Sustainability: the future of creative industries

In the run up to the D&AD White Pencil Symposium and awards evening on the 27th November, our Director, Steven Johnson was asked to write a piece for Creative Review outlining the significance of social change and sustainability for the advertising and creative industries. Part 1 of the article was published in Creative Review on 18 September, with the second available on the D&AD website. This post combines the full text from both parts.


The challenge of our time. The future of our industry

Launched in 2011 to reward the use of creativity for social good, D&AD’s White Pencil has redefined traditional awards. Articulating the ambitions of a new generation of design and advertising talent, it has sent a message and sparked a movement: creative thought for social change. Above and beyond the award and this year’s Peace One Day brief, I believe White Pencil is a barometer for deeper shifts within our culture, our economy and our industry. These shifts will create exciting new roles and opportunities for us as creative practitioners, but will challenge us to embrace new concepts, skills and responsibilities.

The world is changing

Consumers are changing. They are becoming increasingly aware of the role that business and brands have played in creating many of the social, economic and environmental challenges we face. They are frustrated with business-as-usual responses and are connecting and collaborating to collectively demand more from their brands: more responsibility, more transparency, more humanity.

Brands are changing. Those brands progressive enough to respond pro-actively to these consumer trends are rapidly moving sustainability and social change (SCS) issues from the periphery of their comms plan to the beating heart of their business model. Brands that view SCS as an obligation will soon be overtaken by those that embrace it as an opportunity—an opportunity to recruit, motivate and retain staff; to build brand equity; to drive business growth.

Without even considering the emergence of brands and business models based on completely new economic principles (collaborative consumption, social innovation, shared value), the ripple effect is clear: consumers are changing, brands are changing, we must change.

Innovate or die?

Calls for advertising and design to be more responsible or sustainable have traditionally been based on moral arguments. Whilst valid, these arguments were easily trumped with reference to consumer choice or the benefits of economic growth. As a result, the justification for anything other than incremental change struggled to reach the boardroom.

However, we’re now looking at a hard-and-fast business case that demands a more radical response to SCS issues: a not-too-distant future in which the ability to innovate around SCS will decide which brands successfully engage consumers, which agencies win business and which creatives get jobs.

Challenge or opportunity?

Let’s rule out ignoring it from the outset. Creative businesses that cling fast to business-as-usual will quickly lose relevance. A ‘clean’ supply chain is central to a sustainable brand and in the same way that the likes of Walmart will now reject suppliers if they don’t meet rigorous sustainability standards, we will soon have a situation in which brands will demand proof of ethical, responsible and sustainable practice from their agencies as a pre-requisite to doing business.Furthermore, let’s not fool ourselves that these credentials will relate only to internal practices such as environmental statements, employee welfare programmes and pro-bono schemes.

Given that consumer trust is both a brand’s greatest and most quickly diminishing asset, agencies will have to develop new ways of relating to consumers as human beings whilst ensuring their work is ethically water tight in its messaging and cultural references.We are already seeing signs that the more progressive brands, who are already embracing SCS as an opportunity for innovation, are pulling away from their agencies­­—frustrated at a lack of synergy, sensitivity and creativity around these issues. If we lose the brands, we lose the business.Beyond ignoring SCS altogether, we have two options that differ in subtle but important ways.

We could respond to the challenge—reluctantly drag ourselves up the agenda, ticking boxes along the way. Or we could do what we do… and get creative. We could embrace the opportunity—use these emerging trends as a springboard for innovation, creating new forms of value for clients, new revenue streams for agencies and a new relevance for the role of creative practitioner.As a species we are facing some of the most urgent social, environmental and economic challenges in our history. The consequences of this are that, as an industry and as creative practitioners, we will soon be staring at fresh, complex challenges closer to home. In both cases, creativity and innovation will become essential for survival. And who is better placed to rise to this challenge than us, the global creative community?


In the second part of this article, D&AD Trustee and White Pencil Symposium MC, Steven Johnson, discusses the skills and concepts we will need to drive forward Social Change and Sustainability agenda.The first part of this article outlined the context and the business case for more socially responsible and pro-active practice from the advertising and creative industries. Whilst this case is clear, it begs the question, what now? What can we actually do to future proof our skills and our businesses as we enter this brave new world and when can we start? The answer is lots, and now.

1. At a very basic level, we can incorporate the concepts, principles and language of SCS into our own brand positioning. Getting beyond the chemistry meeting will soon depend the ability to at least talk-the-talk. Similarly, when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, an informed, pro-active stance on SCS will be a positive differentiator, quickly settling down to a pre-requisite.

2. We can develop an understanding of how SCS trends affect client brands/businesses within their market context. We can then look at how our insight gathering, strategy development and creative can be directed to add more/different types of value.

3. We can refine our understanding of the wider impacts of our work and offer clients confidence that, whatever brands we are working on, our messaging, storytelling and art direction is crafted to promote pro-social values.

4. We can leverage a surge of new research in behavioural economics, social psychology, network theory and cognitive neuroscience to better understand consumers and empower pro-social behaviour change.

5. We can fine tune our sensitivity to ethical issues and give clients assurance that we are protecting and building trust amongst consumers who are increasingly aware of body image, diet, exploitation, stereotyping and manipulation issues.

6. We can become more progressive in our research methods to generate insights that reflect the real lives of real human beings. This in turn will mean we can develop strategy and creative that is both respectful and resonant.

7. We can step down from our ivory towers and embrace collaborative approaches to creative development and innovation—co-designing solutions with creatives, clients and consumers.

8. We can work with client-side internal marketing teams to ensure that their core brand strategies are aligned with the emerging SCS themes.

At the back of this agenda we can find a much bigger, exciting and challenging opportunity. An opportunity to drive business growth, to redefine the role of creative practitioner; to deliver new forms of value and, in culmination, have a significant positive impact on the economic, social and environmental challenges we are facing.

9. We can use the new concepts, skills and relevance that SCS gives us to drive our role further up the value chain. Rather than being brought in to apply the outer layer of brand communications to promote the offer, we need develop and sell our skills as the means through which the offering is created in the first place: research, advise, co-create and innovate the products, services and commercial opportunities that will empower businesses and brands to make a positive difference in the context of financial growth.

It’s clear that some of us are already doing some of this; it’s also clear that many of us have good intentions to apply our skills and our industry to positive change. But if we are to make a significant, sustainable difference, we need to go beyond manifestos, awareness campaigns and 5% pro bono time. We need to bolster, expand and repurpose our skill set to deal with the messy complexity of consumer behaviour change and disruptive innovation.

Whilst this challenge might sound daunting, ambitious, dramatic, it can be boiled down to something quite simple: the need for new ideas, new models, new executions. In short, the need for creativity. And who is better to equipped to rise to this challenge than us, the global creative community?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *