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As part of The Drum's Agencies4Growth Festival, we asked some of the brightest minds in marketing why agencies matter today. Here, Rachel Forde, chief executive of UM UK, explains why agencies have a responsibility to make the industry better.

In the midst of a global pandemic, in which many of us are facing the most difficult personal, economic and social challenges we’ve ever known, it is difficult to argue the case that advertising is a force for good; or even to justify its raison d’être against a backdrop of such hardship. We are not the doctors, nurses and paramedics on the frontline, or the essential workers keeping our worlds moving, our cupboards stocked and our children educated.

I strongly believe, though, that we do still have an important role to play, albeit less important than the one others are playing right now. In an industry with the ability to communicate en masse to millions, or with the precision to target an individual, it’s important we don’t underestimate the power – and with it, responsibility – of our role.  Within the media world and, indeed, the wider economy, we have a vital part to play in creating sustainable growth for the brands we work with (and the economy, by extension), in representing society fairly, in nurturing diverse talent, in enabling our partners to work ethically and responsibly, and in being an open, honest and transparent partner to everybody we work with. These are responsibilities we should take very seriously.

After all, our industry is well equipped to conquer great challenges. In an increasingly complex world of data, new technologies, ad formats, platforms, capabilities and specialisms, the media agency is the central cog that can bring it all together and make sense of the bigger picture. We can build and nurture talent across every discipline required for a brand to grow (and in turn, build happy and fulfilling careers for our people). We can be nimble, drawing upon certain skills and experiences in an instant to respond to a real-time cultural moment (and in turn connect, move and inspire people – now more important than ever). And we have the people and tools required to understand data, audiences, people and society more deeply than anyone else.

It’s through harnessing this data, and building these powerful connections, that we can create more long-term sustainable growth for our clients, rather than a quick return on investment (which, historically, we’ve been far too focussed on as an industry). Of course both are crucial outputs, but we believe our job as an agency is to help businesses get the balance right; a balance that is central to our Futureproof philosophy at UM.

Whilst having access to and even owning (in our case through our partnership with Acxiom) such vast amounts of data brings brilliant insights every day to our clients, it also brings great responsibility. This is where our social, moral and ethical duty comes in. As trusted partners, it is absolutely paramount that we agencies do everything in our power to keep our clients’ reputations intact. For that to happen, we need to work with clients in a completely open and transparent way, use data responsibly and do all we can to ensure that the brands we work with only appear in safe and reputable environments. Acting as that barometer and having a completely agnostic view when it comes to trading is therefore not a responsibility we should take lightly.

Perhaps when we are strongest, as agencies, is when we come together and make a stand if something instinctively doesn’t feel right. At UM, I’m surrounded by passionate people who are hungry to make a difference to their clients, and to the wider world. As a leader, if I didn’t stand up for our collective beliefs, I’d be failing them. That’s why I’m really proud of the Media Responsibility Principles we recently created at IPG; our way of holding media partners to account, and providing clients with clear guidelines and advice around which platforms and publishers may be breaching ethical responsibilities. We were also the first company to create transparency around ABVs – and we will continue to monitor all of the platforms out there to ensure that our clients know exactly what they are dealing with, and can make more informed choices. As agencies, we must never shy away from taking a stand and should always counsel our clients on what is the right thing to do. And that should always come before profit.

Our ethical responsibilities don’t stop there. Advertisers have the power to influence society and change the way people perceive themselves and others. If adverts don’t represent society fairly, they risk sending out a negative and harmful message to millions of people.  As agencies, we have the power to stop that from happening.

Here at UM, we’ve spent the last 3-4 years weeding out harmful stereotypes in our industry.  We’ve shown the harmful effects of the inaccurate portrayal of women in advertising, have uncovered uncomfortable truths around the representation of our LGBTQ+ community, and have conducted thought leadership to better understand many other under-represented communities, from those living with disabilities to women going through menopause.

Later this year we will release new findings around masculinity; a topic that feels particularly poignant as new stats reveal young male suicides to be at a record high. If the way in which men – or any other social group - are portrayed in adverts is perpetuating archaic or dangerous stereotypes, then it is our moral obligation to stop it. This happens by bringing clients on that journey with us, counselling them as much on how to advertise fairly and effectively, as on how to navigate the moment of inclusive social change we are living in.

This responsibility doesn’t stop at societal issues, either. At a time when governments around the world are pledging to reduce carbon emissions to curb the worst effects of the climate crisis, agencies have the ability and a responsibility to question the briefs that land on their desks. In an industry that’s all about using creativity to serve people, it would be a disservice not to channel that creativity into tackling the great unifying problem of our lifetimes.

When contemplating our role as agencies, or my role as an agency leader, I keep coming back to the same theme: people. And that’s where I want to end. As much as it is to grow our clients’ businesses, our role as agencies is to grow and nurture people from all backgrounds and help them to build successful, happy and interesting careers in which they can live authentically and in a way that is true to their beliefs. Careers that allow them to maximise their potential, make a difference and influence positive change.

At their best, agencies are diverse communities of people who are passionate about culture and society, whose passion shines through their work. I’m happy to say that I see that every day at UM. We’ll never be saving lives, but I think we are making people’s lives better. We are helping our partners, and our people grow in this ever-changing world – and we are doing our very best to use what influence we have to be better.