Advertisement industry

Mad Men castThe advertising industry is still relying on processes developed in the 60s around the advent of TV. It's a long way from where it needs to be. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

Spare some sympathy for the poor, beleaguered advertising industry? Thought not. But ad agencies are under pressure, and it's a problem – or at least a wasted opportunity – that needs to be addressed.

The business world pretty much agrees that it has to behave more ethically, more sustainably, with more concern for the social and cultural outcomes from its activities. And it doesn't really matter what the motivation for this improved behaviour is – a genuine concern for the fate of the planet or a cynical hunch that doing the right thing will drive growth and profit – if the improved behavior is real. In fact, many would argue that the move to "doing well by doing good" will only become truly mainstream when the corporate social responsibility agenda and the growth agenda become one and the same.

The advertising business – despite its reputation for loucheness and excess – is brilliant at one thing; persuading people to change their behaviour. Often this comes down to making consumers want product B instead of product A. But there's also a fine record of charity, NGO, health and public service work that has brought many benefits to many people.

We're in a place where major behaviour change is required; and where governments are too inert/broke/ill-intentioned/in thrall to vested interests to take effective action. Which is why business and the agencies who partner businesses to provide creativity and innovation have to take up the challenge.

To take up the challenge new vocabulary, processes and strategy tools are needed from the ad industry to help clients understand the new landscape and discover a purpose beyond profit. We need new metrics and measurement tools – and new bonus and remuneration systems to underpin them.

But here's the problem. The experts in behaviour change are under the cosh. Client company procurement departments have systematically ratcheted down agency compensation to the point where talent and resource is thin on the ground. In the past agencies habitually took new ideas and initiatives to their clients. Now, not so much. Doing the day job is hard enough. If agencies aren't getting CSR briefs from their clients and being asked to develop purposeful thinking for their brands, who are they to argue? They'd love to do more, but it doesn't pay the bills. The urgent always gets in the way of the important.

This has created a capabilities gap. There are, of course, many admirable companies operating in the CSR space, helping clients understand the issues and stumble towards solutions. But they are in the main small operations and they tend to lack the consumer understanding, brand expertise and creative firepower of the big ad agencies. In addition, they often lack the right client relationships. These conversations must happen in the offices of the CEO and CMO, not the CSR department.

Interesting facts
  • Small Media, Big Revolution is a book by Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi. First published in 1994, it deals with how small media (leaflets and audio cassettes) played an important role in the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran.
    What is Small Media? Small media does not need a definition. It is a conceptual framework for...
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