Brand spend accountability was in the spotlight at a recent AOP webinar. Managing director Richard Reeves outlines how the industry can move towards a new level of social responsibility.

The purpose conversation has evolved far ahead of where it was only 18 months ago. We’ve already seen value-centric marketing move from lofty ambition to competitive advantage and widely expected standard – putting meaning and authenticity back at the heart of advertising. Keeping pace with the accelerated drive for change, however, will mean going further.

Part of the push is coming from consumers, with 66% now believing it’s important to choose the brands they buy from based on ethics and over seven in ten feeling brands should follow their example of responsible behaviour. But there is growing demand across the ecosystem to start applying purpose to profit practices and spending, not just messaging.

That’s why mapping a better route to conscious ad investment was the main aim of AOP’s latest CRUNCH 4.5 webinar. Gathering brands, agencies, media owners, industry bodies and vendors, discussion put brand spend accountability in the spotlight; covering how more players can raise their own benchmark and what’s needed to reach a new level of social responsibility.

Here are their key takeaways on how we reach the next major milestone.

Using spending power for everyone’s good

A profound shift in consumer attitudes has propelled principles to the top of brand and media agendas, and momentum is growing. As noted by Ali Hanan, Founder & CEO of Creative Equals, “the global cultural fabric is changing right before our eyes” – making ethical activity vital to retain trust and relevance. Ensuring ads both reach and represent varied age groups, beliefs and preferences is a step change; sharpening investment focus will have even greater impact.

Advertising is a buoyant sector, set to attract spend of £29 billion this year alone. For Good-Loop founder Amy Williams, there is opportunity and onus to use this sizeable power wisely by casting a vote with its vast wallet. Shared across the board, this opinion chimes significantly with James Fleetham, The Guardian’s client director, who has seen rising concerns about misinformation and harmful content cause considerable reduction in publisher income via blunt brand safety tools.

Positively directing budgets towards responsible inventory and outlets presents a clear way for brands to demonstrate core values and reinforce connections with consumers that share their views. But as highlighted by Caroline Forbes, specialist partner at Clear Channel UK, it also has an additional important outcome: allowing them to not only live by, but also activate purpose and harness it to expand their role in fuelling “the lasting difference they are seeking”.

Putting social responsibility in measurable order

Guaranteeing resources will arrive at chosen destinations might feel difficult in today’s complex ad space. Mixing industry guidelines, self-governance, and the right partners, however, can help ease navigation, according to Laura Lesser, Virgin Media O2 culture and innovation lead. Since joining the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), Lesser has turned its manifestos into practical measures, using these to score efforts, as well as setting linked short and long-term targets.

Virgin Media O2’s mission has been successfully supported by close collaboration with Havas. A diversity and inclusion advocate which launched its social equity marketplace in 2020, the agency has integrated CAN benchmarks across each brief, in addition to aligning work with mutual green priorities. This includes applying robust assessment of delivery against environmental aims such as cutting carbon by 2025 – a factor Havas client director Jo Mikolajczyk underscores is essential amid the unveiling of its new sustainability marketplace and ongoing buzz around COP26.

These methods tally with a movement to address large scale challenges, and what Hanan calls “window dressing”, through traceability and simplification – the prime example being Ad Net Zero. By establishing defined action areas for end-to-end processes – from ad production to media buying – Advertising Association CEO, Stephen Woodford explains the idea is to show that “ambitious objectives can be very achievable” with real commitment. Although Woodford is also quick to add that while the project has gained traction at pace, from all the major agency holding companies and commercial media owners, so far only a handful of current supporters are brands and getting more direct support from advertisers is the next priority. There’s clearly plenty of room for buy-side players to drive change faster by signing up.

Finding solutions to familiar obstacles

Evidence is mounting to illustrate the rewards of investing in quality and trustworthy media. In fact, Fleetham debuted research by The Guardian and Ipsos Mori revealing that 58% of uplift in brand purpose perception comes from media placement, compared to 26% for advertisers. Yet bumps on the immediate horizon will to revolve around persistent problems.

Analytical approaches are becoming more synchronised, with Mikolajczyk using the IPA carbon calculator alongside econometrics to balance sustainability and media effectiveness. But at the same time, she recognises there will be junctures where planet and performance needs clash. TV, for instance, is high in that list and future development is going to require better solutions, such as re-using existing creative to save on carbon-heavy production.

Maintaining diverse voices is another critical consideration. As Woodford warns, we don’t want advertising to dictate editorial policy (excepting red lines such as hate speech). To achieve even balance, the optimal route will likely lie with individual choice, embodied by Hanan’s plea to adopt corporate social justice (CSJ). Replacing CSR programmes that are too often isolated and unenforced, CSJ will integrate values across every aspect of operations, while making trust “between companies, people, customers, and stakeholders” the new regulator of decisions.

All speakers, however, are feeling emboldened by recent advances and optimistic about the possibility for a brighter, collectively-shaped future. For Louise Stubbings, Creative Director, at Clear Channel UK, escalated change not only marks a milestone in responsible awareness, but also proves how “much power we have in our hands and why we’re stronger together”.

This enhanced confidence is feeding enthusiasm to tackle hard tasks by tapping combined might and stringing together the similar threads of activity running across organisations into a single vision of where the industry wants to be, and to plan for how we get there.

So much so that there is even a rallying cry for brands to stop being held back by worries about how far they should or shouldn’t take social responsibility and just join the journey. Here is hoping they answer the call.