White pencils and the December blues

On Monday night, the marketing industry addressed one of the most important topics it could ever face.

What to buy Johnny Hornby for Christmas.

It’s a perennial problem – what do you give the man who has everything ?

Johnny’s got good looks, intelligence, charm and money. But I think a plate of chicken tikka king prawn balls from Iceland might fit the bill.

Maybe I’ve been watching “I’m a Celebrity” too much.

(How do people eat that stuff ? I don’t mean the crocodile penises etc. I mean the Iceland stuff in the break bumpers.)

However, Monday was also the night the ad industry addressed the huge topic of social issues – at the inaugural White Pencil symposium organised by D&AD. As Kim Slicklein said in a speech on the night, 500 billion dollars are spent on paid-for media every year – could this be the tool to change the world ?

Well, judging by this particular night, I’d have to say – hmmm.

This is the most important thing that could be talked about, it’s a fantastically brilliant initiative, but we still haven’t got the tone of voice right.

Mind you, it’s very difficult to get this tone of voice right – and I should know because I’ve tried a few times.

To be honest, it was quite difficult for me to listen to the speeches that night. Partly because I had a bad cold, and it affected my inner ear …   But also psychologically – because although one of the nicest feelings in the world is the ability to say “I told you so”, one of the worst feelings is “I was saying all this stuff 12 years ago”.

Claire Beale could probably back me up on this, since I made a speech at a Campaign conference on creativity, back in about 2001 (pre-Facebook, pre-everything that now runs our lives) – about the need for advertising to be ethical.

This is crucial stuff.

It could save the planet.

More importantly for the readers of this blog (“Hello, Jim. Hello, Bonzo.”) it might even be the re-invention of marketing.

Especially given that, as Sir Martin Sorrell said on Tuesday – “marketing has lost its way. And its influence”.

But if I’ve learnt one thing in all this,  it’s incredibly easy to put people off when you talk about ethics.

You can do that by being boring, by being worthy, by being humourless, by being patronising, by being arrogant – I’ve done all those, and the speakers on the night tried all of them as well.

But if we want to change how people feel about this issue, we need to find a better way to talk about it.

For me, the best speeches (like David Jones’ of Havas) managed to avoid most of the pitfalls mentioned above, while also being genuinely inspiring.

But it was tough going for some of the time.

It’s all very well pontificating and patting ourselves on the back.

Well actually it isn’t.

Because, despite some brilliant marketing initiatives from the likes of Levi’s, IBM, Patagonia, Unilever, Nike, Chipotle, Kenco, etc – there are still millions of acres of rainforest being destroyed every year, and we’re losing the battle.

Paul Polman of Unilever has said that if companies get involved in the sustainability bandwagon for PR or damage limitation purposes, they’ll be too late.

Very true.

But you could argue that Unilever is too late.  You could argue that everybody is too late.

And the lateness lends urgency to getting it right.

The answer to this – at least in our industry, as with most things to do with advertising – lies in a combination of digital and creativity.

I.e. not the things which seem to matter most, status and money.

Digital – because digital has changed the world of communications beyond recognition. (Despite the fact that some people still don’t get it.)

Digital communication means a world of – interactivity, putting customers first, story-telling, NOT being sell-y, responding to customers (listening), providing entertainment or utility, co-creation, being human, building communities and tapping into communities, giving not taking, being transparent and accountable, respecting people’s time, respecting people’s data, being involving, being shareable – brands have to communicate bottom up, not top down, which will be a huge challenge to most anxious, control-freak marketers.

But it’s why Obama beat Romney.

Creativity – because we’re going to need lateral answers to this problem. It isn’t going to be solved by anybody with a literal mind.

Anyway, by half-way through the evening, my cold and a feeling of being preached at had both got the better of me and I headed home. I should have had hot lemon and gone to bed. But I had hot dogs and watched Eric Bristow’s arse crack on “I”m a Celebrity”. (When Helen Flanagan’s breasts went home, the cameramen instinctively focused on any cleavage they could find.)

Because I had an irresistible urge to do something irresponsible, after all the preachiness.

That’s human nature, I reckon.

And because I was late home, I could watch the programme on Sky+ and fast forward through the diabolically bad ads. Which raises a couple of questions.

Like, number 1, what HAS happened to creativity in our industry ?

And – number 2 – how many years has Mars been running that spot with the monks ?

Come on guys, I’m all for every aspect of sustainability under the sun.

But you’re going to give re-cycling a bad name.

(The day after this Symposium, I went to the Marketing Society Conference, which featured a very similar debate about social issues in marketing, aimed at the client community. And I’ve blogged about this in my blog on London Loves Business.)

  • jem tw

    “one of the nicest feelings in the world is the ability to say “I told you so”, one of the worst feelings is “I was saying all this stuff 12 years ago” ”

    Love it 

  • Jonathon Hall

    Back in 2003, I helped set up an agency focussed on these areas, managed 1/2 page three of Campaign and the editorial, asking if advertising needed a concience, and posing the question ‘were we too early in this?’. Well, we were, and very few businesses wanted to discuss these issues, let alone work with an agency to help deliver tangible solutions.
    In the first week of our existence, I attended the Blue Jeans and Sneakers lecture (?) and loved hearing from Hegarty and all (the two hairdressers as I recall) about Levis and Nike. As the event drew to a close, general feelings of a job well done, a significant number of attendees heading for the door, I luckily got to ask the final question, the bloody big elephant in the room…’What did you do when the Nike sweat shop conditions were discovered?’ A swift180 from those on the way out and a lovely hospital pass from Sir John to one of the panel…
    The answer wasn’t the most significant thing, thankfully, but the fact that the assembled multitude stopped preparing to leave, sat back down, eager to listen to what the panel had to say.
    The answer answered my question, ‘not a lot and a lot of waffle’.
    I am happy to see that things have progressed a bit. Some of the banal excuses and token efforts, both agency and clientside, (greenwashing was a phrase borrowed from the city) did little but the debate was escalating.
    Sadly the agency didn’t make it through the debates that followed, but I am heartened by the progress since.
    And yes, I am still irresponsible Steve, but I’m getting there, as are we all.


  • Grazia

    You say digital communications should include “…putting customers first, story-telling, NOT being sell-y, responding to
    customers (listening), providing entertainment or utility, co-creation,
    being human…”

    ALL communication, whether digital or “traditional” should have those elements.  As someone who started work before Facebook, etc., those were the values instilled in me by the “older” generation and I continue to adhere to them.

    These are the basics but people think they have just been invented…

    And, yes, where has all the creativity gone!


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