How advertising can find its purpose

If adland wants to change the world, it must focus on helping free enterprise, Steve Harrison believes.

How advertising can find its purpose

In March, I brought out a book about Howard Gossage called Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man. As the title suggests, it is the story of a 60s adman who aspired to do more with his talent than just sell things.

While Gossage's views were wildly contrarian back then, they are today's orthodoxy. Indeed, the book has succeeded because those views appeal to an ad industry eagerly seeking its own altruistic raison d'etre.

Would Gossage have been pleased by this? Probably not. Ever one to zig when others zagged, he had an ear tuned to the rumble of an oncoming bandwagon and an aversion to the fashionable consensus that is often that vehicle's cargo.

In this case, I'm sure Gossage would have been appalled to see an argument that he originated being appropriated by Bill Clinton in the keynote address to this year's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

In that speech, "Slick Willie" implored the ad industry to use its formidable powers of communication and persuasion to get the world to understand and solve its most pressing problems. He went on to identify such problems as climate change, gender equality and personal empowerment.

While all these need addressing, Clinton missed the biggest problem of all - one that he was partially responsible for creating: the most potentially catastrophic economic depression ever. It is the biggest because if we do not put that one right very soon, then it will rob us of the economic resources, the political stability and the collective resolve to do anything about the other things that keep Clinton awake at night.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Gossage might have felt that way, for he had an uncanny ability to get to the heart of a problem and, I think, he would have looked at all the things that need fixing and reminded the former president: "It's the economy, stupid."

It is a view we should all endorse. Yet, instead of focusing upon how we might use our "formidable powers of communication and persuasion" to help with economic recovery, we seem intent on finding our higher social purpose.

This is the detour down which the Cannes Chimera Project is headed. And it is being followed by that other august industry body, D&AD. On 27 November, D&AD holds its White Pencil Symposium - "a conversation about the power of commercial creativity to make our world a better place".

I am sure the people at D&AD are totally sincere. Likewise, so are most of the 44 luminaries who have signed up as white Pencil ambassadors. But if so, then one of the most prominent ambassadors, David Jones, does the cause no favours when, in an effort to distance the new idealism from the old ways, he writes in his book Who Cares Wins: "The marketer's job used to be about creating the best possible image for any product. No matter how divorced from the truth that image might have been." It is an amazing admission that, one can only assume, is based on Jones' 20-plus years' experience with top agencies. And if it's true, then the industry's Damascene conversion hasn't come a day too soon.

Either way, by searching for "the creative idea that changes the world for the better", D&AD's industry leaders are ignoring the change that is needed most: getting the economy working by promoting private enterprise. While this may leave some holding their noses, they have got to accept that private enterprise and the ad industry are roped together like two mountaineers. If the former goes off the cliff then the latter will follow.

And, according to observers of all political persuasions, it is not just the ad industry's fate that is tied to that of private enterprise. Pre-Lehman Brothers, the governments of Europe and the US compensated for years of uncompetitiveness by increasing government borrowing and encouraging personal indebtedness. Having run up bankrupting levels of sovereign and personal debt, their attempts to kick-start a flatlining economy depend largely upon the private sector's ability to grow and prosper. In short, we need entrepreneurs - and they need us.

First, we need to change people's attitude towards private enterprise. The economic crisis has shaken the public's belief in the system. According to Pew Research Center, four years ago, 72 per cent of respondents said they felt people were better off in a free-market economy. This year, that figure has dropped to just 61 per cent.

Symptomatic of this is the belief that profit is synonymous with making a quick buck at the expense of others. Which, in turn, has led to what some commentators identify as an anti-enterprise culture.

The ad industry can help here by perhaps communicating facts such as this: in 2000, the UK signed up to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, the first of which aimed at halving the proportion of the world's population living on less than one dollar a day. The due date was 2015. Earlier this year, the World Bank announced that the target had actually been hit back in 2008. And it was not international aid that achieved this target an amazing seven years early - it was largely down to the free enterprise system lifting 500 million Chinese and Indian people out of Dark Age-levels of poverty.

Second, the ad industry can use its skill to encourage people to start a business. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reported in 2011 that the view that "starting a business is a good career choice" was held by a minority in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and by just 51.2 per cent of the population of England.

If Britain is to replace public spending with privately generated revenue, then this is bad news - particularly in Scotland, where state spending as a percentage of GDP has rocketed from 27 per cent in 2000 to 52 per cent in 2010.

Starting a business in such a mood takes guts, and those entrepreneurs who set out in the face of such negativity need inspirational stories to sustain them. Given that every UK agency today claims "storytelling" as its core competence, surely this is where we can help.

If that seems too parochial for international bodies such as Cannes Lions and D&AD, then fine. The problems are global and those wonderful organisations have the authority and influence to co-ordinate a global response. For example, a few days before the White Pencil Symposium, there is another get-together in London called Global Entrepreneurship Week. The aim is to use the week to pass on the practical help, knowledge, resources and advice needed by early start-ups and individuals who are considering taking the plunge. Shouldn't these people be the focus of the ad industry's efforts?

Of course, but one wonders if going to talk to a young entrepreneur about briefs, targeting and ROI is quite as alluring as, say, going to Cannes to listen to an ageing roue get all misty-eyed about youth, hope and creativity.

Which brings me back to what Gossage might have thought, and a story he told his friend Barrows Mussey. One evening he chanced upon a drunk on his knees at the foot of a street lamp. The drunk said he had dropped his keys, and Gossage set about helping him. After five minutes, he turned to the drunk and said: "Hey, buddy, there is no sign of your keys. Are you sure this is where you dropped 'em?" To which the drunk replied: "Nope, I dropped them near those bushes, but the light's better over here."

Steve Harrison is the former worldwide creative director of Wunderman.


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