Singing Walmart’s Praises and Other Moments That Mattered at Adcolor

Gun safety and activism are prime topics in marketing today

Apple's Ebro Darden (left) addresses the crowd at Adcolor in Los Angeles. Getty Images
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon has in the last week announced some sweeping changes at the retail giant, including curbs on its ammunition sales and bans on openly carrying firearms in its stores. He’s also advocating for gun safety legislation, in what some observers have called the most significant (and potentially bottom-line battering) statement from a mainstream corporate executive on the hot-button issue.

Brian Ellner, a speaker at the Adcolor 2019 conference Saturday in downtown Los Angeles, said it was “game-changing.”

“I never in my life thought I’d be singing Walmart’s praises,” said the North American corporate lead for Burson Cohn & Wolfe, during a session dubbed, “Moments That Mattered.” “This is upsetting a lot of their base, but they’ve said enough is enough. They’re using their power and largess for good, and others will follow.”

But not everyone is bowled over by the move, like Ebro Darden, global editorial head at Apple Music, who sees opportunism where others may find bravery.

“They’re only doing it because it’s cool right now,” Darden said during the same panel. “It’s safe.”

A tougher road would be to call out lawmakers who are “standing in the way of progress,” Darden said, like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. He dubbed Walmart’s recent decisions “cute” at one point, though he walked the comment back moments later.

“I’m glad they’re doing it,” Darden said, “but I want to see more.”

Fellow panelist Angela Rye, principal and CEO at Impact Strategies, said a heavyweight global marketer is a good candidate to lead the way.

“Someone had to take a stand, and finally someone did,” she said of Walmart’s efforts. “We can debate whether it’s enough, but at least we can say they’re not sitting.”

Ellner said it’s a way for agencies to “push our clients” to take similar action, not just on gun violence but other social issues, as corporate America tackles problems head-on, aiming to fill a governmental void.

The panel’s speakers cited a wide range of “moments that mattered” from the past year, including Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (with an Afro-Latino hero) winning a best animated film Oscar to presidential candidates openly discussing reparations.

Adcolor’s annual gathering, which has grown from its initial 300 participants to some 1,300 attending this year, picked the theme, “Take a Stand,” and in its event manifesto challenged members to be willing to make sacrifices and take risks for their beliefs.

“When you truly declare yourself to be for what you’re for and against what you’re against, you may be misunderstood, mistreated, punished or labeled,” it reads. “Stand anyway. Because when the rules are designed to break you down, there is no choice but to break the rules.”

In keeping with that idea, both Darden and Ellner told the crowd that it’s become too easy to retweet social posts and threaten boycotts instead of taking real action.

“Our activism can’t just be on Twitter,” Rye agreed. “Who we are in the world has to match up with who we are in the workplace. Too many of us are seat warmers because we’re just so happy to be there.”

And despite his long friendship with Jay-Z, Darden took a few swings at the hip-hop mogul’s deal with the NFL at a time when Colin Kaepernick “can’t even get a job,” saying, “The rollout was terrible. I don’t love it. Actually, I hate it.” Ultimately, he said, “I’ll give it a wait and see.”

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.