Dear ad industry: It's time to devote your creative skills to the biggest problems. Here's how

Sheridan Glacier, July, 2014


Dear Creative Professionals: There's A Much Bigger Brief You Should Be Working On Right Now

Why are advertising students in Alaska studying climate change? The question, says Deborah Morrison, is why isn't the ad industry studying, and putting its creative might behind climate change, and humanity's other BIG briefs.

This is a wake-up call.

I’m in Alaska with 19 amazing University of Oregon students and three other professors. We’re working on the Climate Change Reporting Project from the Copper River Delta, a site affected by the 1964 earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. This is a School of Journalism and Communication project; nine of the 19 students are advertising students. We’re telling stories based in science: stories of dramatic shifts in temperature and climate, changing native habitats for fish and birds, shrinking glaciers and permafrost. There’s a strong research component, a considerable demand of productivity and content making. We want to make useful content, meaningful work. The need for that type of scientific translation is vital right now.

As I’ve been posting to our blog and Facebook about the important work our team is doing, I’ve been repeatedly asked: why are advertising students involved in this?

And that makes me sad, disappointed, a little pissed. The worst moment was when an agency principal asked why with a bit of eye-rolling indignation. (It was on Facebook, but I could tell.)

I love this industry. I love its creativity and promise, its ability to be an agent of change and an economic driver. I love that 22-year-olds jump in energetically to find a great place where they can do work of meaning. I love the generosity and cultural churn that lets us all connect.

But I’m writing this in a darker mood and I want to ask a few questions:

First, who are we?

I mean who are we as a profession—this idea industry, so brilliant in many ways, so strategic and focused and clever about solving problems for brands. I attend Creative Week in New York each year, see the celebrated work, look through the Cannes winners each June. The work often rewards with wit and humor and charm, sometimes it even does its job well. As an industry, we know how to craft and strategize for brands, how to connect and offer solutions.

But shouldn’t we be doing more with this great set of skills and talent?

In May, a study of the U.S, Global Change Research Program entitled Climate Change Impacts in the United States was published. This is scientific, policy-driven and thoroughly readable, even in its 800+ page pdf form. The simple offering is this: human-induced climate change continues to strengthen. It’s a simple straightforward mixture of excessive energy consumption and out-of-whack, unequal global wealth distribution, mixed with the issues of global population growth and declining water quality. The unofficial term for this intersection is "train wreck" and much of this problem can be traced to hyper-consumption. That’s simple truth and we—as part of the ecosystem that makes it happen—are on the hook for that.

Back to my loving and honoring this industry: the brute force of intellect and creativity our profession offers the world is evident. But if we’re using it only for the consumption cycle, then what a mess we’re causing with those great skills.

Why aren’t we as an industry front-and-center in working on the great, wicked issues of our day?

I’m not suggesting a new pro bono campaign or crafting a great line or viral video. I know some terrific stuff is being done for nonprofits as acts of generosity and good will. I want more from us, more from the industry and the training programs that develop talent and more from the collective brain of the profession.

I want a new compass point about where we’re going and who we are.

Humor me, idea industry. Here are five suggestions I believe we need to consider now. The best of our work and people do this already but not enough. And, yes, I know this will be met with bravos (thanks), jeers (oh well), and a few "we could never do that because we’ve never done that" responses (really?). Even as some of you agree and do most of this routinely, the reality is that you visionaries are a minority.

But I say onward!

Image: Flickr user Natalie Lucier

1. Reimagine our mission as a profession

My suggestion: Critical, conceptual, creative skills to solve problems responsibly for people and brands in a global economy. The mission should be, point blank, to solve problems for people, and that includes focusing on issues not specifically in the brand world. Climate change (or gun violence or social justice) needs the attention of this industry. These can be taken on as part of educating brand clients about how to be generous in culture. It can be taken on as a cultural challenge. It should be taken on as a courageous show of humanity.

As someone whose been a developer of talent for the past few hundred years, I know this millennial cohort—talented, digital, driven—demands a career that makes a difference. Don’t lose the best creative strategists to other more provocative and transformational industries. Instead, make this one more resonant and trustworthy.

Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

2. Invest generously in solving problems

Hello, holding companies. WPP, strong and multi-faceted, or the transformative MDC Partners, as examples, should invest in purposeful problem-solving. Plow profits into tackling the issue of climate change. Your global footprint is clout well-offered; your umbrella could provide the networked approach critical to bringing cultures and issues to the table. Be the crazy instigators that change the world. Do this now and make life bearable for the children of 2075. You have the power and the voice.

For independent agencies, you’ve kept that mission for a reason. You like to be entrepreneurial, to run your own course. Take the bold step of investing your time and brilliance in taking on an issue for a year. Not a client, but an issue with dedicated time and profits. Model why your work matters to other agencies, to young professionals. The ROI will be immense.

This can’t be about fear of stakeholders or running from a politically framed issue. This is about your legacy.

Image: Flickr user Vimal Raveendran

3. Better educate clients and staff

Guest experts are standing by.

What if we convened a traveling conference—a few scientists and thought leaders in the climate change (I’ll harp on that) community who can answer questions, work with cultural anthropologists and brand thinkers to build a scientifically sound and authentic set of briefs, then begin to do the work?

What if the science of climate change became a topic for a clutch of agencies in one city?

What if we built a consortium of agencies and thought leaders who said, "Enough. I need to work on this." and then we did?

What if universities and agencies partnered? Not a class but a full-blown catalytic converter of an approach: developing talent to sustain the project, investing in bettering the world, seeing how a concerted system of work can be transformational.

And then, what if clients gravitated to your agency because they recognize that brave and generous culture as one that is right for their business? What if giving a year to climate change discussions grew your business?

A macro look at the ice of Sheridan Glacier.Photo by Elora Overbey taken on 7/18/2014

4. Take a stand as global leaders

I start any project with the leading question, "what would be the most wonderful outcome for this investment of time and thinking?" and for this it is no different. The best outcome would be for the world of advertising agencies, the profession of ideas to be seen as the hero the world needs to bring solutions to bear. This profession has what may be the most formidable network of dedicated, collaborative makers around the world. Why not put that to use to transcend bureaucracies and inadequate initiatives? Why not lead the world?

Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

5. Become who we are meant to be

Iconic adman John Hegarty recently stated he thought the industry had lost its courage. He was talking about the big idea and an industry fetishism about digital. I’d like to suggest that we also need to find the creative courage to become the industry that solves the most pressing problems of our times.

Selfishly, I want everyone to understand exactly why nine advertising students are in a small Alaska town connecting science with storytelling, translating the data into messages.

Creative courage in the age of ideas is what is needed and that is what they’re learning. That’s the courage to step up and become more than what we’ve needed to be in the past.

It’s who we are meant to be.

Deborah Morrison, PhD, is the Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. She, three colleagues, and 19 journalism and advertising students are working to tell stories of climate change in Cordova, Alaska, through Science & Memory, a project on understanding how we understand climate change. Their blog can be found at

[Photo by Julianne Parker]

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  • Kelly Summers

    Brilliant, and thank you! As a visiting lecturer at Bren's Environmental Management program, I too sense a huge opportunity in paring strategic communications and creative agency to tell these stories in new ways...ways that don't trigger offense or rejection out of hand because of existing belief systems. Creative storytelling and strategic communications are as important as the science itself!

  • Lida-Maria Lottko

    Amazing article!!!! Thanks for this thoughtful and inspirational call for action.

  • kiernanpschmitt

    Interestingly, WPP has actually been developing a major climate campaign across multiple agencies since July 2013. It's set to launch in support of the UN Climate Summit in September 2014, and the Paris Treaty beyond.

  • some 4 years ago, We developed a campaign aiming at showing people how to collaborate against climate change by just modifying a 10 few and inobstrusive daily routines.

    We called the campaign: "Change 10, It's in our hands", and we actually had the chance to present the original posters in an exhibition in Miami's Art Basel, back in 2008. You can see some of the info we created in our site

    Also as we own a private Linkedin Group ( you need to register), called the Creative Brainstorming Hub, with over 2000 creatives from all over the world, and we are restoring the discussion on these matters, thanks to Deborah's fine Blog Post.

    Maybe the time for Change 10 was not back then but it is now, as the idea is to not only distribute freely the current, existing content, but to invite creators to add their grain of sand into something bigger, that can grow virally, if properly directed, positively affecting tons of people.


    Jorge Parra

  • Deborah - you might be interested in my presentation on 'Redesigning The Business Of Advertising', where I talk about the need to move from a focus on making good advertising, to making advertising good:

    What you talk about here is why I started, to help brands and businesses inculcate the business model of the future:

    Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial profit and social profit)

  • Eileen Forman

    Years ago, Arnold Communications celebrated an anti-tobacco campaign win.

    I'm paraphrasing, but the presentation asked something like, "What do you (tell your kids) you do?" And, answered, "We work in advertising."

    Next, the presentation showed an overview of 100+ years of great advertising work, all of which happened to be focused on selling cigarettes. I don't remember if this was followed by all the negative stats on cigarette smoking or not. It didn't matter. A century of awesome advertising creativity, designed to sell cigarettes, show-cased our tremendous capabilities...

    Followed by the question.... "What will you say in 20 years, when asked what you did in the fight against tobacco?"

    ....and an answer, "We worked in advertising!"

    So, Ben Ashfield, are right that climate change does not need MORE press. But, it sorely needs voices that motivate action. Pick another issue if you will...but the sentiment is the same.

  • Ben Ashfield

    I agree with your premise but not your politics. Time to realize that not everyone in advertising is a guilt-ridden left-winger. (What if I just assumed everyone reading this article was conservative? Then you oh so tolerant libs would be righteously offended.) The thought that climate change needs MORE press is laughable, just like Coke needs more ads. Give me a break. Do some real research on the topic (not just advertising research) and you'll find the science is far from settled. Then try to pick a real issue. How about the global rise of fascism (Islamic, Russian) and anti-semitsm? How about Isis beheading Christians in Iraq? What about opening borders, violating constitutional duties and creating a humanitarian crisis all for political gain? Yep I said it. Advertising is about having some guts, changing perceptions and fighting the tough fight. You've chosen the easiest most-inoffensive issues for the clueless masses. I challenge you to dig deeper and pick something hard.

  • Deborah Morrison

    Ben, you don't know my politics. And you're being assholish and elitist with the "most offensive issues for the clueless masses" comment. Climate change certainly needs more press for a range of audiences, especially those who might not be exposed to thoughtful compelling messages. To move past that, you make the interesting point that big amorphous issues have multiple edges, hard to collapse into one initiative. My point is: this industry should find ways -- sometimes politically charged, sometimes not -- to use serious problem-solving talent to do more than those Coke ads. I'm not maligning advertising for brand selling. I'm suggesting we go further with multiple topics, boldly educate ourselves and those audiences about issues. This team is digging deep here in a place where science and memory offer substantial evidence of the human impact on climate change. It's challenging work and there's plenty of it to do. I challenge you to use your voice to affect something worthwhile.

  • mvrbnsn

    Using our energy and influence to promote the causes we are passionate about is great. Beyond your actual article though, what Ben may have been touching on is that it seems we are in an era where there is only one acceptable viewpoint on a whole host of social and moral issues in our culture. The idea then that creatives should be educated and trained to reflect that, runs the risk of someday turning us into 'one speak' propagandists, rather than free thinking individuals each advocating based on our personal beliefs.

  • There's a time and a place. But there are parts of what we do where ethics and science are just inarguable. It comes down to the appropriate level, of course, and responsibility at that level.

    No one is advocating shoe-horning an agenda into a task, especially if not higher up the chain. However, keeping the reality of the direct connection we all play top-of-mind, and making informed choices when it is your task – is how the world can benefit. And that includes shareholders. Because in the long term, brands will be held accountable, and changing now to be sustainable or to espouse civic purpose benefits all. The only ones who would resist are those in it for the short-term, for self-preservation. That's what needs to change. John Hegarty once put it best (to paraphrase him): It's not a principle unless it can cost you something.

  • Xanat Meza

    What happened with Designers Accord, who were behind these type of initiatives?

  • Wow. This is everything I've ever felt or felt-but-not-known-how-to-articulate as a recent graduate with an ad/pr major, but severe moral misgivings about what I was ultimately contributing to. It caused me to pretty much abandon what I'd studied and gained experience in for 5 years and search for other work that I could at least feel was not just sending the world down more of an endless cycle of rampant consumerism.

    Bravo for making this important but sometimes hard-to-swallow point....there is truly SO much potential in the ad industry that needs to be tapped for this, as you put it so well, but you're "not suggesting a new pro bono campaign or crafting a great line or viral video...or stuff is being done for nonprofits as acts of generosity and good will." It needs to be more. It needs to be an intentional, serious and "all in" effort.

    I might just find a place in this industry again, one day. Until then---well done on such an important, spot on piece.

  • You may be interested in the work and themes I'm developing for an upcoming book. A lot of crossover with your piece, Deborah.

  • Lurk Sidewalker

    I agree. Progress margins are more important that profit margins.

    I just finished reading Blake Mycoskie's (founder of TOMS) book and I'm re-inspired to create consciously for more info on it:

    conscious capitalism/creative economy (as opposed to competitive) is the way to go.

  • I'm that girl. I had a lucrative role at one of the top agencies in the city. I had been awarded Top of the Top, promoted 4 times in 3 years and my work contributed to some sweet industry awards. And I left it behind to work for a tiny, social issues marketing agency seeking a planner-strategist-digital-ideas person. I had been preaching within in my old agency that do-good was actually the biggest missed opportunity in plain sight but leadership wasn't quite ready. The truth of the matter is that agencies are all still working day and night to turn a profit and until the entire system can be redesigned, I'm not sure the TBWA, JWT, BBDO, WPP's of the world will sign up. I've even thought "what if the way we design briefs and ideate is completely backwards? What if we should write issues briefs and then sell them to our client rosters?" What real world problem do you want to solve today, Visa? As opposed to more product benefit/ features ads (a la 1950's).

  • Clay Lyons

    A sense of accountability never hurts. Not to mention a little gratitude, giving back to those that have allowed us (or not) to continue influencing them to buy things they didn't realize they needed (or didn't). Sharing this story and blog with others to spark a similar effort locally. Great story, best of luck with your own efforts.