Should the ad industry move from being problem solvers to problem acknowledgers?

Dentsu's Narayan Devanathan argues that the marketing and advertising industry's pretence of saving the world comes with very real risks

This year’s Cannes Lions festival is over. We’ve feted some of the best advertising, regardless of what form or medium it was created in. We’ve had our debates around purpose-driven work, ’causevertising’, ‘scamvertising’, real work and all of the rest. 

And we’ve patted ourselves on the back that no matter what, these are all pieces of work that solve problems – real or imagined. Maybe this is a good time to ask a more fundamental question of ourselves and of the work we create as an industry.

This is as much a note to self as it is a note to the larger advertising community that I am a part of. It’s not going to make me particularly popular in the community. But, hey, since my popularity isn’t exactly at Donald Trump levels to begin with, I am not worried on that front.

A little reflection first: I am going to generically refer to the creators of all the work I mention as “we” or “us”, because, I believe, we (including I) are all responsible.

A few years back, we had created a flag for a non-existent refugee nation and even managed to have it showcased at the Olympics. We celebrated it with plenty of awards. It was backed by an international human rights agency. There was nothing illegitimate about it at all. 

So far though, I haven’t seen anyone in our business question the forces that create refugees in the first place.

The global CEO of a large ad agency recently said that they’d be the first to speak out if their client in the US (the Customs and Border Protection agency) did something they would be uncomfortable with.

This was immediately after they were hired to do a bunch of recruitment campaigns (ostensibly) to increase the diversity of the said government agency that is publicly known to be cash-strapped otherwise.  They (and we) are apparently willing to wait to act until something uncomfortable is done.

It’s another matter that something “uncomfortable” is already happening.

We’ve associated with and advertised businesses that are global leaders in their own right, wielding great influence with governments and customers alike. We’ve seen more than one global consulting firm enlisted by more than one autocratic government to push their agenda, directly or indirectly, while wielding their influence to shield themselves from public backlash. 

And we’ve been okay with them using their clout in ways that are beneficial to a select few and harmful to other, specific communities (for instance the Uyghurs in China).

We confer tech giants with awards for pushing the limits of accessibility via innovative design, personalisation and diverse hiring. We also conveniently turn a blind eye to these same tech giants when they routinely violate our rights to privacy on a daily basis, endangering not just individual lives but also social and political institutions in the bargain.

We applaud businesses that urge us to find ingenious ways to save water after years of inculcating habits that have actually increased how we mindlessly waste water, causing domino effects across communities and planetary resources. 

We overlook unethical, socially unacceptable behaviours of business leaders in the face of their businesses contributing to one cause or the other. Just so long as we get the platforms to create stunning looking advertising.

Hypocrisy is no longer an absolute blot on someone’s character — it is subject to one’s own world view, and, worse, defensible now.

We promote the causes of politicians come election time, regardless of our agreement or disagreement with their principles because, hey, this is business, not personal. 

If money is going to be spent, we might as well get some part of it too, right? And anyhow, this is how capitalism works, even if it will contribute to undermining the cause of democracy. 

Perhaps I’m being very uncharitable here. Look at all the real-world problems we are solving. People and businesses have money to spend and we spend it for them. People and businesses have reputations to be built and we build them.

The world has a ton of problems – what’s the harm in finding interesting ways to talk about them? At least they’re being talked about now, right?

There was a Twitter debate sometime back about whether too many people in the ad business have become left-leaning. And the examples being quoted in support of it were like the ones I’ve quoted above. 

I hardly think any of those qualify as examples of a leftist ideology. I am typically never the cynical one in the room, but all these are examples of just clever business practices, not leftism. 

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator in the United States is currently bringing back echoes of McCarthyism by calling a group of four Democratic congresspersons – The Squad – “communists”. 

I hardly think the advertising industry is ever going to be in danger of that. 

Our first job is to help businesses flourish, and to do a damn good job of it. But the pretence of saving the world comes with a very real risk. That we ignore a very real responsibility we can shoulder, as individuals and as an industry.

Perhaps it’s time that we take a hard, long look at what we do and ask ourselves: “How can we acknowledge our role in the problems that exist and stop ourselves from contributing to them in the first place? And not just create good-looking band-aid solutions to those problems after the fact?”Narayan Devanathan is group executive and strategy officer for Dentsu Brand Agencies, South Asia but writes here in a personal capacity. He is based in Delhi NCR, India


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing