Digitas Urged Brands to Take a Stand and #Boycott Its Own NewFront Event This Year

The agency wants clients to embrace cause marketing

Digitas' NewFront focused around taking a stand. Lindsay Rittenhouse

Digitas, the founding agency of the Digital Content NewFronts, chose to ruffle some feathers with a bold, cause-based stance at its showcase this year.

Armed with a string of influential speakers, the Publicis network tried to persuade its clients in attendance (which included American Express, HPE, CVS, Sony PlayStation and Lyft) to do the same. That’s because, according to the agency, a brand without a cause or an “authentic truth” will not survive in 2018.

Scott Donaton, Digitas’ global chief content officer and creator of the #Boycott NewFront event, told Adweek he does not view cause marketing as a “thing that could come and go as a trend [but rather] a permanent shift.”

“As we move away from a world of obtrusive, disruptive advertising into a world where people will decide to interact or not with brands, it’s more important than ever to have values and express them,” Donaton said, explaining why Digitas organized its 2018 NewFront around urging brands to enter cultural discussions (as long as it makes sense to do so).

Take Burger King, for example. In January, the fast food joint explained the complicated topic of net neutrality through a campaign stunt that forced real customers to wait longer for a Whopper if they paid for it at regular price than if they agreed to a higher charge.

Donaton admitted when he first heard about the campaign, he couldn’t fathom why Burger King of all companies would comment on a topic so unrelated to its business as net neutrality. So he asked the chain’s global CMO, Fernando Machado.

“He was like, ‘Because we stand for choice and we think everyone should have a choice,’” Donaton said, reflecting on the conversation.

According to a study by Digitas and Insider Inc. that made its debut at the event, “transformists” (who make up 24 percent of adults aged 18 to 54) are today’s most powerful influencers and are twice as likely as the general population “to act on content they consume.” Of that group, the study found 95 percent expect companies to conduct business ethically, 61 percent are more enticed to buy a product if part of the proceeds goes to a cause they care about, 54 percent buy more from companies they trust and 90 percent are loyal to a brand they vibe with.

These findings helped fuel the “#Boycott NewFront” theme—and the agency hoped clients left the event feeling, as the kids say, “woke.”

As guests arrived, they shuffled into an industrial-chic lounge and bar area decked out in what Digitas executives described as “non-offensive” decor. Vanilla oozed from the walls as adorable puppies and babies flashed on a screen; meanwhile, mannequins fit for a 1950’s store window display were propped up everywhere.

As if literally walking into the next decade, guests were then ushered into a smoky backroom hidden from all natural light and seemingly set up to resemble a modern version of the basements that birthed ’60s counterculture. The posters on these walls didn’t protest the Vietnam War; instead, they sported hashtags, like #MeToo, #TakeAKnee and #NeverAgain that have defined our new “pan-activism” age, as TBWA Worldwide described it in a recent study.

“Only old people say we should keep politics out of anything,” said Teen Vogue chief content officer Phillip Picardi, who was one of the speakers at the event. “If you think transgender equality is something that is solely political, you’re actually talking about someone’s basic human rights to live. Young people do not look at politics as this segmented idea; we look at it as what’s personal to us.”

And isn’t personalized marketing what brands strive for?

Other event speakers who made similar points included Nola Weinstein, global head of culture, engagement and experiential marketing at Twitter, United Shades of America host W. Kamau Bell, The New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, investigative journalist Jodi Kantor, who won a Pulitzer for her Harvey Weinstein coverage, Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden, and Brad Jakeman, senior advisor and former president of PepsiCo Global Beverage Group.

After the event was over, the stuffy, outdated lounge and bar area had been transformed. The puppies disappeared, and the mannequins were no longer stationed in front of the TV bundled up in cardigans but were instead dressed in bold, colorful prints, holding picket signs that read, “#BrandActivism Now.”

Donaton said he sees this movement as a challenge for Digitas to awaken as many brands as possible.

“We want to work with companies that are inauthentic in the stand they take or put out messaging that’s inconsistent with the values of the company,” he said, a goal that coincidentally would expand the agency’s client roster.

@kitten_mouse lindsay.rittenhouse@adweek.com Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.