Richard Reeves, the managing director of the Association for Online Publishing (AOP), has weighed in on the responsibility of media buyers to help shape the world around them.
Recent commotion over Co-op advertising in The Spectator is yet another sign we are living in times of massive disruption and cultural transformation. This latest altercation demonstrates passions are high and, as seen with other high-profile examples, prejudice will not be tolerated by the public and necessary action will be taken to empower change.
Covid-19 has not only accelerated awareness of our collective social responsibility, it has fuelled the public’s determination to hold businesses accountable. For brands, agencies and publishers, this means success is more closely tied to purpose than ever before and we are under greater inspection from all sides – peers, readers, rival publications, partners and investors.
Ticking a box is no longer enough
Understanding and aligning with current culture has always been vital for digital media. To effectively capture consumer attention and create meaningful connections, content must resonate with what consumers care about.
In 2019, Accenture analysis said 62% of consumers worldwide wanted brands to take a stand on key social, political and environmental issues. So it follows that organisations have flowed with this tide by dialling up emphasis on key values and important causes – in recent years, this may have been under the guise of implementing a CSR strategy. However, this has often been looked upon with scepticism by consumers who believe that many of today’s mega corporations are motivated not by a desire to do good but a single-minded desire to turn profits.
No matter how enthusiastically companies commit to causes of social or environmental betterment, the majority of consumers still believe it to constitute a form of enlightened self-interest, and some CSR activity was more about ‘ticking a box’ to keep cynics at bay rather than driving genuine change.
An enlightened present
Fast forward to today and the pandemic has provided a powerful catalyst for clarifying key priorities for consumers and brands. At a recent webinar hosted by AOP, Amir Malik, a digital marketing expert at Accenture, rightly observed that consumer needs have undergone a rapid reordering – switching from the higher self-actualisation level of Maslow’s hierarchy to essential requirements such as safety and trust. Consumer decision-making is driven by social and environmental concerns, and subsequently brand values are being tested and berated when they don’t live up to expectation.
Brand purpose is being actively monitored with sites such as didtheyhelp.com, and any CSR initiatives cannot afford to be just lip service any more. As an industry, we must take a deeper look at how investment is allocated, who the responsible players are and what impact this has on the content consumers see.
Getting the measure of good ethics
To make the web a more responsible place, it is necessary to address the challenges with the way attention is leveraged through a collective effort. Traditionally, digital media economics have run largely on attention. Advertisers target sites offering the highest audience exposure, and publishers with the strongest traffic earn the greatest revenue.
But this overlooks one critical factor: quality. Allocating budgets exclusively towards attention raises the risk that advertisers will feed a negative growth cycle, powering growth and online influence for low-quality sites, meaning less revenue and reach for ethical publishers.
We should look to build on the foundations of projects such as the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which illustrated what can be achieved when media forces come together while also demonstrating that considered investment can help limit the prevalence of harmful content.
At a broad level, the industry should start to implement new methods of redirecting budgets to secure, high-quality and diverse publishers, such as creating ethical metrics to guide buying choices. Some agencies have already adopted this approach. For example, Havas incorporates its approach to CSR into every facet of its organisation and clearly outlines its commitments; Mindshare endeavours to ensure that every proposal has an element of sustainability; and Essence is putting a framework in place with environmental spend being core to the messaging.
It’s commendable for organisations to develop their own code of ethics, but to truly tackle this issue, we must have a discussion about developing a standard KPI for ethics in advertising. A notion of what this could look like might include only funding publications that emphasise ethical values, such as the Guardian Media Group, which became the first major news organisation to qualify as a B Corporation following the announcement of its environmental pledge. Complementary to this is working with groups like Check My Ads (which keeps brands away from fake news, discrimination and hate speech) and Brand Advance (which helps brands to achieve diversity at scale with authenticity).
But it will also be crucial to learn from consumer behaviour. Just as consumers have accepted their wider societal responsibilities, each media player – brands, agencies and publishers – must recognise and embrace their own role in fuelling progress.
As pointed out by Laura Wade, the vice-president of content and innovation at Essence, several problems now rising up the agenda “have always been there”, but it’s time for everyone to step up. The advantage being that doing so will break the inertia of waiting for change.
By taking the wheel and setting a course for the new age of ethical investment, we can all benefit from a more purposeful media environment that’s about quality and value, not just profits.