Michele Oliver speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill about highlights from judging, brand accountability, and the new frontiers of social change.

The winners of the Sustainable Development Goals Lions can be found here

Many brands are now emerging from the haze of COVID-19. What are the biggest lessons you've learned as a marketing leader this past year?

The biggest lesson is that marketing and creativity is all about people. It's been a really tough year for lots of people in lots of different ways. The pandemic has, in a way, broken down barriers and humanised the people that we work with. We all have good days and bad days, and we've been talking about that. I'm a big believer that great creativity and marketing work comes when people can be their authentic selves.

Creativity can come from the most surprising of circumstances. There's been some amazing work produced in the middle of a global pandemic without the usual resources – the industry has had to be much more creative. It’s often in circumstances where things are limited that creativity really shines through.

In terms of how you operate within the brand, have there been any changes that you expect will continue as we come out of the pandemic?

Hybrid working has real potential if it’s done right, but it also has real risks for mental health and gender equality. For example, we risk that the men will go to the office while the women will stay at home.

But we can also be more creative in how we work together. One of the things that we've changed [at Mars] is we have much more frequent contact as a team. I check in with the agencies that I work with about three times a week on Zoom. Before the pandemic, I would probably go once a month for a day-long meeting.

The pandemic has focused brands on what is important. When there's an existential threat, you start focusing on what's important and, in a way, it's raised brand purpose up on the agenda.

From a Mars perspective, how has the brand’s approach to sustainability evolved over the last few years?

About six years ago, Mars launched its sustainable energy generation plan where we pledged a billion dollars toward tackling climate change. We are continuing to execute against that. One of Mars’ biggest passion points is about action, and not just signing up to a commitment. There is a terrible trend in the industry to do commitments and pledges, but as an industry, we are not great at going ‘Did you do what you said you were going to do?’ If you didn't, then work out why not and do what you need to do to make it happen.

We’ve been much more precise about what we do [on sustainability]. At Mars, we believe in the world you want tomorrow: the planet is healthy, society is inclusive, and everyone is thriving. Then, we ladder our brands up against that. You've got this huge amount of work that the corporation is doing, but also the consumer-facing brands to do the storytelling of that work.

What is your advice for brands to ensure they are accountable and actually make a long-term tangible impact on these issues?

This is the number one thing I looked for in the judging of the Sustainable Development Goals category at Cannes Lions. The first question for a brand going into this space is ‘what is the change you want to make in the world?’ Then work out how to measure it.

[At Mars] we hold the brands to account to define that change, develop metrics, and track the metrics. Then, that gets reported. A great example would be the Pedigree brand, a pet food brand, which has a very clear goal to end dog homelessness. We have metrics about how many dogs are being taken from shelters and into homes, and we track the impact our campaigns are having on that goal around the world.

If [brands] only do it for a year, I'm not interested – that's just a PR stunt or a gimmick. In the judging, that's what I'm trying to work out: is this a sustained commitment by an organisation to do something? Do they know the difference they want to make in the world? Or is it a PR stunt to try and get them some news coverage?

What challenges has Mars had in that process that you've overcome and learned from?

One of the challenges is the scale of work that needs to be done on sustainable development goals. It's hard work. Brands have to make a big commitment, then deliver it.

I work with our sustainability team. They aren’t communications or marketing experts – they think about how we ensure livelihoods for farmers in cocoa-growing communities. How do we work with women in rice farms who need help with micro-loans? How do we bring renewable energy to every country in the world, fuelling our factories and our supply chain?

We try and work out that sweet spot between the work that they do and telling the story. The storytelling is not just about driving the brand and the reputation of the organisation, it also promotes further action. It's about working across the business – if you silo this as a marketing or comms exercise, it doesn't work.

What trends did you notice in the Sustainable Development Goals category for Cannes Lions this year?

The use of technology and data is definitely something I’ve noticed – those clever ways of combining communications with identity, such as GPS. The other one I've noticed is some ideas are more about product innovation and coming up with actual physical solutions to problems.

Consumer brands are now willing to talk about some really difficult topics. I've seen entries on domestic abuse, and there are entries on gender identity. We’re seeing really mainstream brands going, ‘we're going to talk about this, we're going to put this on the table’. It’s fantastic. The reality is that the scale of impact you can have with a consumer brand is phenomenally enormous.

In the strong entries, we saw really brilliant communications ideas backed with meaningful action. That combination is what I get really excited about when I see it. There's a lot of really good work.

What do you see as the ‘next frontier’ for brands entering this category? What do you think are the big topics that will be taken on in coming years?

The world is becoming increasingly unequal from an economic point of view. COVID-19 has made it even worse, with homelessness and job losses. I worry that COVID has pushed equality further away, specifically from an economic point of view, which also has intersections at other levels. I hope that [brands] will try and address that through creativity.

I would love to see more about gender equality post-COVID. I'm deeply passionate about this – the UN estimates that COVID has set gender equality back by 25 years. I was a bit disappointed in the entries on gender equality, I thought there would be more.

I'm worried that the industry will think this is old news, like ‘we’re done with gender equality, it's now all about other stuff.’ But domestic violence has gone up by double digits in every single country in the world. So many women lost their jobs during COVID. The stats are horrific. Let’s not just jump onto the next bandwagon. Some brands are already doing an amazing job, such as the Unstereotype Alliance and Cannes Lions. Let's see some really big, bold and global ideas for gender equality.