Neville Doyle reflects on advertising’s position at the cross-roads of culture after SXSW

This year was my first trip to SXSW and it was an experience unlike any other. The sheer scale of the event has to be experienced to be believed – it is enough to leave one dizzy.

At the end of five days however, I had drawn a conclusion that hopefully differs to most of the ‘five trends from SXSW’ articles that you will read. Yes, VR was everywhere. Yes, healthtech is coming on leaps and bounds. Yes, IBM’s Watson is seriously impressive. But I found my focus turning elsewhere.

At the end of a hectic first day of talks in Austin I went to a ‘meet up’ session – an hour event without any speakers, but rather where lots of like minded people go to talk. This particular one was titled ‘Accidentally in Advertising’. Not only did this speak to me because of the haphazard way I ended up in the industry, it was also being hosted by one of the people responsible for the Nike ‘Chalk Bot’. So I was sold.

At the end of the hour, I was struck by a few things. Firstly, the amazing diversity of people we have in this industry. Secondly, the levels of intelligence and creative problem solving that were on display. But finally, hints of a deep seeded dislike for what a lot of us actually do as a job. A sense that it is ‘only advertising’ and that this is a bad thing we should not be proud of.

My strong counter argument to this inferiority complex is that, for me, I see integrated creative agencies as being perfectly placed to take on and drive the idea of creativity with purpose. Despite our own pessimism, I left the week feeling not only inspired as to what we in advertising can do, but also, as to what we should do.

A huge amount of what I saw at SXSW spoke to the increasing rise of conscious capitalism and the conscious consumer. Even when talks, sessions and panels did not label it thusly, the principles were often still evident.

I saw the head of a winning start up whose focus was on water filtration devices for the developing world talk about about her realisation after years of volunteering for aid organisations that what she needed to do to affect change was to have a successful business model. Another panel on climate change countered pessimism around lack of global government action with opinion that ‘they don’t matter anyway’. That real change is orchestrated by big business and that after Paris climate change talks, the head of BP came out and publicly stated that the future for mankind’s energy needs cannot be fossil fuels. This sort of shift is a bigger step than any governmental target setting. This was further reinforced by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank who pressed home the point that startups need to get out of the habit of losing money. That, in reality, unless you are making a profit you are never going to grow to a scale to have a significant impact on the world. You want to do good in the world? Make sure you are driving your bottom line at the same time.

So, what can advertising agencies and our industry in general take from all of this? In my opinion, no one is as strategically placed as we find ourselves to do big things that have a positive impact on both our clients bottom line but also, the general world around us.

Which other industry is as chock full with creative problem solvers as us? Which other industry has so many people who could make a call to Google or to Facebook, then get onto a call with a global CMO for an FMCG brand or a key budget holder within a bank. And then follow that up by contacting the head of brand for an NGO or a charity. Obviously, it is rarely that simple but the reality is that in most significant agencies there exists these sorts of relationships and the ability to leverage them for good – for the good of our clients bottom line, sure, but hopefully to also make the world a bit of a better place along the way.

Increasingly, I see advertising agencies as standing at the crossroads of culture, that we have the opportunity to bring to life an approach of creativity with purpose that can be of benefit to the three P’s – people, planet, profit — these three form the ‘triple bottom line’ approach at the heart of the conscious capitalism model.

We have relationships with people that can give us global reach, the lateral thinkers needed for that lightning in a bottle moment of genius to solve old problems in new ways and, crucially, access to businesses and brands with the budgets to help make these dreams a reality (as long as we can do it in a way that benefits them equally).  

My experience across the last 18 months gives me increasing hope that this can be more than just a fad. If you had asked me at the start of 2015 what the odds were of bringing together Edward Snowden, one of the worlds biggest adblockers and Amnesty International all in the aim of supporting ‘world day against cyber censorship’, I would have put the odds at slim to none. Or if you had floated the idea that our beer client would oversee a national roll out of biofuel brewed from their waste product, I may have thought you mad.

With both of these projects now fact rather than mere pipedream, it gives me hope that we, as an industry, can embrace our position as facilitators and use it to do more good. Yes, these projects are certainly the exception to the rule as it stands, but doing good in the world to drive tangible business results is a trend that I do not think is going away, that will only continue to grow. Maybe if it does, when I return to the ‘Accidentally in Advertising’ meet-up at SXSW 2018 there may be a greater sense of underlying pride of what we in this industry have done and can continue to do. 

Neville Doyle is the digital planning director at Colenso BBDO/Proximity.

  • Click here to read more industry thoughts about SXSW.

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