Words by Markus Støle
Illustrations by Non-Format / ANTI
The advertising industry is a peculiar and complex animal. Among young people with ambitions in the creative industry, it’s often depicted as a glorious and trendy place, filled with cool people, ping-pong tables and a low threshold for popping a cold one at the office—a proper place for creative self-realisation—while others might feel the warm, bitter sensation of regurgitation at the sound of the word ‘ad’. However, apart from the differences, there is one thing we can all agree on; as well as being a driving force behind consumerism, advertising will always aim to influence its consumers as much as possible, a motivation that tends to be regarded with contempt. How does the industry itself cope with its ethical challenges?
Let’s pretend that we’re not quite finished talking about the hit tv-series Mad Men, already. And let’s agree—for the purpose of this point—with Andrew Cracknell, author of the book The Real Mad Men, on his thorough research suggesting that the show is indeed a very accurate reflection of the ad-industry’s culture and position throughout the 60s and 70s. If so, there is an interesting scene in season one, episode six, where a young, hip and radical beatnik learns of advertising hot-shot Don Draper’s job, and reacts by saying, "…Perpetuating a lie, how can you sleep at night?". "On a bed of money", Don replies. "You guys invented the religion of mass consumption". Don takes a drag from his cigarette, casts a spiteful look at his counterpart, and answers, "People want to be told what to do, so badly, they’ll listen to anyone".
Although Don’s outspokenness is unsympathetically honest—and of course fiction, after all—the dialogue points to a conflict that in many ways seems to be as relevant today as it was back then. Both opinions are still very much present. However, the sides on which the opinions reside appear to become increasingly blurred. Which is only natural; as ethical, value and information oriented creatures we’ve come a fairly long way since the 60s, luckily. But what is perhaps most interesting in this analogy is that the beatnik of today has sort of become the ad-man himself.
Which seems to be just as often by chance as by ambition. Perhaps sometimes even unwillingly; a gateway to a creative career, a resumé filler. That being said, the industry is challenging and seductive—aspects that contribute to satisfying its creatives, holding them in the firm and comfortable grip of high salaries, flexible office hours, young working environments, creative satisfaction and a constant potential for highly regarded awards and public recognition. Sounds kind of tempting, right? As I'm one of them myself, I can assure you it is. But as the industry keeps filling up with a generation of creatives invested in sustainability, how does it affect the industry from within, and are we perhaps even looking at a change?
"I want a conversation, I want a debate on what our role is in the green change." Petter Gulli, the CEO of Norwegian ad-agency Good Morning, proclaimed to a room full of Norwegian ad-industry hotshots at the digital marketing conference, 8 Minutes, last December. Where other speakers talked about how to cut down on storytelling in order to streamline sales more efficiently, how future target groups will develop into less and less generic groups on digital platforms, and even on how today’s advertising just, well, sucks, Gulli shook up the conference, telling the industry it’s about time to properly acknowledge the very real dangers of today’s mass consumption. Out of 32 keynotes, Gulli’s was voted the best by the audience, which might suggest that the industry as a whole really responds to the idea. But the walk is always harder than the talk. And although Gulli’s thoughts and ideas are important, it’s an untraditional agenda for the industry, because it quite simply disagrees with how they make money.
"It might be an unpopular thing to talk about given the fact that in many ways, we are the engine behind consumer society," Gulli told industry news publisher, Kampanje. "But, I think it’s important that us marketers play a part in the climate battle as well. Furthermore, telling people to consume less is a communications job, too."
Amongst agency CEOs and decision makers, Gulli appears, in context of his ideas, as a kind of lone wolf. As of now, anyway. However, similar challenges have been an important topic within the industry before. Interestingly enough, that was over twenty years ago.
"There was a commitment within the industry in the late 80s and early 90s," Gulli explains. "It shaped my views and showed me it was possible to actually care and use your head even though you’re an ad-man. It was a wonderful seminar called 4 Hours Before Midnight, which addressed many of the same problems we are struggling with today. But then it became quiet. So, once again, we can only hope that those who come after us will be wiser and better equipped. And everything indicates that they are."
Based on my conversations with young creatives, it appears that Gulli was on to something. Similar ideas around consumerism and environmental issues do appear to surface more frequently amongst the new generation. According to Bård Rostrup Danielsen, an Art Director and part of an awarded creative ad-duo, there’s a marked difference in young creatives today compared to the 80s and 90s.
"Young creatives today are brought up with environmental issues and consumerism constantly on the agenda, which sort of forces them to reflect upon those issues. And I think maybe that will have an impact on the industry as a whole. It’s always had an impact on us, anyway."
The duo of Bård and Sindre Fosse Rossnes make—in the image of the stereotypical ad-man—a quite unusual creative team. They're both highly invested in the outdoors life; long hikes, mountain climbing and fishing. Their investment in environmental issues is sort of a given. When creating campaigns, the team tend to aim for communication that offers the consumer added value, preferably for ethical clients or products, preferably sustainable, and as Bård says "communication that doesn’t annoy people". In addition to this, due to their values and beliefs, the team bargained their way into an unconventional approach in the circus of advertising.
"We used to have a specific percentage of our time devoted to charitable cases we believed in, it was in our contract. I guess you could say it was a way to buy ourselves a better conscience, which is just a human thing. I believe it’s like that with everybody," Sindre explains.
So why advertising?
"Because it’s a very fun job, Bård shoots –It allows you to work conceptual, which we really enjoy. But working with clients we believe in is the most rewarding, of course. It’s more inspiring, which ultimately leads us to do a better job. There have been times where we have talked our way out of a job, or said no to a client."
"We actually said no to a client at our first agency," Sindre adds "and were quickly labelled as these tree-hugging hippies (laughs). They said stuff like «Remember, you’re in advertising now, we don’t make money by only doing charity». Ironically, the same people started lecturing on goodvertising a couple of years later."
For potential creatives who are critical towards the industry, this may paint an intriguing image of unknown possibilities within the creative approach. But not every team, or agency for that matter, can afford to say no to clients. It’s usually a privilege you have to earn, and even then it’s a card you only can play every once in a while. Pragmatism is a necessity and, according to all the creatives I’ve spoken to, an absolutely vital trait if your ambition is within advertising. The creative team Eirik Mossefinn and Simon Ström are no strangers to the concept.
"I’ve done work for clients that really disagree with my values," says Eirik "I’m a hypocrite like everybody else (laughs). But right now we’re working with a client called Bright, an organisation providing solar energy for the unprivileged, which is very cool, because I really want them to succeed."
Just like Sindre and Bård, Eirik and Simon carefully point out that working with clients they believe in is the most rewarding and, as Eirik adds, "Once you’re in, it’s easy to get hooked". Creative stimulation is a highly regarded aspect. That, combined with the privilege of a monthly salary appears to be a combination big enough to overshadow the occasional whiff of the bitter taste of someone else’s values.
Are they alone in this, and how do they cope?
"To me it seems like almost everyone in the industry has the same inner conflict, on some level anyway," says Simon. "That being said, I don’t think the ad-industry is unethical per se. However, when creatives argue that they’re in advertising because their work and function is important and that they are contributing to society in a meaningful way, they’re kidding themselves. You’re in this business because it’s fun, you get to be creative and because it’s a fun challenge. But just because it’s challenging and because you pour your creative soul into it doesn’t make it important. Most of the time you’re simply helping someone make more money."
Needless to say, the industry is not for everyone—a truth Art Director and former ad-man, Leif Riksheim, discovered first hand after he stumbled into the industry by chance.
"I find it interesting, but also scary [because their agenda is usually strictly commercial] how we’ve reached a point where advertising and brands are defining our culture. It used to be journalism that set the agenda of public interest, now it feels like advertising is playing an equally large role. Over the years, brands and advertising have gained an unbelievable power of influence, and it’s extremely important that they don’t abuse it."
Leif is not in advertising anymore. However, his assertion is not uncommon amongst working ad-creatives as well. Gulli, for one, is sceptical about whether the industry recognises the ethical responsibility that comes with the power of influence.
"If we expand the term industry to all who create commercial communication, I do believe our power is greater than before. But in contrast to journalism, we’re not bound to a set of ethical guidelines, and the ethical debate within advertising, in my opinion, has been absent for many years. There should have been more awareness about this now than ever before."
Even though that debate might be absent, some people argue that the trend of Goodvertising—a term used to describe advertising that promotes charitable clients, sustainable brands, environmental issues and other ethical efforts—proves that the industry is leaning towards a higher moral. However, it doesn't change the fact the industry’s very existence is still based on creating communication for promoting the sale of commercial products and services. And as almost every Norwegian does occasional pro-bono work for charity, goodvertising has apparently become curriculum for art direction students at the highly acclaimed communications school Westerdals. At the same time, consumers tend to increase their demand for more sustainable brands and products, which makes it hard not to wonder: Do the goodvertisers actually care, or is it just a clever adaptation towards today’s market? According to Linda Kling, CEO of the Oslo offices of the world spanning ad-agency McCann, it’s a bit of both.
"I believe you can actually tell when a campaign is a result of profound ethical motivation. Unfortunately, I see a tendency where agencies use goodvertising as one-off stunts, not something that’s a part of their in-house strategy. I don't want to kill small campaigns that aim to make a difference, but if you want it to be truly effective, it has to be profound and go over a longer period of time."
What are your thoughts on Petter Gulli’s stand on environmental issues?
"I cheer for Petter’s commitment. And I’ll gladly share his ideas on how the industry should take a stand in the climate battle, on all levels: How and what clients we chose work with, the use of power in the office, recycling…everything helps. At McCann we work with the Rainforest Fund, aiming to preserve a forest, the existence of which is crucial for the whole planet."
What about his thoughts on fighting mass consumption?
"I don’t believe we’re an industry that can fight mass consumption, but I think we can improve the way we do things. One of the greatest challenges we face today is the plastic contamination in the ocean. We can definitely contribute to make it better, both alone and together with our clients."
Whether or not the whole industry feels an ethical responsibility, or at some point collectively will change towards a more sustainable approach, is impossible to say. And maybe that’s not even the goal. But if it is, and if Gulli is right, the journey towards significant change doesn’t start with advertising agencies.
"All marketers have a responsibility not to drive the world to hell, but we also have a responsibility for the brand we manage. And it will only work if we do these things at the same time. And the job doesn’t start at the ad-agency or in the client’s marketing department, but with a strategy rooted elsewhere in the company."