Ex-Unilever boss Paul Polman: We need to bring humanity back to advertising

The former CEO of the second-largest advertiser in the world is calling on brands to move on from taking the easy route and short-term focuses to consider how diversity can boost businesses in the long-term.

diversityAdvertising has lost its humanity in the “rat race” to do things quickly, according to Unilever’s recently departed CEO Paul Polman, who is calling for brands and leaders to work harder and faster to solve issues around diversity, especially disability.

Polman, who was at the helm of the world’s second-largest advertiser for a decade, says some of Unilever’s “most effective” advertising has featured people with disabilities. The reason for this, he says, is “because they’re human”.

“We need to bring humanity back,” he said at Advertising Week Europe today (20 March). “We take an easier route, become short of time. This takes an effort, this is a longer term commitment, there are things in the company you need to prepare for that. We’re in such a rat race to satisfy [short-term business demands] we’ve forgotten to do the things that are the foundations of society.”

Polman was speaking alongside diversity champion Caroline Casey, the founder of Valuable which has launched a campaign to try to get 500 companies to put disability on the board agenda. The session focused on the responsibility of businesses to recognise the greater need for inclusivity in the workplace, as well as how they should embrace and cater to the excluded.

While 90% of companies claim they are passionate about diversity and inclusion, only 4% consider disability when thinking about the subject. However, as we have seen with gender diversity, LGBT and mental health – although “too slowly” – Polman believes the case for disability in advertising and within companies will begin to pick up speed.

Companies are in such a rat race to satisfy short-term business demands we’ve forgotten to do the things that are the foundations of society.

Paul Polman

“We need to create momentum, awareness and internalise it,” he said. “We see this with other things. It takes a while and all of a sudden it takes off.”

This will involve a lot of work removing deep-rooted unconscious biases that have “put people in boxes” for years. But as technology and medicine becomes more advanced, perceptions around what it means to be disabled need to change.

“Some people think you cannot be a good marketer in a wheelchair or if one of your limbs is missing. That’s kind of weird if you think about it but we all have that unconscious bias,” Polman said.

“The definition is a bit of a weird definition. A lot of it is in our own mindset and how we put people in boxes. We all have different abilities, if we change the narrative and make it a little broader it will help.”

1.3 billion people worldwide have a disability, with 50% of those less likely to have a job and more likely to live in poverty. As such, Polman believes the industry needs to prioritise inclusivity like it would fight for people’s sexual reproduction rights and child labour.

“It should be on the human rights index and call companies out over time that don’t think this is important,” he said. “People like to be called out if they do good things, they don’t like to be seen to be doing bad things. If we don’t solve its values we undermine the reason for humanity.”

While Polman doesn’t believe in “profit with purpose,” he does believes if companies can better cater to people with disabilities and consider them when hiring, it can boost profits.

“I believe in purpose and doing purpose very well will ultimately lead to profit,” Polman said. “Businesses’ prime objective is to serve society, we need to make it better. On an environmental level that means regenerative; on a human level that means inclusion.

“Companies that have a more inclusive environment are companies that also perform better financially. It’s cause and effect, it’s not by coincidence.”

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