Tomorrow we will be judged by our actions over coronavirus today
A view from Iain Jacob

Tomorrow we will be judged by our actions over coronavirus today

Advertising people can drive positive change and penalise poor behaviour amid the crisis.

Did you ever imagine you would hear a Conservative chancellor say "We will be judged by our capacity for compassion"?

Rishi Sunak rightly described this as a generation-defining moment, when we should be able to look back and remember how we undertook a collective national effort and stood together.

We will be judged by our actions.

While the "woke movement" has absolutely been a force for good, predictably it has been accompanied by a wave of woke-washing.

The brilliantly intentioned International Women’s Day was accompanied by a blizzard of vacuous virtue signalling.

Well, you can’t wash a crisis. They are ugly. They demand action. They are a time when authenticity and purpose are put to the test through action.

Media, advertising and brand behaviour are crucial if we are to reduce the human misery.

Never has a change in people’s behaviour such as social distancing, or looking out for others, been such a determinant of success or failure.

This is the power that our industry has – we are in the business of changing behaviours.

This is the acid test for great companies, great people and genuine purpose.

The good, bad and odd

Fantastic brand exemplars are emerging: LVMH committing to creating 40 million face masks, Tesco raising staff pay for those keeping us fed on the front line, Vue retaining staff despite revenue going through the floor.

Conversely, we are all witnessing the almost-instant damage of potentially failing to act in the spirit of a stated brand purpose, as Virgin Airways and its brand "icon" Sir Richard Branson were accused of recently over asking staff to take eight weeks' unpaid leave.

(Branson has said his collection of Virgin companies will give $250m to support "our people and businesses" in the coming weeks.)

How will agencies step up? Indeed, how will the collective advertising business step up as one, maybe momentarily resisting the competitive urge?

In Spain, a group of 35 agencies, including offices of major networks BBDO, DDB, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ogilvy and McCann, have come together with five marketing associations in an initiative to support brands in tackling the pandemic.

Again, conversely, how should we respond to what looks like bad, or maybe just plain stupid, behaviour?

Last week, Kraft Heinz announced a major $600m pitch, stating that it was "exploring opportunities for its global media planning and buying operations to ensure we are positioned for success in 2021 and beyond".

To be clear, I have no knowledge of the background to this, but in the midst of home-working, governments closing borders and staff looking after their families, at the very least this looks "odd".

One has to ask what their pitch advisors are actually advising. It reminds me of an epic version of calling a pitch just before Christmas. The decision to pitch or not at this time could be the measure of the holding company bosses as to what they value.

No more playing by business-as-usual rules

The media are in the main responding with a heightened responsibility, promoting social distancing with great energy. However, this crisis calls for more than incremental steps and playing by the business-as-usual rules.

Social media can be a powerful force for good at these times – traffic has increased dramatically.

Facebook recently stated: "We’ll continue to prioritise imminent harm and increase our reliance on proactive detection in other areas to remove violating content."

As experts of the mea culpa, it also went with a pre-emptive "We will inevitably make mistakes, so we ask for patience as we navigate this challenging time".

To give Facebook credit, when it was discovered that fake news was being spread by "texts" on the various messenger services that went unnoticed for a while due to end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp moved to limit the number of messages sent from a single source to remove the virality. Apple iMessage appeared to move less rapidly.

However, today we are dealing with mass anxiety and scaled mental-health challenges. Most algorithms remain focused on generating maximum traffic, of course, but therefore are still in danger of taking the user down a rabbit hole of ever-more depressing content.

This does not have the effect of changing behaviour; it simply creates a feeling of helplessness or, worse, depression.

While overseeing the efficacy of content is great, what can be done to limit "frequency" and thereby help protect people’s mental state?

Another question will surely be asked, namely: how are the incremental profits created in sectors that are "benefiting", such as ecommerce, going to be used?

Further enriching founders and major shareholders might not read well. The Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba have shown some real leadership by implementing a medical-supplies programmes and using their expertise to create an artificial intelligence-powered medical=expert platform.

Tech platforms that move beyond content policing by actively engineering better audience experiences that help to slow the pandemic will surely be rewarded in the future.

We, in advertising, media and brand-building, really do have power to create positive change and equally to penalise poor and exploitative behaviour.

With our trust quotient among the public at an all-time low, there is not only a moral obligation but also the opportunity to show that we really are here to serve people, consumers and audiences.

Iain Jacob is chair of UKOM and Cinema First
Picture: Getty Images

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