Tess Alps: Marketers must stop moaning and take action

The marketing industry is very good at analysing problems but not as good at finding solutions. From gender diversity to short-termism, we need to act to make our industry a better place.

Deeds not Words: as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of (some) women getting the vote in the UK, the suffragettes’ rallying cry carries a special relevance for us in marketing.

If you have been to any conferences recently, then you will have listened to a lot of troubling words, presentations and debates around a list of familiar ‘problems’ in our industry that just don’t seem to go away – short-termism, equality and diversity, agency remuneration and brand safety are just a few of the perennial challenges that loom large. Year after year, we talk about these difficult topics with few signs of progress. Are these issues really so intractable?

Maybe you watched the ‘March for Our Lives’ in Washington last month. Nearly two million people took to the streets to demonstrate powerfully for tougher gun controls in the US, following all too many tragic shootings. That was as persuasive a display of national sentiment as we are likely to see, but now what? Thoughts, prayers and marches are all very well but what Americans need is legislative reform. Until legislators start feeling some pain, by losing their seats in Congress over the issue, I fear little will change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not decrying protest; informing people about a problem, debating it and raising consciousness is a vital first step. Without #MeToo there would be no #TimesUp. Words have to come first but they must be followed by purposeful action or they are just hollow, hot air. Perhaps we should instigate a new rule for marketing conferences: no-one is allowed to talk about a problem in the marketing industry without proposing a solution.

Thankfully, we do have examples of companies taking decisive action to address some of the perennial problems.

One way is to make cracking the challenge someone’s specific job. Take equality and diversity; Aviva was one of the first to do this when it appointed Jan Gooding its global inclusion director. In April, Mars announced that Michele Oliver, a woman of action if ever there was one, was to be given a new role of global corporate brand and purpose director, and we can confidently look forward to Mars reaping the benefits in due course.

Actually, it already has, because Oliver responded to Channel 4’s invitation to tackle the under-representation of disability in advertising, winning the prize of £1m of Channel 4 airtime for a series of mould-breaking and hugely successful Maltesers TV ads.

Channel 4’s approach to effecting genuine change could be described as the ‘carrot’ approach. But the ‘stick’ can work too.

Who could forget Marc Pritchard of P&G’s bombshell at last year’s IAB Leadership Summit, when he catalogued the various ills infecting online advertising. He honourably took a share of the blame but stated that P&G would be removing advertising investment from any media owner and agency who didn’t work promptly on solutions.

Many advertisers reduced their online spend and we are now seeing some of the necessary changes in approach at the tech giants. There’s nothing like the prospect of losing money to concentrate the mind. Marketers have this incredible power to ensure reform happens but they can’t just make idle threats; they have to keep the pressure up.

As our government and others around the world start to tackle regulating the internet properly, they will find that advertisers are probably better agents for positive change online than using some other levers. Advertisers can play a big role in maximising the benefits to ordinary people of a well-regulated internet while reducing dangers and damage – and I don’t just mean the advertising. But marketers have to embrace this power and use it responsibly.

Everyone in marketing and advertising is jolly articulate, but we mustn’t just become experts at moaning.

Deeds not Words; to return to the Suffragettes, they eventually got tired of giving speeches and writing tracts and started to take direct action in the pursuit of gender equality, hence their slogan.

Clearly, we’ve made a lot of progress over the past 100 years, but I fear Emmeline Pankhurst would be disappointed at how far we still need to go. I’m not suggesting we take to stone-throwing, hunger strikes or arson, but we really can do more.

Establishing recruitment targets, for instance, is something to aim for and, as they say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. When you get asked to speak at a conference, not only are you now going to come up with a solution for any problem you want to raise you are going to make sure that any panel is a gender-balanced one and ideally diverse in all sorts of ways, including ethnicity, social class and age. They call it an ‘inclusion rider’ in Hollywood. Agreed?

Everyone in marketing and advertising is jolly articulate, but we mustn’t just become experts at moaning. We can analyse any problem to death but we must also be creative at finding the solutions. Don’t stop at the talk. We all have more power than we think to act and make our industry a better place.

Tess Alps is chair of Thinkbox and an honorary member of  WACL, which is hosting its annual Gather conference on 24 May with the theme “Good Things Come to Those That Do” . 



    Leave a comment