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Why agencies should be judged on their return on impact

By Tanya Brookfield-02 November 2020

As part of The Drum's Agencies4Growth Festival, we asked some of the brightest minds in marketing why agencies matter today. Here, Tanya Brookfield, chief executive of Elvis, says judging agencies on their return on investment is no longer enough.

While no one could deny the devastating impact of Covid-19, the pandemic has at least forced us to examine our impact on the environment and our society more closely. Across the globe, lockdown has been a catalyst for a movement that was already gaining momentum, with Extinction Rebellion’s calls for action growing ever more urgent. In our own industry, the Purpose Disruptors have accelerated the fantastic work they were already doing, launching their The Great Reset campaign in order to try and engage with the public at this pivotal moment for our planet.

As agencies, we must recognise our own role in this movement – and educate ourselves and our clients about how to make things better. The Climate Crisis is our biggest challenge, but there are many others we must address too, taking our lead from Black Lives Matter and the many groups and individuals pushing for social change, and examining how the work we do impacts on people and the world around us.

For years, agencies have been asked by clients to deliver return on investment, but this is no longer enough. For our industry to survive, we must consider our return on impact, and ask ourselves whether the messages we’re sending out into the world are doing more harm than good.

Agencies are in a unique position – we are strategic, creative problem solvers, and we have the ear of some of the world’s biggest and most influential businesses – businesses who in turn have the potential to help our planet and communities. Major brands now have sustainability on their agenda, and they’re looking to us to help guide them and give them ideas to support their goals. We must meet this challenge and lead by example, constantly asking questions and trying to make things better.

At Elvis, we want to make sure that every brief we work on becomes an opportunity to “do better” in some way, whether that’s partnering with talent agency Zebedee Management to ensure the ads we create feature more diverse talent, or working with Unilad to campaign against the outdated law which states that gay and bisexual men cannot donate blood.

The problem is that when it comes to making work that has a positive impact, many are scared of getting it wrong, and therefore don’t even try for fear of being accused of tokenism or being called hypocritical. But in order to move forward, we must all acknowledge that we’re not perfect and understand that even small, incremental changes can help.

Work with social purpose at its heart is often the most awarded and recognised in our industry, and for good reason, but we should also celebrate the way in which our output can bring joy and happiness. Advertising has become part of culture, and brands play a huge role in our day-to-day lives. In challenging times, there is also great value in brave, positive work which uplifts, inspires or simply makes us smile. The two are not mutually exclusive – both types of work are tied to making the world a better place.

The idea of advertising as a force for good may seem somewhat out of reach – after all, for years, elements of our industry have been known as arbiters of excess and consumption. Yet lockdown has given agencies an opportunity to reflect and re-evaluate. Do we want to be known for our drunken exploits in the south of France, or for the way in which we’re harnessing our power and influence to create something which makes the world better?

It’s not just about the ads we make, either. Agencies should consider every aspect of their output. We’ve recently taken our first steps on the journey to B-Corp status, and we would encourage others to do the same. Not just to achieve the certification, but as a structured way to readdress your business model and help you to think and act differently when it comes to sustainability.

Most agencies would agree that their role is to add value to their clients’ businesses, but as the realities of the climate crisis and social inequality become ever more terrifying, and we come to recognise the power we hold as an industry, it is critical that we create work with an impact that goes way beyond the bottom line.

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