It is no longer ethically responsible from a business or environmental standpoint to employ a ‘spray and pray’ model of advertising, says Rick Evans, Strategy Director, R/GA London.

Many of you – either in school or from David Attenborough – have come across the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum.” This postulate has been attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, but seems to have been adopted by modern marketers.

While Aristotle intended to convey that nature is an efficient system that uses every possible resource to its fullest leaving nothing to waste, marketers have taken it as a directive to fill every nook and cranny of the visible and audible world with an ad.

While the much loved marketing stat that humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish has been debunked, recent research from a team of European scientists showed that the constant onslaught of news and media has caused our collective attention span to narrow.

That means marketers waste a lot of money and time on creating advertising that nobody will recall mere seconds later. It also points out a larger issue.

The core principle of the circular economy is that resources – both material and human – are finite. Resources are used to create things that can become resources again at the end of their useful life as products.

This begs the question, could marketing – physical and digital – be made more circular so that our industry is more sustainable for people and plant? What would the principles of such an industry look like?

1. Reduce, reuse, recycle

As marketers, we’re often keen to draw attention by creating a spectacle. Taking over spaces, creating immersive experiences and overloading attendees with branded merchandise that often ends up in a landfill.

The first step toward circularity is to reduce the amount of physical waste we create. The amount of free, reusable water bottles I’ve seen distributed at ‘green’ events could create its own Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The next step is to reuse and recycle. If you must create signage and materials for events, consider the materials and exclude one-time items like dates so signs can be reused and at the end of their life, recycled.

2. Focus on efficiency and effectiveness

We’ve all heard the quote from John Wanamaker that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

Disruptive ad fraud schemes, such as Hydra in 2020, have leveraged malware-infected devices to spoof ad impressions. On another digital ad front, a report by flashtalking found that ad reach by cookies is often overstated by as much as 200% and frequency understated by 66%.

By failing to verify with a third party the delivery of our advertising and content, millions of dollars and thousands of hours of creativity have been wasted on work that wasn’t even seen.

The reduction of waste by verifying reach and viewability must be coupled with a focus on effectiveness. It is no longer ethically responsible from a business or environmental standpoint to employ a ‘spray and pray’ model of advertising, blanketing entire cities with out of home advertising, streaming hours of video ads or serving digital banner ads to one large generic cohort of people.

3. Create work worthy of our shrinking attention

If you spend any time studying ecosystems, it becomes clear that absolutely no organism is insignificant in the natural world. That is because everything in nature – including you, dear reader – is connected.

As we reviewed earlier, nature will find a way to make use of every resource available and that extends to every member of the ecosystem. From an apex predator like a hawk who keeps the rabbit population in check to the tiniest organisms that decompose the remains of the aforementioned rabbit after the hawk is finished, nature is cyclical.

When I write that to realise a more circular version of marketing, we must create work worthy of the shrinking attention span of humans, I do not mean we must create only cinematic visual masterpieces. In fact, I actually mean the opposite – we must be focused and ruthlessly simple in our work, and we must use the resources and every interaction we have with the customer wisely.

A great example of this is a UK clothing brand from the Isle of Wight called Rapanui. Every single touchpoint with the public is carefully crafted to reinforce its brand ethos of sustainability. For example, the promotional sticker of the brand’s logo that comes with an order (shipped in plastic-free paper packaging) has a message on the back that explains the sticker is made with waste bits of organic cotton, mixed with water and dried in the sun. Even more amazing, the printed element is done with soy sauce!

I’ll leave you with a quote from the great entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken from his book The Ecology of Commerce – “We need to imagine a prosperous commercial culture that is so intelligently designed and constructed that it mimics nature at every step, a symbiosis of company and customer and ecology.”

So I ask you, how can you design your marketing to be more circular, in lockstep with the principles of nature?