Bear with me as I do a little thought experiment here:
Let’s start from the simple idea that products exist to solve people’s problems. And then let’s say that brands are just the promise that a particular product will solve a particular person’s particular problem. So far so good? Okay. And then let’s say that advertising agencies are in the business of articulating and expressing that particular promise to those people in ways that are compelling and resonant and, you know, drive sales of the particular product.
Now, if that’s the universe we live in, then what happens when we put the idea of providing sustainable value at the center of our efforts? What happens to the whole equation when we use our talents as creative marketers to generate ideas that are more deeply tethered to improving the world?
“Hold on”, you may say. “Why would we want to do something like that? As marketers, our job is not to make the world a better place (no matter how much we as humans may want to). As marketers, our job is to market our clients’ products.” To which our clients may add in agreement “And why would I want to do that? My job is to sell my products. Sure, I may want to stop climate change, fight for LGTBQ rights or end hunger – all perfectly legitimate causes – but those don’t have anything to do with selling my product, which is what my bosses pay me to do.”
But you’re wrong. Both you and your client.
A business’s job is to keep the businesses in business. Marketing clients’ products and selling products are, frankly, just tactics for doing that. Tactics which you can use, modify or discard as their effectiveness demands.
Of course, some tactics are better than others, or rather, more relevant than others, thus helping us narrow our selection set. (For example, starting a brain surgery clinic might be a highly lucrative way for us to keep our business in business – except none of us here know how to perform brain surgery (our expertise in advertising notwithstanding), so it’s not really a viable tactic for us to consider, and thus is discarded early in the brainstorming process.)
“Okay,” you say, “Let’s say you’re right (I’m not saying you are, I’m just humouring you for the purposes of this thought experiment). That still doesn’t justify putting sustainable value at the center of our efforts.”
No, it doesn’t, but it does reframe the idea in important ways that have important ramifications. It makes the idea less about doing good just because it makes us feel good to do good, and more about doing good because it’s a better tactic for doing what we do. Or should be doing. Namely, staying in business.
Now, let’s take the thought experiment to another level. What would make doing good a better tactic for keeping our businesses in business? How about if we found out that the people we were marketing to, and the people that our clients were selling products to (or trying to), were increasingly of the opinion that brands should stand for something. What if there was a report from Edelman recently that said that 2/3 of consumers felt that way. What if there was one from Adweek that said more or less the same thing?
In other words, what if demonstrating that we were creating sustainable value actually was something that helped our businesses stay in business because it was what our customers wanted from us?
What would that do to our businesses? Other than, you know, potentially help them stay in business?
I am increasingly of the opinion that it would fundamentally change them. Because I think it would change the very nature of the relationship between clients and agencies, between clients and customers and, perhaps more importantly, between employees and employers.
Why? A couple of reasons.
If you start by putting sustainable value at the center of the relationship between the client and the customer, what you are doing is shifting the conversation from one that purely reacts to the slings and arrows of the specific functional task that the product was fulfilling, to something bigger. In other words, your relationship with the customer doesn’t spike every time they run out of what ever it is you make – it’s an ongoing thing, because you’re tapping into an ongoing need of theirs.
By addressing the bigger cultural need, by tying to the larger cultural issue, you are getting on top of the wave that your product has battled. Rather than figuring out how to react to it, you are actually using it as part of your strength. You are helping your customer address this deeper need they have, which makes you a part of that bigger need. Which ties you into a longer term, potentially less volatile, strategy.
However, the relationship between agencies and clients is usually built on those cyclical, spikey sales cycles. So if you divorce them from the equation, then you’ve fundamentally changed the relationship between the client and the agency too. Why? Because clients like to know if what they’re paying their agencies for is working, and agencies like to know what they’re going to be measured against so they can create the work that does that. And spikey sales charts are – in the absence of anything else – a good yardstick to use. Which means when we put sustainable value at the center of our business, you’re probably talking about some different kinds of measurements, measuring different kinds of ideas. Maybe measurements and ideas we can’t imagine until we actually start doing it.
What we probably can imagine, however, is that the people we will need to come up with those ideas and to make those measurements will probably have different needs and expectations than the people who work in advertising right now do. I don’t know if it’s possible to identify a principle most people in advertising today have organized their lives around, but it would seem reasonable to assume that people who believe passionately in sustainable value will want something different from their lives than the current crop of employees do. And they’ll want something different from the companies they work for.
And that goes for clients and agencies alike. Which is why the relationship between employees and employers changes too.
Now you may say, all of this sounds like a lot of work, a lot of disruption, and a lot of potential for problems. You may say, “I think I’ll pass.” And your client may be nodding with you. And I don’t blame either of you.
But here’s the thing: you kind of don’t have a choice. Someone’s going to figure out how to do this, if for no other reason than it makes the relationships with customers stronger, which gives whoever does, a powerful competitive advantage when fighting the competition.
And that, as we all know, is a thing of value every marketer wants to sustain.
Miguel Simoes, CEO, MullenLowe Group Western Europe
This article was originally published on LinkedIn