Planting the seeds of change; why agencies need to practice what they preach
Advertising is often thought of as an irresponsible industry that makes people buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, at the expense of our planet. Josh Tenser, ECD and co-founder of new creative collective, Calling, explains how when we question our own intentions and maintain integrity on an individual level, we can help to create meaningful change from the inside out.
A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something."
I've always loved that quote. I love it even more now that I have discovered - in the process of writing these words - that it was Bill Bernbach who said it. An adman. The fact that a piece of wisdom such as this came from one of our own hits hard.
In an unprincipled business such as this, maybe we need to think about creating change from the inside.
Advertising is much maligned as an industry that lacks morals. And often with good reason. Selling things to people that they don't need by habitually playing on their anxieties. Feeding the beast of infinite growth capitalism in a world of finite resources. In an unprincipled business such as this, maybe we need to think about creating change from the inside.
It might feel too vast a task to challenge a system machine-tooled to lack integrity. After all, the UK is now run by a billionaire Prime Minister (whose wealthy wife has had controversial tax paying habits), yet it's too expensive for many people to eat, and food-bank use has doubled in five short years. Is it any surprise that advertising follows suit with such a fine role model to copy?
We all have far more power than we give ourselves credit for. All it takes is to make the first step into the unknown to discover that.
Imagine an agency that makes an advert for a climate charity about the urgency of halting the man-made destruction of the planet. Then imagine the same agency, creating adverts for the government of an oil producing state that’s extracting millions of barrels of natural resources a day from the desert (probably the ultimate climate villain).
Can that agency do that? Of course, they can. It's a free world - and a free market - after all. Should they do that? That depends...
If said hypothetical agency wanted to claim that they’re a business with integrity, then of course they shouldn't.
Precisely because that would be engaging in double standards. Assisting one client in the destruction of our world, whilst creating messages decrying the destruction of our world for another.
Discourse and free speech are the seeds of change. And change is what we need. If we can't have free and open debate in an industry whose output is literally communications, then we’re in dire straits.
We all know the rewards are rich and tempting when working with certain types of clients. It's not hard to understand why these situations may occur. But, back to where we started - "A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something."
My belief is that in times like these - personal integrity must come to the fore. Our principles should matter - especially if they cost us something. We might not be able to dismantle the system on our own. But at least we can have the integrity to set our own boundaries with the companies we work for. We all have far more power than we give ourselves credit for. All it takes is to make the first step into the unknown to discover that.
"No, I won't work on that account. It doesn't fit with my personal values."
If enough of us are prepared to enable the debate, that's what will redeem an industry that has so much power to make a positive difference.
If an agency can't hear that kind of statement from their staff then they need to consider, fundamentally, how they’re structured and then, how they’ll be perceived. Both inside their four walls and outside.
Discourse and free speech are the seeds of change. And change is what we need. If we can't have free and open debate in an industry whose output is literally communications, then we’re in dire straits. Especially as every project we engage in can potentially have a moral quandary at its heart. Some strands of capitalism are literally destructive, and we should all be free to express what side of the fence we sit on. This makes us better.
If enough of us are prepared to enable the debate, that's what will redeem an industry that has so much power to make a positive difference. We might not be able to remove an errant CEO from a multinational advertising holding company, but we can be true to ourselves. We still have the power to choose where and how we spend our working lives - whose corner to fight.
I found another little quote about advertising whilst thinking about this piece. Again, it's from Bernbach.
We still have the power to choose where and how we spend our working lives - whose corner to fight.
"All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."
It seems to me that if we all had an ounce of Bill's fire, clarity, and integrity then our industry could be a very different place. Perhaps one that might make even the corporations we advertise for think twice. But all of this begins - ultimately - with us.