‘Advertising was a canary in the mine’: Keith Weed hails industry’s Covid-19 response

Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, and Chris Kenna, chief executive of Brand Advance, disagreed.

Clockwise from top left: Weed, Brown, Kingaby, Kenna and Mendelsohn
Clockwise from top left: Weed, Brown, Kingaby, Kenna and Mendelsohn

Keith Weed, president of the Advertising Association, has praised adland's response to the coronavirus crisis, saying that the industry was a "canary in the mine".

Speaking during a panel session at a virtual version of Advertising Week Europe 2020 this morning, the former top Unilever marketer explained that advertising was one of the first revenues to be cut by brands in a bid to save money during the pandemic.

As the world adjusted to working from home, Weed praised the work of brands in creating "a new type of business, a business connected through technology".

"Advertising, as always, was the canary in the mine," he said. "We were hit first and we were hit hard, but the way we responded to the technical and practical challenges was nothing short of brilliant, and fantastic advertising has been created over these months."

Weed hailed the creative work of brands including Cadbury, Tesco, Lloyds and ITV during the pandemic, which he claimed "helped people understand what the new normal was".

He continued: "It helped people connect with the emotions of the nation; it helped also to share compassion for key workers, compassion for each other and for ourselves."

Weed also noted that the UK was the first country to instigate Covid-safe production guidelines for agencies creating work during the pandemic, with brands including Boots, BT, O2 and Vodafone collaborating with the government for its socially savvy "Enjoy summer safely" campaign.

"Whichever way you look at it, advertising has responded brilliantly to this terrible crisis," Weed concluded.

Last week, Byron Sharp told Campaign it was "embarrassing arrogance" that marketers would think people were interested in what they had to say about the virus.

Backing Sharp's remarks, Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, a voluntary coalition that focuses on the role of ethics in advertising, and Chris Kenna, chief executive of Brand Advance, maintained that the advertising industry did not respond well to the coronavirus crisis.

Kingaby cited misinformation as a catalyst for confusion during the pandemic.

"We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing," Kingaby said. "People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive, or even believe what they are told."

She said that at least $235m (£182m) in revenue is generated annually from advertising running on extremist and misinformation websites, including $25m in 2020 alone on Covid-19.

This spread of misinformation is also set to filter into wider, purpose-led conversations such as climate change, Kingaby warned.

"If you think Covid-19 is bad, wait until we try and cut down on climate change. We can show you global big brands advertising on content that says global warming is a hoax, and CO2 is harmless."

She continued: "Advertising is literally paying for our own extinction."

Portrayal of key workers

Likewise, Brand Advance's Kenna pointed to the way that key workers have been portrayed in recent months as an example of brands and advertisers jumping on a bandwagon in terms of representation.

He said: "It's great that this pandemic has allowed people to celebrate key workers, but they were there before, they were just called low-paid, low-skilled workers.

"The black bus driver, the lady that worked at Tesco, they were always there – it just took a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter for people to actually see them.

"Although clapping every Thursday was a good thing, the fact it took a pandemic to get there ain't so good."

Kenna also pointed to the disparity of younger people in the industry who have been unable to work comfortably from home due to living in shared spaces and not having access to work-appropriate equipment, as well as the industry's diversity statistics, which he predicted will only worsen as the pandemic continues.

"I'm scared to see where we are when we get out of this," Kenna said. "As an industry we are privileged and entrusted with a great power – advertising could hold down democracy, pull down countries.

"It can raise people to lead countries (sometimes not the right people) and so with that great power, comes great responsibility. We need to advise our clients better, we need to make sure that the whole of society is involved in all that we do – not just sections, and not just for periods."

Facebook's vice-president for EMEA, Nicola Mendelsohn, addressed the spread of misinformation following boycotts from more than 100 brands including Coca-Cola, Unilever, Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia and The North Face.

"I want to be really clear that Facebook doesn't benefit from misinformation. More than that, we invest billions of dollars every year to keep it off our platform," Mendelsohn said.

She maintained that Facebook employs more than 35,000 people who work with artificial intelligence to find and remove misinformation from posted content, with more than seven million pieces of harmful misinformation removed from Facebook and Instagram in Q2 of this year alone.

The Facebook boycott prompted founder Mark Zuckerberg to take steps to deal with misinformation and hateful content – particularly around issues related to the US elections – with the platform also launching a campaign to help viewers spot fake news.

The panel session was chaired by Philippa Brown, worldwide chief executive of PHD.

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