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Why Adland needs to quit being defensive and focus on its positive impact

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In 2017 a study by Deloitte found advertising delivered a seven-fold return on investment in the UK and it’s a figure that’s growing all the time. Overall in Europe advertising as a sector accounts for 4.6% of GDP and upwards of six million jobs.  In the UK it generates £100bn a year, positively impacting the economy and the people who work in it. And yet, the public agenda around advertising is negative while the industry rarely has a good word to say about itself.  The reason?  Disruption.

If you come from the perspective that change is a bad thing, then maybe you see this as a sign of the industry’s demise, but the fact is that the advertising industry is profitable and enormously successful, and we are seeing all sorts of multi-national organisations moving into our space. Global management consultancies certainly want a slice of the pie, and new agencies and models are springing up all the time.  So why all the negativity?

To some extent, the agency world is a paradoxical victim of its own success.  The increase of digital tools and technology platforms has had a huge effect, giving rise to the launch of specialist providers and suppliers, and enabling some brands to consider bringing certain skills and functions in-house.  But this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that agencies are in a state of perpetual decline, the default, popular conclusion of some commentators. The ad industry needs to emerge from this period of self-reflection and call out the good work we do, the significant economic contribution we make and just be more positive about itself.

Focusing on the impact we make for our clients is a good start.  Agencies are best when they are analysing business problems, providing a dispassionate view that helps to solve client’s business problems, and support and enhance their growth.  This is founded on the in-depth understanding of the clients we work with, but from the right distance to see the wood from the trees.

The recent recipients of the IPA advertising effectiveness awards point to the unique value agencies can offer.  The long-standing work on building the John Lewis brand, for example, has been game-changing.  Equally, providing the solution for shorter term tactical work on encouraging recruitment to the Army has made a dramatic difference to the organisation.  While experiencing disruption in our own industry, agencies have continued to facilitate it in other industries. At Wavemaker, we’ve recently helped Purple Bricks, a highly disruptive brand, to transform the estate agency market, developing a unique voice, gaining market share and challenging established incumbents.

In addition to supporting business objectives, agencies often help with societal goals too, something we should rightly be proud of.  A great example of this is the ‘Together Against Hate’ campaign created with Nationwide, the world’s largest building society. Nationwide were shocked by the online vitriol about the real people in the brand’s advertising, especially as those of different colours, backgrounds or sexuality attracted the most criticism. It spotted the problem but needed a solution.  As Nationwide’s agency, it was our role to devise a response.

Partnering with Channel 4 and joining forces with like-minded brands like McCann and Maltesers, and their agencies, together we created a campaign to highlight the online abuse experienced by the real people featured in their ads.  An ad takeover during Gogglebox featured existing brand ads overlaid with some of the cruel online comments that the real people had received, while a social campaign ran in support, featuring influencers talking about their online abuse experiences.  The three-minute ad spot tackled an unpleasant and hugely important issue and remains one of the best received campaigns in the channel’s history

Being confident in the positive impact agencies make doesn’t mean being blind to the challenges. A useful aspect of self-reflection is ensuring you adapt and make the changes necessary to anticipate clients’ evolving needs. Having the right technological skill sets is key but also remaining diverse and relevant as a mirror to society. It’s as much about the positive impact we have on our people, as it is on the success of our clients.

Creating a culture and workplace that prioritises wellbeing, empowering people to unlock their creativity, and ensuring people can achieve their full potential, are the things that good agencies do best.

Recent industry efforts from Creative Equals and companies like Diageo to increase the diversity of the industry through initiatives like Returnships and Equal Parental Leave, and building truly flexible working practices, are vital components in this. We have been championing all of these initiatives for a number of years and they are highly successful.

Despite the headlines, the future looks positive for agencies that are confident in the uniqueness of what they can deliver and are willing to embrace and not fear change.  Let’s be proud of the positive impact we make for clients and our people.




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