An open letter to Sir Martin Sorrell

Guest post by Jon Alexander, co-author of Think Of Me As Evil?

Sir Martin,

As one of the authors of the report you cited in your recent piece on advertising, I want to respond to your comments, and to invite you to engage with me in a public dialogue to try to identify a new and constructive role for advertising in society.

I make this offer because I am not the crazed, yoghurt-knitting activist hurling stones from outside the system that you suggest, but an industry professional of some standing myself.  As an agency planner I have worked at Fallon and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, both winners of Agency of the Year awards; as a client I have used the skills of brand strategy in both private and third sector, winning prestigious awards including Brand Republic’s Big Idea of the Year from that side of the relationship as well.

Looking from this perspective, I would argue that the advertising industry today is in a sorry state; and that the opportunity to find its feet lies precisely in engaging seriously with the criticisms that you instead seek to reduce to absurdity.

As I and my co-authors said in our report, there is both a quantitative and a qualitative problem with the role of advertising in society today.  We have too much advertising, and it is promoting deeply unhelpful values.  In an age when a social psychologist can win the Nobel Prize for Economics for dismissing the idea that humans are rational decision makers, we can no longer pretend that we all know what we’re thinking all the time.  There is significant experimental evidence that advertising as it exists today is normalising and validating sets of cultural values that directly undermine our efforts to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, from climate change to severe poverty and inequality.

Indeed, one set of studies suggests that the very concept of the consumer is deeply negative: in a survey of environmental and social attitudes, the sample was split, with half the respondents answering a ‘Consumer Response Study’, and the other half a ‘Citizen Response Study’.  With only this one word difference in priming, levels of environmental and social motivation were significantly lower among consumers than citizens.  The results were replicated using environmental priming – products and advertising – instead of language.  The clear implication is this: to the extent that we tell ourselves, largely through advertising, that we are consumers, we make ourselves less likely to tackle the challenges we face.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

From a qualitative perspective, what companies want to bring to the marketplace is changing.  More and more organisations seek to talk to us, the people, as citizens capable of genuine participation, not just as consumer buying machines.  Barclays under Anthony Jenkins, Unilever under Paul Polman, the Co-operative Group…  all these organisations and many more are seeking to place purpose and involvement, not just sales, at the heart of what they do.  None of them are seeing their advertising agencies as key partners in this work.  If they are involved at all, agencies are suppliers of promotional materials, not engagement partners.

Yet what is brand if it is not an expression of purpose?  If the advertising industry could actually face into these big challenges instead of dismissing them out of hand, could and should we not be the key advisors of early 21st century business, playing the same role in a new era of purpose-oriented commerce that audit firms played in the cult of profit-for-profit’s-sake in the late 20th?

Some agencies are tiptoeing into this space.  18 Feet & Rising have been a key partner to – among others – the National Trust in their emergent repositioning as an organisation that champions love of place instead of merely operating visitor attractions, and to Nationwide as they have made the building society desirable again.  Interestingly, the founders of this agency have faced directly into the challenges raised in the report we wrote, noting the importance of intrinsic and extrinsic value associations in their client contracts and stating their primary ambition as to grow people not just profits.

Nor does the quantitative challenge have to be interpreted as ‘kill advertising’.  There is too much advertising today, and it is in too many places in our lives; that is different from saying ‘all advertising is bad’.  We pick out advertising to children and outdoor advertising as particularly problematic in our report, both I think difficult to argue with.  To pick up the theme of outdoor advertising you seize on, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the same industry legend you quote, David Ogilvy, once said he would “start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries,” he asked, “will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?”

When a modern agency CEO can be heard to declare that “We don’t know where the consumer is any more, so we have to be everywhere,” I think true leaders like Ogilvy and Howard Gossage – celebrated in a 2012 biography entitled ‘Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man’ – would recognise that it must be time to act in the name of balance and sanity, and to reject the ideological belief that all public space must be commercial space.

I believe that if the industry can come to respect some limits, you will find your licence to operate is granted far more willingly, and that the questions your clients ask of you become rather more interesting.

I do not necessarily expect you to agree wholeheartedly, but I have seen your contributions to the wider environmental and social debate, and I know you recognise the severity of these challenges.  You are a good man who wants to do what is right.  So am I.  Let’s come together and debate this constructively; not throw stones at one another across the World Wide Web.

Yours with respect,

Jon Alexander
Director, New Citizenship Project

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