How advertising agencies can embrace purpose

The role of advertising is to influence human behaviour. At the start of what the World Economic Forum has labelled “the decade to deliver”, that power has never been more important.

If brands want to make a positive impact on the growing list of critical global issues, what they choose to advertise, how they choose to do it and why, is pivotal. And the role of advertising agencies, in the creation, planning and activation of campaigns, is now more critical than ever.

But before we explore their part in the process, first we must understand whether the rise of purpose and cause-driven advertising is simply an industry trend or complete overhaul.

Making decisions around purpose

Susan Credle, global chief creative officer at advertising agency FCB, insists on clarity when framing the conversation. “There are three elements involved: purpose-driven advertising, cause marketing and long-term brand building. We believe the brand sits at the centre of every conversation and that a ‘never finished’ brand is the most valuable asset on any company’s balance sheet.”

Credle explains that when decision-making is built around a defined brand purpose – why the company exists in a world, beyond making a product or providing a service – the decisions it makes are clearer, more focused and more confident. “At that point, cause marketing becomes an invaluable tool to add to the marketing mix because it acts as a clear expression of the brand’s purpose,” she says.

Speaking at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last year, Alan Jope, chief executive of consumer goods giant Unilever, laid out the potential damage caused by brands that are “woke-washing” – using supposed purpose-led rhetoric simply to push products.

He said brands that failed to back up their campaigns’ messaging with action could “further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply”. He continued: “Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.”

Creative problem-solving is our greatest skill. When we apply that thinking to society’s issues, we make a huge difference

Authenticity never goes out of style

Chris Norman, CEO of Good Agency, suggests that the demand for purpose isn’t a new phenomenon; rather one that becomes more visible with greater public assertion. “It’s been building for the last ten to fifteen years. What has changed is the prominence and urgency of the environmental and social challenges we face.

“There is a cultural shift to expect business and brands to have a role in solving these problems – that many argue they have created – and clear evidence that people’s behaviour is aligning with their values in what they buy, where they work and what they want out of life.”

He adds: “It is now a commercial imperative for any brand or business to demonstrate its role in society beyond transaction, and this is not going to change until the problems we face have been solved. Brands that can’t feed people’s desire to have a greater sense of meaning in their life will become less and less relevant to their customers and employees, and will eventually disappear.”

With more brands searching for, or bringing forth this greater sense of meaning, are advertising agencies concerned with potential consumer fatigue with purpose-driven advertising?

Credle argues that authenticity will always cut through. “People never tire of authenticity. If the brand’s purpose is clear and if it communicates in ways that are consistent with that definition, it will always attract loyal followers.

“Companies will always be scrutinised on what they say versus what they do. To effectively adopt cause marketing, companies must be genuinely committed to that cause. Their values, products and services must support the cause. They must demonstrate how they are making the world better. Not superficially, but sustainably. When a brand gets all that right, and means it, they will never struggle to break through.”

What can advertising agencies do to drive purpose

So how big an impact can the advertising agency make? In October 2019, Mindshare launched an initiative called #changethebrief in response to a growing scrutiny on the industry’s need to harness their own influence.

Rob McFaul, one of the media agency’s client directors and #changethebrief advisor, says the idea came from a Purpose Disruptors meeting. Purpose Disruptors, a group of concerned individuals from competing advertising agencies, gathered to discuss the climate crises in the wake of the ‘Dear advertising, don’t think we’ve forgotten about you’ call out from Extinction Rebellion. According to McFaul, the initiative started with a letter calling for collective meaningful action by the industry, which gained 60 signatures from senior industry figures.

It has now moulded into “a platform to work with clients to raise awareness of climate crisis, shift the conversation to include it and encourage action because of it”, McFaul says. “It’s a commitment to help effect behaviour change at scale through responding to client briefs in a way that encourage the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours that are consistent with a transition to a carbon-free world.”

Attract consumers to buy from brands

But how far can an advertising agency push their clients when they have to contend with a fiercely competitive landscape? McFaul suggests it depends on the stage of the client’s journey. “When we understand that the sustainability revolution will happen at the scale of the industrial revolution, but at twice the rate of the digital revolution, then climate must form part of the conversation with clients.

“As advisors to clients on culture, audiences and trends, it is imperative for us to partner with them on how they should respond to the climate crisis. We can be proactive and lead our industry and clients through this disruption to a commercially successful future. We cannot and should not wait for the climate briefs to come to us.”

Using advertising to make a real difference

A cynic could describe the drive in demand for purpose and cause advertising as a new attempt to connect with a discerning and volatile consumer landscape. An optimist would argue that brands are awakening to their potential to make a difference.

Either way, in the following decade, the collective advertising agency landscape is set to work on the toughest brief yet. Be that through their clients’ voices or their own.

Credle hangs that responsibility on their creativity. “Creative problem-solving is our greatest skill. When we apply that thinking to society’s issues, we make a huge difference.”