One of my highlights of SXSW so far was a panel that focused on how social media can be used for social good. Bringing together a range of senior agency people and chaired by Economist journalist Matthew Bishop, the panel debated how digital communications can help deal with some of the big issues facing the world today, from child health to social change.
This is a topic close to Porter Novelli’s heart: when our agency was founded 40 years ago it was to pioneer the idea of social marketing – using the power of communications to change people’s lives for the better by helping them live more healthily and happily. Fast forward to 2012 and this topic is again back on the agenda and judging by the way the digerati of SXSW packed in to join the discussion, more relevant than ever.
Cindy Gallop lit a fire under the event by proclaiming the new business model firms need to think about is benefitting society as an intrinsic part of how they operate, not as an afterthought. This ex-BBH strategist says advertising agencies and marketers need to shift their focus from making good advertising, to making advertising for good.
Margaret Keene of Saatchi & Saatchi LA has a hatful of awards from working with clients like Apple and Toyota. Her take was that today social media means it is easier for consumers to influence businesses and ask them to do good than ever before. Brands can embrace this, and being authentic is the key to success. She was also pragmatic, arguing; “We can make mistakes, as far as marketing goes people would rather we were brave and transparent than did nothing. If people criticise us, we can say we aren’t perfect but we are making a difference.”
Keene also talked eloquently about the power of doing business for good as an internal driver for agencies and brands to motivate people around making a difference. “We have to motivate our teams to say what is the greatness that is going to come out today? Say it’s toothpaste – are you going to create a programme to teach kids that will live to 100 how to brush their teeth?”
Third up was Neil Powell who has worked with Coke, BMW and Kellogg’s and had a moment of epiphany when he visited Uganda. Horrified by the high levels of infant mortality Powell asked himself what he could do to help, and created the Information Blanket – a baby blanket given to new mothers with images and information about feeding and healthcare that can save lives. As he admits, “I’m climbing Everest – but I have helped 800 kids so far and that makes a difference. I focus on small steps.” Powell left Beattie McGuinness Bungay last year where he was executive creative director to focus full time on the project.
One topic that was hotly debated was whether partnering with brands to move a project like the Information Blanket to the next level would be welcomed or opposed by its existing supporters. Here Keene suggested the best route forward is simply ask the community rather than dismiss the idea out of hand. Although there may be compromises that can result, these can be worth making for the greater good. “Corporations want to do business globally, they want to support change.”
Gallop also argued that the transparency arising from digital age means brands have more incentive than ever to do good, and should be taking time to self-reflect and identify what they can do to change the world. All the panellists agreed we’ve moved beyond an era of greenwash and this topic will only continue to grow in importance in coming months and years.