There Needs to Be More Accountability in Advertising to Shatter the Status Quo

Too much focus goes into the short-term plan

a heart and bag of money on a scale
So much of advertising is the same thing over and over. Getty Images
Headshot of Thomas Kolster

Another day, another epic fail from a brand putting on the diversity mantle or shouting about social distancing.

Ads keep missing the goalposts on the climate emergency, diversity, ocean plastic—pick a theme. Behind every misstep is bad advice, lack of understanding or someone who didn’t listen.

The majority of a company’s value is inevitably tied to the brand. Missteps can cost billions in the short term, like #DieselGate for VW, and other times can prove near fatal, as was the case for American Apparel, which is now on life support.

Most agencies and marketing departments are ill-equipped at understanding and responding to the challenges of our time. And sorry to say, there is no quick branding fix to systemic racism, rampant carbon pollution or an excessive buy-and-throw-away culture. But it’s undeniably time to live up to our shared responsibility, whatever side of the table you’re sitting on. Climate change, population growth, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and increasingly acidic oceans are only some of the issues that will challenge all brands’ profitability and long-term growth.

The brand is on the firing line every day, but what about its advisers? Remember when it was customary to write the agency name in the upper-right-hand corner on print ads? (Oh yes, I began in adland two decades ago. Apologies to younger readers.)

For an industry that hypes itself as brand builders and positioning experts, isn’t it ironic that all agencies swim in the same generic soup?

That act has significance. Like an artist signing a work or signing for a house mortgage, it comes with a responsibility. It’s your neck; it’s your legacy. It shows you, as an adviser, took your work seriously. Just because most advertising work is so short-lived is no excuse. When the ad carries your name, it provides transparency and a production liability. And maybe having that name out there for public scrutiny could force agencies to take more responsibility and potentially accelerate much-needed change.

For an industry that hypes itself as brand builders and positioning experts, isn’t it ironic that all agencies swim in the same generic soup, shouting, “Look at our awards! Look at our work!”? We have a significant role to play in positively shaping businesses and brands going forward, but only if we strive for more than simply being an award-winning sausage factory. A client comes with a brief, and out comes a sausage as desired—or maybe the art director added a splash of this season’s hyped Pantone red color.

No wonder clients don’t want to pay as much anymore for our circus clown balloon-blowing abilities. They’re struggling with bigger problems than a 30-second award-winning ad. A rising tide raises all boats. Let’s strive higher as an industry, which will ultimately protect trillions in brand value. Ad agencies shouldn’t become consultancies; our key strength is still finding creative solutions to business and brand challenges. And clients still need an infusion of fresh perspective.

The first step toward creating change is to realize what capabilities we have and those we need. Just like our industry was struggling with digital transformation, sustainability still isn’t taken seriously, even though it’s challenging brands daily. Education is needed for us to do it properly.

Being in the “goodvertising” space for more than a decade, I’ve witnessed ups and downs, and it seems like we just don’t learn. If we keep building brands that claim to be world saviors, maybe it’s not surprising when they’re criticized or silenced. What if instead of crafting brands like preachers, we made brands like coaches that help people live better lives? People are no longer buying marketing messages or a brand’s good-willed approach; they’re looking for a personal change. Anyone can sell them things like stories or identity, but very few brands can help people achieve their goals. It’s moving the relationship from transactional to transformational, helping people be more, do more, see more and experience more.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 10, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@thomaskolster Thomas Kolster is a self-proclaimed marketing activist, author, international keynote speaker.