Opinion: Perspective - Let's shout about ads that still make a difference

We tend, as a country, to expect quite a lot from our advertising. We count not only on its ability to change behaviour (that's a given), but also on its power to change people's preconceptions, even their prejudices.

This week's would-be game-changers are attempting to tackle some pretty weighty issues: binge-drinking among young people; and the dismal public distrust of social workers in the wake of the Baby P case.

Binge-drinking first: it's a worn-out old argument but let's revisit it. We all know that advertising alone can't cure this societal disease, but we also know that drinks companies need to be seen to be doing something about it.

The first phase of the £100 million Drinkaware campaign launched this week and the posters are quite pretty (go to campaignlive.co.uk/the work if you haven't seen them yet). Whether they'll be enough to make any difference is something else entirely, but let's be kind and assume this is only stage one of something much bigger.

The headline-grabber this week, though, was Publicis' new ad for the Department for Children Schools and Families, which attempts to convince an entirely sceptical public that social workers aren't a load of poorly trained wasters who wouldn't recognise child abuse if it was happening in the house next door.

The ad itself (which is backed by a £58 million spend) is nice enough, featuring celebrities voicing real-life stories of people that need help from social workers. The spot is a bit of a heartstring-tugger and using a few famous faces has already got it some positive PR.

It's by no means perfect - the website (www.helpgivethemavoice.com) is a bit basic and doesn't even attempt to address the inherent mystery of the job. What exactly do social workers do? What training do they get? And considering the amount of press coverage the campaign has had, 27 comments on the site's "have your say" section as of Wednesday is nothing to be proud of.

But let's not get picky. The broader point remains: ads still have the power to make a big difference. They have the power (budget cuts, media fragmentation notwithstanding) to move people, to change their views and have a positive impact on society.

Proof of that, if any is needed, comes from this year's IPA Effectiveness Awards shortlist (News, page 2), which contains 16 examples of campaigns with budgets of less than £2.5 million that provide evidence of advertising's influence and power to make change.

Agencies are the cause of all this. Perhaps it's a British thing, but we don't spend enough time recognising the value of our business, and we're certainly not as proud of it as we used to be.

It's something that's particularly worth remembering in a week in which the concept of user-generated advertising (now under the umbrella of crowd-sourcing for those who don't know) has cropped up again.

Peperami's doing it (Close-up 3, page 13), Budweiser is trying it in China, and now Cadbury is asking customers to write slogans for posters to promote the launch of its Wispa Gold caramel bar. Some of this makes sense - for a one-off campaign, asking the audience can work well - but cutting all ties with your ad agency, as Peperami has done, is a foolhardy strategy.

The qualities that a good ad agency brings are too many for this small space, but include long-term strategy, inspired creative thinking, advice, understanding of markets, hand-holding, courage, leadership and, often, flashes of brilliance that can fundamentally change a brand's fortunes.

With pressure on margins all around, it's easy to drop your pants and your principles for the sake of the bottom line. It's not worth it. Because how are clients going to be convinced of agencies' worth if the agencies themselves aren't shouting about it?

- Claire Beale is away.