difficult questions, as it is a five-person start-up. 

Purpose focuses and organises us, it rallies and emboldens us, it adds meaning and truth. It also means different things to different people, as well as to different brands. So even if they don’t express it in a brand meaning model or a brand onion, humans tend to live life better and statistically longer, when we live it with some kind of purpose. 

At a time when the siren call has gone out for diversity, equality and kindness, those younger candidates who tapped us on the shoulder and reminded us to step up, will be sure to ask about how they might have some purpose by working with us, too. And remember, when they ask, that the real benchmark of any declared purpose is what you actually do with it.

Ray Shaughnessy, executive creative director, McCann London (above, lower right)

'We have a responsibility to the people that pay us to make sure that we work we do pays back for their business. But not in some sort of Filofax-Gordon-Gekko-fest'

Binary thinking is rarely wise. I think this is a false dichotomy. It’s not either/or and to suggest so is both silly and unhelpful. It’s perfectly possible to make great work that sells. It’s perfectly possible to create profit with purpose. Sorry to be greedy, but history shows we can have both.

I agree we should remember that the primary purpose of briefs is to sell stuff – we are commercial artists after all, not fine artists – but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of everything else. Snoop and Just Eat, Old Spice and Isaiah Mustafa – great work that made waves in the living room as well as the judging rooms. I’ve done it myself – Carlsberg with "Old lions", Three with "Pony" – work that people liked on both the average high street and the slightly knobby bars of Shoreditch High Street.

It is also perfectly possible to be both commercially successful and societally responsible – brands like Patagonia or Hiut make that patently clear. I have read a tonne of reports from the aforementioned Accenture and Deloitte that show having a purpose is a very commercially sensible thing for any business in 2021 that has aspirations to still be around in 2025.

Of course, we have a responsibility to the people that pay us to make sure that we work we do pays back for their business. But not in some sort of Filofax-Gordon-Gekko-fest, shrouded in cigar smoke and evil cackling. Purpose pays back. It’s also possible for the purpose of a business to make great products to solve an unmet consumer need without leaving a trail of gasoline & dead bodies. Let’s sell today with one eye on tomorrow. 

And let’s leave the binary choices to the computers.

Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour (above, upper right)