Anyone who works in advertising knows our skills extend way beyond selling stuff. We have the power to change hearts and minds.
And while flogging bog roll and burgers can be fulfilling in themselves, when called upon, we can also use our powers to have a go at tackling society’s many problems, sometimes to great effect.
But more often than not, it seems that our industry has a tendency to take a look around the world to see what this year’s hot topic is (is plastic too last season?), then, like the dad in The Incredibles, pull on our ill-fitting superhero suits, jump into our Volvo or Prius and claim, to great effect, via the medium of a case study, that one banner we shared sparked a conversation that shifted culture – just in time for awards season.
I know that sounds facetious. And I’m not dismissing this all out of hand, as I truly do believe that creativity is the most effective tool we have in the fight against society’s most pressing problems, I just think we should sign up for longer than one turn around the awards dance floor.
A brilliant female creative I know – who like most other women in her role, always got assigned the women-centric campaigns – was given a brief to tackle taboos around the menopause a few years back. Anyone would tell you that is not a quick fix. But as soon as the menopause started to be a fashionable thing to talk about, that brief was passed on to a crack male team – after all, the menopause is “hot” at the moment.
No issue is considered too complex or an overreach for the adland equivalent of a social media "hot take" with an eye on prizes rather than hits. A chief executive of a big network agency once put a team of two recent graduates on a brief to solve the Middle East crisis. In time for Cannes.
I shit you not.
To help spot the trendy cause of the moment, it’s worth looking at what’s winning at Cannes in any given year. The empowerment of women and girls, a demographic that had been either ignored or objectified by brands until that point, became a pressing concern for the marketing community circa 2015, with the creation of the Glass Lion focused on campaigns tackling gender equality and a flurry of Grand Prixs going to female-oriented campaigns such as Always’ "#LikeAGirl". Plastic pollution became a buzzing topic around 2014 after Pharrell Williams won the Design Grand Prix for his denim range made from plastic waste.
Of course, the "#LikeAGirl" campaign and "Raw for the oceans" are worthy winners, and initiatives of that ilk deserve all the plaudits they get. There is also a small but growing number of brands, such as Patagonia and Allbirds, that not only commit to causes for the long term but build their businesses around their values.
Quiet Storm’s ongoing "Create not hate" programme to get more diverse young people into advertising is another example of a company in the industry actively committing to an issue for the long haul. Havas Boost is helping build sparks of brilliance into bigger businesses. And shoutout to Bodyform’s "Blood normal", which has realised that taking us from blue liquid to actual vaginas is going to be a long journey, but still constantly and more importantly consistently turn out brilliant, award-winning work.
However, it’s ironic that sustainability is shaping up to be this season's hot topic.
It is 100% the issue that this industry should be setting its brightest and best brains onto. But please, while we’re at it – let’s champion sustainability of conviction.
This needs to be more than a flash in the Cannes (sorry).
Signing your agency up to Ad Net Zero may not get you the bling to go in the office trophy cabinet, but you’ll be contributing to something far bigger. B Corp certification may be harder to get than a Pencil, but hand on heart, it's infinitely more rewarding for everyone and better for the planet.
As a judge for the Sustainable Development Goals Lions at Cannes this year, what I want to see in the entries is a proper commitment to a cause. Commitment may not be fashionable or create a buzz in the same way that high-profile virtue signalling can, but it is long-term thinking and investment that makes the difference and therefore deserves to be championed as the way forward for our industry.
Basically, when it comes to causes, the industry needs to go hard, go long, or go home.
Vicki Maguire is chief creative officer of Havas London.