Why there’s a role for agencies to play in helping clients manage CSR

Ina world where corporate social responsibility plays an important role in decision-making, former Shell brand manager Paddy Briggs says the media industry must embrace the “climate of concern” to succeed.

A remarkable and welcome shift in the positioning of advertising professionals is beginning as they move away from the traditional stance that the advertising world has taken.

Your feature (Doing the right thing, page 30, 7 June) on the changing climate for advertising in a world increasingly concerned with social and moral issues, was timely. This position is still summarised in the International Advertising Association's (IAA's) stated role that it will "champion the freedom to advertise responsibly without unwarranted restrictions".

The problem with this pose was often that what was "responsible" was determined by the client, egged on by their agency if high billings were promised, rather than from any more socially concerned perspective.

If the communications were "legal" – by far the acid test – and if they could, if necessary, be somehow defended as "decent, honest and truthful", then that was enough.

It was, of course, the tobacco industry, a major provider of funds to the IAA, that was behind the IAA's "free to advertise products which are legal" principle.

Unwavering support

It's no secret that some advertising agencies, unwaveringly supported by the IAA, have conspired with tobacco clients for decades to find ways of continuing to promote cigarette brands, even though media channels are increasingly blocked to them.

If you doubt that they continue to do this, even in a world where corporate social responsibility (CSR) plays an important part in business decision-making, just watch a Formula One Grand Prix.

At Media Week’s Media 360 conference in April, all of us on the "From Social Problem to Your Problem" panel – and many in the audience – argued that communications agencies should have a role to play far further "upstream" of a potential problem or issue than is currently the case.

What if, instead of being presented with an issue that is causing reputational damage to a client or a sector and then being briefed to help minimise the damage, for example by producing information style advertising, the agency had actually helped identify the potential problem in the first place?

In my more than 10 years with different Shell companies around the world, as a client of a wide range of communications agencies of all types, I rarely met any employees of these agencies who were anything less than smart and articulate.

I say this neither to ingratiate myself with these agencies in my post-Shell life as a brand consultant, nor to repay any debts, but to suggest to the communications world – and especially to their clients – that in these agencies there is an underutilised well of talent to be exploited.

Too often, the role of an advertising agency or a design house or a media buyer is seen far too narrowly as "merely" a provider of these professional services. While agency and client may sometimes comfort one another with talk of "strategic marketing" and work together on the production of cerebral "communications plans", all too often these plans are heavy on the communications components and woefully weak on the real business strategy of the client.

That communications planning, often de-coupled from a client's business plan, is regrettable in many areas, but particularly so when a client is in or approaching the squally rapids of reputation risk.

All too often, an "issue" emerges and a media world hungry for stories will run with it.

Yet we find that the client or the industry group is totally unprepared and incapable of responding quickly or coherently to the challenge.

When, 10 years ago, Shell was in the headlines daily because of its plan to dump a redundant oil platform, Brent Spar, in the ocean, we were wholly ill-equipped to handle the furore this plan had stirred up.

Reputational risk

While it is true that Shell was culpable in not seeing the reputational risk of the Brent Spar disposal plan – and this was to lead to much soul searching – it is also true that Shell's raft of communications agencies were nowhere in the loop.

When the various elements of communications – corporate advertising, PR, direct marketing, etc – were eventually deployed, it was in a firefighting exercise to improve Shell's damaged reputation among key stakeholder groups. But what if instead of problem solvers, the various communications agencies had been sufficiently immersed in Shell's business that they had actually helped anticipate the problem before it happened?

Most communications professionals I have worked with over the years have told me that it is essential that an agency fully understands a client's business before they start to prepare creative, or a media plan, or a DM programme. But how many of these professionals have really taken this to its logical conclusion and demanded that the client more thoroughly brief them on the client's business – including a briefing on what I call the business "stress points"?

A business "stress point" is defined as a social, environmental, economic, commercial, legislative or other trend that can potentially impinge upon the client's business.

The key word here is "trend", because it suggests that most changes do not come out of the blue but that they can be anticipated – if the necessary processes are in place to do this.

Brent Spar, seen in isolation, was about the right way to dispose of a big lump of metal. In fact, what it was about was the boundaries of CSR which were not, in this case, determined by the law or by technology, but by public perceptions.

Shell's plans were perfectly legal and most experts said that the proposed solution was technically the best. But in the public's mind, the proposal was environmental vandalism– therefore it was. "Perceptions are reality because people believe them to be true".

The current issue of child obesity is another case that illustrates the need for an agency to be directly involved in the issue identification process at the beginning. Children have not all of a sudden become fat – what has happened is that childhood obesity has suddenly emerged as an issue and fast-food firms, among others, have conveniently been the media's Aunt Sally.

The industry has responded to the challenge and advertising, etc, has played a part in promoting, for example, the new healthier eating options at the fast-food outlets. But this all seems very reactive with the businesses and their marketing agencies only acting because of the threat to their reputations as good citizens.

I would argue that this is an issue which could have been, and should have been, anticipated well in advance and that communications agencies could have played an important role in helping clients identify the social trends that were possibly going to lead to child obesity being an issue.

This would have required the role of the agencies to be redefined in such a way that they not only produced professional communications plans, but that they contributed to (or even facilitated) client sessions which worked on analysing business risks.

The possibility of child obesity emerging as an issue was surely identifiable many years ago and an agency could not only have helped a client identify this business "stress point", but help them develop a business and communications plan to minimise the risk. In this case, in fact, an early realisation of the potential problem could have been turned into a business opportunity. To be the first food provider to offer and promote the "healthy eating" option could have led to a potential profit stream, as well as being promotable as socially responsible and thereby enhancing the brand's reputation.

Clearly, a move to a world in which clients accept that there is merit in having their communications agencies role much less narrowly defined, and to accept them as being much more involved in their business, needs the agencies themselves to demonstrate that they can genuinely add value.

This requires the agencies to develop and promote competencies in such areas as CSR and to inculcate these competencies into all of their processes. It also requires that client/agency partnerships are much more open and enduring than is sometimes the case.

However, there is no reason why the very large and multinational communications conglomerates, in particular, should not see part of their role as being to provide challenges to their clients in such a way that future social, and other, changes which could be potential business risks, and/or opportunities, are anticipated much earlier. This should lead to fewer surprises and genuine opportunities for companies and brands to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Finally, it is also self-evidently essential that the IAA, and some others in the communications world, move away from their out-of-date and facile positioning that they will "fight for consumers' freedom to exercise their right to choose". This was always over simplistic, and shamelessly and self-interestedly protecting their income streams and it brought the industry into disrepute.

In the future, the prizes will go not just to the brands and the agencies which communicate most creatively or cost effectively, but also to those that understand the "climate of concern" within which business is now conducted – and to those who spot a social trend before it potentially overwhelms them.

Paddy Briggs is managing partner at consultancy Brand Aware. He previously worked for Shell for 37 years, including 15 in brand management

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