Advertising for a Better World

Advertising is a visible face of business and as such, often takes a fair amount of heat– sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. We are at the heart of every argument against consumerism, questionable corporate practices, etc. And there is some truth to the criticisms that arise. But it’s worth noting that as an industry, we have the capacity to change the world in very meaningful ways and have, in fact, done so on more than one occasion. In fact, we are doing it more and more often with remarkable success.

There’s nothing necessarily new in this. The shift began in the 1960s in the form of a largely forgotten ad man by the name of Howard Gossage. His agency was in San Francisco. He worked for commercial clients but soon got bored and turned his attention to social issues and causes.

Agencies have always done work for charities and nonprofit groups, but this was the first time anyone had used the power of advertising for social and environmental good. He prevented the power companies from flooding the Grand Canyon, casually named a young environmental group “Friends of the Earth” and planned the Summer of Love from his agency. And the result was to redefine much of how we in the industry view our mission.

Recently, a story ran on 60 Minutes about the role advertising had in bringing a long and brutal conflict to an end. For decades, the Colombian government was fighting the guerrilla organization known as FARC. It was an unending cycle of violence and every strategy had ultimately come up short. As a last resort, the government went to advertising executive Jose Miguel Sokoloff. The idea was to use advertising, not bullets, to convince the FARC to demilitarize. The campaign and strategy was to focus on reconciliation and bringing FARC members back home. The result was that the majority of the FARC demilitarized, peace talks were arranged, and Colombia began to see the social and economic benefits.

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 10.31.26 AM.pngIn another outstanding campaign, TBWA launched an outdoor campaign in Finland for the Helsinki Police over the Christmas holidays that had a hyper-local, reactive element to it. When a domestic violence call into 911 (112 in Helsinki), the agency immediately put up anti-violence PSA posters on the 15 outdoor placements nearest to the home that made the call. The creative itself is also innovative. It shows a kitchen scene, which during the daytime looks normal, but after dark, a background lights switches on to reveal the signs of domestic violence.

Closer to home, Luckie & Co. worked with its partners to help make bring civil rights experience to life, particularly for younger generations. Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 9.43.43 AM.pngIt’s hard to find a place that holds the civil rights struggle closer to its heart than Alabama. The state has made it a mission to turn a complicated, often painful history into a learning experience that does more than present the facts – it means to bring the story to life in an interactive, deeply resonant way. Luckie worked across multiple channels to tell a very human story that has drawn accolades and visitors from around the world.

The question is: how do we ensure we do this sort of thing more often? How do we become positive agents of change regularly rather than sporadically? I think the answer boils down to several key principles. Be strategic, be bold, and be determined. First, it’s not enough to get attention, you have to have a plan that will work over time, across multiple channels. You have to know every nuance of story being told and the audience that will receive it. Without a strategic plan, tactics will have no grounding and won’t produce meaningful change. Second, being bold means being will to disrupt, sometimes shock, and always have a clear point of view. This can be difficult with some clients because their need is to mitigate risk. Being bold is frightening. But without taking a strong stand, the message is easily lost in the sea of messaging we experience every day. Furthermore, change means confronting difficult issues, something people readily shy away from if given the chance. Unless your campaign, platform, etc. makes people stop and reflect, it simply won’t work. Finally, being determined means not wavering in the face of opposition, whether internal or external. That’s easier said than done in many case, but in order for your plan to have real impact, it will have to be “sold” again and again. Being strategic and being bold is threatening, which means clients will often shoot for the lowest common denominator. And to be fair, it’s a normal reaction. So, be prepared to defend your position again and again until you start to see results. Until you see the world change.

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Storytelling, Presenting and Getting Past the Stick in Your Bum

The other day I was thinking about how to present findings to a client about what was, frankly, a seemingly dry subject. Numerous stakeholders would be involved and would range from the CMO down to brand managers, product engineers, etc. So, knowing I had a dry subject and a conservative audience, I decided to rethink the question a bit.  Was the goal to present findings or was it something more? The goal is ultimately to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness.  Any good  presentation serves to evoke a participatory feeling in the viewers and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world, as well as their processes. The report will come later, but the presentation is about changing minds.

That brings us back to storytelling. When we bring our research and strategic thinking to life, the story we weave is less a list of data points than an interpretation and distillation of a series of experiences, Details are selectively recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events”  (see VanMaanen  1988).  The audience is drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s) – in other words, a good story, and a good presentation, is a shared experience, co-created in the moment. Bore the audience and there is almost no chance of affecting change. Selective packaging to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice. What we present needs to illustrate, provocate and elucidate. This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct, targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.  And that means becoming marvelous storytellers.

So what do we need to do to make a good story? First, start thinking in terms of symbols and metaphor. Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to brands by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

Second, strip the presentation of text. You’re hear to talk and the image on the wall behind you is there to produce a response. Text, then, becomes a distraction unless you intend to use it as a visual manifestation of an idea (imagine a giant “NO” in lieu of something like a stop sign). The media tool we use, be it PowerPoint or something similar, is the comforting factor for audience and presenter alike, not the content. That means we can use the program for displaying images, visual cues and video, but we cannot let it become the focal point – it is like a set on which an actor performs. Don’t let it overshadow the actor.

Third, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round”? Promote physicality, discussion and direct interaction between you and the audience members. Give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators. The more interaction, the more likely they will be to internalize the story you present.

Finally, have fun. It seems self evident, but it is perhaps the hardest thing most people find to do – they may talk about it, but they can’t actually do it. Remember, your role is to produce change, not recite facts.