D&AD's Tim Lindsay on making marketing a force for good

Tim Lindsay, chief executive of D&AD, on why the marketing industry must be a force for good

Coca-Cola’s Sergio Zyman once said, ‘everything communicates’. He meant that every part of what a company did had an impact on how consumers viewed that company, from its TV ads in the Super Bowl through to how its delivery truck drivers behaved to other road users - and everything in between. His point was that marketing effects behaviour and everything is marketing. (It goes without saying that he was worldwide marketing director)

Mr Zyman said this some twenty years ago, but if it was true then it now sounds prescient. We all know now that companies have to align their mission, values, ethics and behaviour in a way that convinces consumers (or people as we are learning to call them) that their business practices have achieved a balance - between the needs of their shareholders, their customers and the planet. The theory has become commonplace. But in practice?

A disturbingly large percentage of marketing communication seems to be proceeding in the same old way; essentially interruptive, not offering value or seeking to engage. Turn on the TV, go on Facebook, sort through the spam on your mobile device. Where are the truly innovative campaigns? Who is taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by the convergences that technology is creating every day?

Taking risks

Of course, the good stuff is out there. Nike, Patagonia, Rabobank, VW (check out ‘the fun theory’) and others are doing good things, taking risks, using new technologies and new media opportunities to properly engage with their customers.

And there are the old media opportunities. Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap printed its hygiene message on two million pieces of bread at a Hindu religious festival in India and probably saved many thousands of lives. 

Encouragingly, world class companies with hundreds of brands and demanding boards and shareholders are committing to plans for sustainable growth, and reviewing and revising their practices and processes to ensure that as their business grows their environmental impact shrinks.

Or so they say. These companies haven’t turned into philanthropists over night. Do we trust them? Do we believe them? Well, in a sense it doesn’t matter. They can be held to account. In a world where a riot in a dormitory in a Chinese city most of us have never heard of can cause panic in Cupertino, doing the right thing becomes the right commercial thing. And that’s really the sweet spot – where the social, environmental and business agendas come together.

What are we, as marketing and communications professionals, doing to build on this? I’d argue that – with some honourable exceptions – the client community is ahead of its agency partners. Which is a shame, as there was – still is – an opportunity for agencies to lead the charge, develop the thinking, vocabulary, practices and get back upstream, where the big strategy decisions are taken.

Rewarding creative excellence

At D&AD we have a mission to inspire, stimulate and reward creative excellence in business communication and design. And we use the money we make from our awards and other commercial operations to support young creatives in education and as they enter the industry. 

Last year, much helped by Unilever’s generous sponsorship, we launched the White Pencil, the first new award in D&AD’s 50 year history. It’s for work in any medium that has a purpose beyond profit; that seeks to achieve some social, cultural, environmental good as it sells product. In many ways it’s the most exciting part of what we all do now – as the work entered testified. The 2012 winner was a brilliant exemplification of what we are talking about - Droga5’s ‘Help’ plasters, that drove bone marrow donor registration by 1600% in a few months. 

But actually none of this is really new – it’s just the context that’s changed. One hundred and fifty years ago the big social issues were to do with hygiene, pay, nutrition, health and housing for workers. Lord Leverhulme built Port Sunlight in the belief that ‘we do well by doing good’. Those issues remain in much of the world, and have been joined by many others, of which the environmental ones loom very large.

Business has both the responsibility and the power to effect change. And the biggest changes that need to be effected are behavioural. Which is where we come in, and where we can have influence and where we can use our skills in marketing and marketing communication as a powerful force for good.

Tim Lindsay is the chief executive of D&AD. He is speaking on the subject of  'Purpose Beyond Profit' at CMW's Working Breakfast on 10 September.

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