The importance of being earnest

The importance of being earnest
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Social media has turned advertising on its head in more ways than one. Lucy Clark discovers the importance of doing good and telling the truth in today’s social world

Social media has changed the world. It’s found a big role in our daily routines, it’s built connections that a decade ago were impossible, it’s put the corporate world on its toes, and it has created an infectious culture of sharing.

But, perhaps most importantly, it has forced a need for honesty and has pushed the agenda of ‘doing good’. Thanks to social media, there’s nowhere to hide. And, for the corporate world – especially the way it markets and advertises itself – that is crucial.

We have all sat back and watched with smugness as brands have embroiled themselves in social media messes. Think the #QantasLuxury debacle. The airline’s intention was to get people tweeting lots of good things about Qantas, but all they got was hundreds of complaints.

As Havas’ global CEO David Jones puts it: “You cannot have discreet conversations any more. You can’t say one thing to shareholders, one thing to employees, and so on. Things that would have historically remained private are in the public.

“It’s made it one of the most exciting times, but also one of the most challenging times, to be a business leader. Social media has created a world of radical transparency.”

That radical transparency means a growing culture of behaving well – and proving it, according to Jones (right).

He told B&T: “I genuinely believe you can out-behave your competition. Eighty per cent of people want business to stand for more than just profit. The new price of doing well is doing good. And if you don’t buy that, look at the cost of doing the wrong thing.”

The impact on advertising

Let’s face it, advertising isn’t considered the most wholesome, angelic – honest, even – profession out there. A bit like journalism or car sales, it’s one of the ‘suspicious’ ones.

“Encouraging people to buy things is, at the heart of it, not socially responsible,” admits McCann executive creative director John Mescall.

Mescall is the brains behind the phenomenally successful Dumb Ways to Die campaign for Melbourne’s Metro Trains. He says that, as a result, campaigns that give agencies the chance to promote social responsibility (as Dumb Ways to Die did: “If we can reduce accidents, that positively impacts the business”) are firm favourites with creatives.

“Every now and then, we get the opportunity to meld campaigns that profit and company and are socially responsible – but they are rare pieces of work,” he says.

But he believes that, as creatives, they are there to represent the brand – nothing more. “We are here for the brands, not to shift public opinion,” Mescall states.

But Jones disagrees. He says: “There’s a big and exciting opportunity – and obligation – to use the power of creativity to effect positive change.”

And Andy Flemming, creative director at M&C Saatchi Sydney (below), concurs: “We approach all campaigns with a sense of social responsibility. We shouldn’t go into something attempting to pull the wool over people’s eyes or deliberately put out something we know is damaging.

“There are always accusations that we want to make people fat and ugly, but that has now changed a lot.”

Flemming cites Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which “shows a different side to advertising”. “There are lots of products out there – it’s all about choice,” he adds.

Brendan Fearn, head of marketing at The White Agency, adds: “Advertising has a key role to play from a social responsibility perspective. The commercial sector has the ability to really drive this forward and take the lead in a way that government often struggles with.”

And Tim Weger, managing director of Engine in Brisbane, says: “All advertising should be socially responsible, and that should be the responsibility of the agency. We carefully select which clients we partner with and we back our work – we’re certainly not there just to be the voice of our clients.”

Honesty is the best policy

Responsible for driving a socially responsible agenda or not, one thing that everyone agrees is imperative in today’s all-seeing, all-hearing social media-enabled world, is honesty.

Mescall explains: “If you’re claiming your brand stands for something, you have to be honest about it. If you’re selling greasy junk food, just do that and don’t pretend to be doing something else.”

“It’s really good for a business to actually seek out causes that it can align itself with legitimately, but it’s hard to do for most brands,” he adds. “If the cause doesn’t really meld with your business, it looks like an attempt to get credits in the bank to offset the bad that you do.”

Social media leaves brands with little choice other than to be honest, says Jones: “People behave better in a transparent world – they have to.”

The social side

Every company out there – at least those with an ounce of integrity – seems to have a CSR plan. But what impact has social media had on this side of business? Has it changed the game?

Flemming says: “What social media has done is allow people to react to something, be it political or advertising or something they feel.

“You get an immediate response, and that’s in the back of a lot of brands’ minds. They can’t do what they did 30 years ago and put out something that’s misleading – people will react to it immediately.”

Richenda Vermeulen, director of digital agency Ntegrity (below), says social media has given the all-powerful consumer even more clout.

“It’s extremely important that brands are socially responsible on social media,” she says. “That will only grow, as social media gives consumers the power to choose brands that are the most ethically responsible.”

And Fearn agrees: “The key principles for any brand communicating its social responsibility practices are transparency and authenticity. Consumers don’t have an expectation that brands are perfect, but they do demand honesty. Nowhere is this more amplified than in social channels.”

Jaid Hulsbosch, director at Hulsbosch, adds: “I’m not sure it’s about changing the game so much as playing the game – being part of it. If social media is part of the scope of the work being delivered, then it can offer an enormously powerful channel for a brand to get its message across.”

And McCann’s Mescall sums it up perfectly: “Social media has destroyed any ability for brands to bullshit, which is wonderful.”

Pro bono’s pros

For the advertising industry, pro bono work comes as a matter of course. And for the charities and not-for-profits out there, pro bono is a lifeline.

One Water, a bottled water business that donates its profits to water projects around the world, originated in the UK and arrived in Australia in 2009. Mindshare has worked with the company since then.

“Mindshare has been instrumental in getting us set up here in terms of giving support from a marketing perspective – they have helped us to get advertising in various places,” says Mike Whalley, operations manager. “Being involved in something different is a draw card for Mindshare’s employees, and it shows they are interested in doing something that has social responsibility.”

Another player in the not-for-profit water space is Thankyou Water, founded in Australia in 2008. Founder Daniel Flynn says: “A lot of our journey has been thanks to word-of-mouth and social media, but Channel Nine, Channel Seven and Universal have all donated ad space, and we work with Click PR, who donate their services pro bono. Our partners are vital.”

And Hero Condoms, which donates good quality condoms to Botswana and spreads the word and sells condoms in Australia to raise money, has just teamed up with JWT for a project. “They are going to help us grow,” says founder Dustin Leonard, pictured below with locals in Botswana.

In fact, almost all ad agencies have at least one pro bono client on their books. But it tends to be something that isn’t flaunted.

Ntegrity’s Vermeulen explains: “A lot of brands here in Australia are not comfortable in talking about the great pro bono or charity work that they do. It’s a big gap. I’m not sure if it’s a tall poppy syndrome, or the discomfort with aligning charity and profitability. There is a lot of this kind of work happening that consumers have no idea about.”

Good for who?

Let’s cut to the chase: is it all about the awards?

“There is this perception that creatives want to work on this kind of thing because they see the awards potential,” explains M&C Saatchi’s Flemming. “But, to be honest, it’s a win win. To be awarded is great, and it’s good for the charity too.

“Everyone puts so much heart and soul into these things, because we do have the capability to change perceptions, to make a change in some small way. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel that was a good thing.” 

M&C Saatchi’s pro bono clients include the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (pictured below is a TVC the agency produced for the foundation), of which CEO Tom Dery is chairman, and Amnesty International. “It’s a chance for us to use our skills to see if we can raise more money,” adds Flemming. “You can go to bed at night and feel you have done something worthwhile.”

Hulsbosch adds: “For marketing service companies to be able to offer their expertise for the greater good, while giving these organisations a chance to have a voice and a profile amongst the din of marketing chatter, provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment that, for most, easily outweights the investment. And these projects can often be a designer’s dream.”

Engine, meanwhile, has worked with the RSPCA on a pro bono basis for two years. Weger says: “It’s important for business to give back, including ours. It also becomes a vehicle for our people to give back personally, and it allows us to create great work that really pushes the boundaries.”

So what’s the advice if you’re considering taking on a pro bono client?

Jane King, marketing manager at Adshel, which supports the Variety Club, the RSPCA and Sydney Children’s Hospital, says: “Having support from the board down is really important. You also need to make a realistic decision about how much you can give, both monetary and product. And authenticity is important – make sure you are true to your word and what you believe in.”

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