Advertising must step up and take charge, because no one else is going to

Every generation has its ‘hell in a handcart’ era, when there is a palpable sense of fear that we’re on the brink of an irreversible disaster of some kind, be it economic, political, environmental or social, and that Western leaders and governments are not being effective in driving real change.

I think it’s fair to say we might have reached that point in 2019. Huge divisions are splitting the UK apart: Political upheaval is ensuring zero progress is being made in any areas that will genuinely impact the future of the country; we are relative moments away from irreversible damage to our environment; and despite all the right noises being made about the acceptance of diverse communities within our society, there are still pockets of people suffering abuse and discrimination every day. And that’s just the problems that are making the headlines.

As the father of two pre-teens I often find myself flicking between absolute fury at the world we are creating for the next generation, and a huge desire to bury my head in the sand and just not think about the horrors that lie ahead.

But last week’s protests at Cannes by environmental activists Extinction Rebellion served to remind me that actually there is something we can do. The protestors, who were calling on the ad industry to act on the ecological emergency facing the world, have a point. It IS up to us. While Western politicians are too preoccupied with things like Brexit, in-fighting and their own careers, the press are losing the trust of the public all the time thanks to a general belief that they are simply following their own agendas.

Meanwhile someone needs to step into the void and urgently start putting out the right messages. And who better to do that than the ad industry?

There is no other industry that holds the eyes and ears of the general public to such an extent. Unless of course you consider social media but then if the shock of Brexit taught us anything it’s that our social feeds cannot be relied upon to feed us impartial and open-minded news and views.

Now is the time for advertising to grow up. Where the industry used to be famous for flashy ski trips, extravagant corporate hospitality, all-day lunches and Fridays in the pub, it must now take ownership of the responsibility it has to society, and the weight its voice is capable of carrying among consumers. Because right now it doesn’t seem as if anyone else is up to the job.

While Theresa May has been ratcheting up airmiles in and out of Brussels, and the likes of everyone from David Attenborough to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have been upping the appeals for more mindful treatment of the planet, there has been a very definite shift in public attitudes towards some of the biggest issues of the day. The eradication of single use plastics is high on the agenda, LGBTQ storylines taking centre stage culturally, consumers demanding honesty and transparency from big businesses more than ever before – these are all attitudes we should be harnessing and driving forward.

Ethical brands are gaining a bigger market share and louder voice all the time: In recent weeks The Kite Factory has been appointed the first AOR for ethical banking brand Triodos and human rights lawyers Leigh Day. There is a significant market for these types of business.

PrideAM is calling for brands to use their power to help normalise LGBTQ lifestyles by including authentic representation of this community in their ads. They are confident attitudes can and will shift if LGBTQ people are more visible in the media.

WPP, Diageo and Waitrose are just some of the organisations that have recently made public pledges to cut their use of plastic.

As an industry we have the power to effect real, positive, long term change.

Marketers: The messages you put out are influential. We know the power that brands have to influence and inspire consumers. You are paying good money to get into the conscience of millions of people every day so be sure to use those opportunities wisely for maximum positive impact.

Agencies: Stand up for what you have the power to change. The campaigns we create for our clients’ brands have the potential to be game changers. Our responsibility lies in devising impactful, effective campaigns that do good not just to their sales figures but to the wider world. After all, brands who are seen to support positive change – in any number of ways – are proven to be seen more favourably by consumers, which will never harm the levels of long-term allegiance they have to a business.

So, my message is this: We are in a mess. Things are changing quicker than attitudes and that will never work out for anybody. Let us use our clout to rally the troops with powerful, unifying messages, inspiring behaviour and responsible attitudes. Let’s set a good example to the people who have lost their way. I’m looking at you, Downing Street.

By Robin Trust, CEO