Going beyond the greenwash

12 Mar 2018  |  Frank Krikhaar 
Going beyond the greenwash

Frank Krikhaar examines the ways the ad industry can have a real and lasting impact on sustainability - and help use its creative clout to deliver positive change

How can marketing deliver positive change? It’s a question increasingly on marketers’ minds as we come to terms with our role in the digital economy. As an industry, we play a significant role in driving consumption and we hold huge power to affect behavioural change amongst consumers; but can we deliver that positive change and if so, how?

We’ve seen a real demand from consumers for more ethical awareness from the brands they trust and buy. According to Accenture, 33% of consumers choose to buy from brands they believe are doing social and/or environmental good and there is a 966bn Euro untapped opportunity for brands that make their sustainability credentials clear.

In the face of this growing demand from consumers, brands need to do more than simply pay lip-service to sustainability. Yet the industry has come under fire in the past for delivering “greenwash”, or the use of communications and marketing grounded in purpose and doing good to sell products and services without matching it with the appropriate responsibility at brand or agency level.

But influencing genuine change is easier said than done. How can brands and marketers go beyond greenwash to affect actual change?

Pooling resources

A first avenue is to bring agencies, media partners and brands around the same table to discuss these issues. As individual companies pursue their own sustainability priorities, the efforts of the industry have been invariably disjointed. The United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide a useful, neutral framework in this respect and invite collaboration.

Within the advertising industry there is already a collaborative effort between the ‘big six’ advertising networks (WPP, Publicis Group, Omnicom, Dentsu Aegis Network, Havas and IPG) and the United Nations to tackle the SDGs called Common Ground. Together the agencies have agreed to collaborate rather than compete to address the world’s most pressing issues including climate change, world health, inequality, and responsible consumption and production.

In the first two years, for instance, Common Ground has supported Malaria No More in its efforts to launch the #MalariaMustDie campaign, which went live earlier this month. This is a joint effort between agencies from Dentsu Aegis Network, WPP and IPG to support the charity in achieving its goal to eradicate malaria.

These are campaigns that drive action way beyond marketing directly into real change on the ground, and if more businesses - large and small - can collaborate without competition then more can be achieved than through individual corporate agendas.

Building sustainability into KPIs

Beyond supporting charitable causes, it is important that we have a frank conversation about the outputs of the advertising industry. Not all work we do can be worthy, but increasingly purpose-driven campaigns are used to promote brands and sell products.

Whilst this, at first glance, may seem like a positive development, our research into global, award-winning ad campaigns found that 60% of so-called “purposeful” campaigns don’t go on to measure their societal impact as part of their campaign KPIs. In essence, they’re not making any measurable positive impact on the world.

We should consider how we can create an ecosystem in which sustainability KPIs are included as standard in client and agency briefs, much like business outcomes, impressions and share of voice are key metrics. Following the adage “what gets measured, gets managed”, this will ensure that we focus everyone in the media industry at delivering the most impactful KPIs.

Moving from business case to purpose

At this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, there was a clear focus on society and sustainability issues as being top priorities for successful businesses. In the near future companies won’t just be judged on how much money they can rake in, but how much - or rather how little - they have impacted the world.

As a result, the third way brands and marketers can achieve genuine positive change is to help all businesses in the digital economy identify what standards - beyond profit - business should adopt as measures of success. That’s why Dentsu Aegis Network launched the first Digital Society Index in Davos this year, attempting to put a first measure on the health of and trust in the digital economy.

As marketers, we are by nature creative and our campaigns create powerful messages with global reach. This means we’re able to reach everyone with vital information about the issues facing our world. We should collaborate to engage everyone on our global challenges and do our bit, in partnership with our clients and media partners, to reshape business in the digital economy. But we must do it properly, and together we can make the biggest impact.


Frank Krikhaar is global corporate social responsibility director, Dentsu Aegis Network

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