Ad Week Climate Change Symposium: Hope?

Last Wednesday I attended Ad Week’s Climate Change Symposium. Here, the world of NYC advertising shared with the audience that it has found its niche within the climate change agenda, which is to engage ‘consumers’ and ‘internal stakeholders’ in a movement that in turn will activate policy and drive global agreements.

But honestly, my overall take-out from the symposium is that I don’t yet feel the advertising approach best leverages the possibility of ‘marketing’ today: brand leadership and innovation on key global issues; the role advocacy and citizen engagement; wholly integrated, collaborative and ground-up in approach; peer-to-peer and community platforms, service thinking and cooperative models in place of campaigns; tied to business innovation and transformation; and beyond communications to new market stimulation. Nor is it enough.

Sadly, the popular approach at the event focused on campaigns developed for key distinct issues or activities versus marketing ingenuity integrated into whole societal and economic sustainable transformation. It’s the difference between saying an issue is important in the world and coming up with smart (value generating) solutions to the issue and organizing people around this. Jeremy Heimans of Purpose Campaigns, sitting next to me at the event, shared with his thoughts that “there seems to be no intrinsic understanding of how to organize people and systematically move them up a curve of engagement to build a long-term sustained political movement and actual transition on the ground”.

It seems like the campaign approach happens for a number of reasons:

1) it is grounded in the paradigm of ‘business’ selling needs to ‘consumer’, so I heard a lot of talk about how we can engage ‘consumers’ in climate change through campaign work, when actually it is a global, citizen issue. There is a difference: the citizen approach treats people as active agents and stakeholders in the planet/ecosystem and economy, and it provides solutions and engaging platforms to deal with the issues. The consumer approach asks ‘consumers’ for their attention and commitment to a campaign and a brand, disconnected from their role in the transformation. It externalizes the issue and play on a benefit to the brand, but not the movement nor the transition; it asks consumers to declare: “Yes I care about climate change”, but it does not ask for ground-up change and ownership of the one planet we have and finite amount of resources it gives to us. It sees government, business and people as separate parts, each playing a different role, with probably government/policy at the helm of planetary responsibility.

2) the job is not alone a communication issue in most instances and therefore requires a fundamental look at the long term viability and fit of whole industries and the redefinition business models within them, which is hard for most of the communications industry, in its current guise, to do. Fair enough.

Take for example Coca Cola, very present at the event, that is striving ahead with its commitment to recycling plants and mass communications on recycling but side-stepping the longer term look at its role and the relevance and feasibility of a producer of 1.6 billion bottles of liquid pop/water a day. (Well, certainly publicly anyway). Not that I expect a beverage business to completely reinvent overnight, but there was/is zero evidence of their bigger point of view in an emerging world where climate change, peak oil, regulation, scare materials, economic meltdown, and ethical values are driving the market. I just don’t see their big global view on this and where this will take their business; nor do I see their role or a voice on global agreements. Note as example that it took the UN to brief the ad industry, to then get brands like Coca Cola and SAP to put their name to communicating COP15 to global citizens. Why did no one single brand initiate the discussion and engagement, and a vision and voice on global climate change agreements up until now? Strikes me as an incredible missed opportunity and a sign of the ill-understood role for brands and corporations.

I do applaud Coke for taking on Copenhagen messages so visibly and quickly at this stage and I am somewhat optimistic that their role will eventually go deeper and wider than a communications campaign circling around their recycling commitment. Coca Cola, are you joining the world change? Fingers crossed.

3) the part that is a pure-play communication need, like the strong case for citizen engagement around and beyond Copenhagen and resulting “Hopenhagen” work, is highly complex and difficult. It demands not a ‘campaign’ view of communications – ie, a brilliantly creative push to muster the attention and twittering of millions of people worldwide – but movement creation, actual activation (versus passive attention) and ongoing platforms that will engage and transform the way we do things to add real value to our lives, such as giving us jobs or food grown naturally and locally or securing water supply. Heimans commented he was not shocked to see the UN engage ad agencies on the Copenhagen work versus political organizers to get citizens engaged, citing the UN as “not exactly people-driven”. I hadn’t seen it that way around.

As example here, I couldn’t help wonder why no brand had taken on a role in the sort of citizen engagement effort that The Climate Group are up to in the US, which is to influence the “Gang of 16” Senators who are opposing US climate policy and in turn holding up progress global climate change negotiations, by engaging their constituents/the local citizens on the ground. Their task is mass citizen engagement around the positive impact of a new clean energy economy and the stimulus for innovation; it is to help engage these intensive/heavy industry communities in a brighter more prosperous future ahead by working at the State level to actually stimulate new economies and provide community platforms on the issues. CG is mainly doing this through story telling and literally discussion with citizens – exposing inspiring stories of others like them around the world that are benefiting from a transition to a clean economy. I’d say there’s even a further level to go that could involve re-training programs, investment and match funding stimulus money, open innovation and discussion platforms, connections with others emerging industries world wide etc. It seems so basic, but unless we engage people we will not get political movement and consensus.

One day (hopefully) we will look back at our ridiculous it seemed to convince people to secure their future on the planet, but alas that is the task.

It’s a big effort, but it’s an effort with clear, tangible benefits for people if the platforms for transformation are provided. Surely that is a nice juicy role for brands and the opportunity to create new forms of value in this emerging world?

I am going to round off with a few other final observations from the event:

The event has to be the only talk I’ve ever been to that did not invite discussion, questions or participation from the audience. Something to be said about an open dialogue on issues that are emergent as no one knows the answers and least not the ad industry alone. So why close the dialogue Ad Week? The lion-share of the brands represented on stage pretty much started their sentence by saying “We’ve had sustainability at the heart of our corporate agenda for [circa] 30 odd years”. Erm, if so, why no voice on it and why not tell anyone? And why is there a climate issue then?

Most people on the panels mainly talked about the work they are doing TODAY, and how successful it is, versus any discussion on where the world needs to get to and their macro role in this transition. I heard about “Our green equation”, in reference to the bit in business that is doing green, which implies that green is only a bit of something, which implies the opposite to sustainability being at the heart of corporate strategy. I heard about the need for “disclosure”, which I hope will one day be an extinct word, because everything will be known and there won’t be this disconnection between corporation and society. Just a personal hope. I heard people referred to as ‘consumers’, all the way through the morning. I believe we must start thinking about what is beyond consumption as we know it or using consumption as the communication vehicle to engage people in world change. I know it is radical, but radical change is coming whether it is adapting to climate change or addressing it.

As noted, it took the UN to brief the agencies to brief the brands to make any sort of statement about global climate change agreements. Why did no brand start this movement? Why did no one see it coming?
Bill Becker talked about moving governments on climate policy and the role that brands and advertisers play moving votes by engaging people, which is in summary my whole point to this article. I whole-heartedly agree.
The Hopenhagen work is excellent: it’s positive and inspiring, I just HOPE it goes beyond a campaign for COP15 and much deeper than powerful communications because as Climate Progress rightly points out, COP15 is one part of the journey and by no means the end. That, and the job for communications has to go deeper than a YES VOTE for global agreements that sadly won’t be enough either.

[image by streuwerk]

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