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Why businesses should cast aside competition for the better

Competition is healthy. It helps us do our best work. A degree of creative conflict between companies helps establish identity, nail our colours to the mast, and enables us to define that we are very much this and not that.

When it comes to acting for the common good, however, we shouldn’t be striving to stand out, to subvert a competitor in the pursuit of our own agenda. We should be working together to find the common ground between us. In building a better future, we are more than the sum of our parts.

The ad industry is the first industry that has transcended fierce competition in favour of focusing our efforts on wider global issues beyond our own corporate agendas. In 2016, six of the world’s biggest advertising firms, including Dentsu, came together with United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to establish Common Ground. This is a corporate social responsibility initiative formed by the ‘Big Six’ to pledge collective support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Dentsu, along with Havas, Interpublic Group, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe, WPP and Weiden + Kennedy have all undertaken to use the resources at our disposal to support the SDGs in what essentially is the most important brief we will ever take on. Together we are pooling resources to help charities and social enterprises in their work to end hunger, spread education, tackle climate change, provide access to water, ensure gender equality, protect refugees and promote good health and well-being.

One year on, there is much to be learned for all types of businesses and industries from this model of cross-industry collaboration.

A collective ethos

The success of Common Ground has been in our ability to work together as a group. Many businesses have grown – as a result of globalisation - into incredibly complex multi-national organisations. This means that, in practice, it’s easy to focus mostly on internal organisation to deliver change. And of course this is where we have to start.

Globalisation as well as fierce competition makes it easy to lose the relationships and capabilities necessary to collaborate on issues that affect us all. Working on Common Ground we learned that establishing partnerships across organisational boundaries takes time, patience and strong leadership. By working with partners of similar reach and resource, we tend to waste less and achieve more.

Moving from business case to purpose

I have often said that if our CEO wanted to spend his time doing good he should have set up a charity rather than a business. It would be naïve for us to say – or for anyone else to believe – that our participation and that of our competitors was for nothing more than fellowship. But it is genuinely possible to both do good and work towards the business’s interests.

One thing we learned was that it is imperative to move from making the business case – which are mostly short-term focused – to defining a much longer-term focus for CSR.  For us, that means proving that Common Ground is not just good for business but an essential part of helping to develop a meaningful and sustainable digital economy. In the future, a business’s impact will not only be measured by how much money it makes, it will be determined by what we produce and how much we contribute to the world. There is space for consumerism but it must come hand in hand with a global empathy and dynamism.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships are the future

The ad industry is currently unique in its quest for change with Common Ground and the work with the UN. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and already we have seen success through these partnerships. Omnicom has announced 2 three-year partnerships with Theirworld and The Girl Effect. A team of top talent from 6 Havas agencies joined forces with LA-based NGO Climate Resolve to shift the perception of climate change issues with Keep LA Cool. Dentsu Aegis Network announced 2 partnerships until 2020 with Malaria No More and Stop TB as part of Common Ground. WPP worked with Unilever and Facebook to launch Unstereotype to break gender stereotypes in advertising. And Publicis and its agency Saatchi & Saatchi created the Erase Hunger campaign to raise awareness of food poverty in New York.

Countless businesses – big and small – have ambitious CSR and sustainability programmes, addressing, in one way or the other, the SDGs. It is incredibly important that they do not do this in isolation, but work actively to collaborate to tackle  these issues. Multi-stakeholder partnerships, especially with partners from different industries, will be more effective at delivering real, long-term change than single entities.

Other industries should set up Common Ground-like initiatives, bringing competitors around the table to drive measurable change and increase their positive brand perception by committing to sustainability; so we’d encourage all business leaders to cast aside competition in favour of cooperation in order to help realise a better future for all, based on the SDG agenda.

By Frank Krikhaar, Global Corporate Social Responsibility Director, Dentsu Aegis Network