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!
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 http://uoclimatereport.tumblr.com/.