Advertising can be a noble profession

Tom Knox
Tom Knox

The industry should help brands define their higher purpose beyond profit. The new IPA agenda aims to not only achieve this but also make advertising itself a cultural, social and economic force for good, Tom Knox writes.

It’s a tremendous honour to have been asked to take on the presidency of the IPA and I am keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with the task of representing the membership, especially as my term coincides with the centenary of the organisation.

I am proud to say that I have worked in advertising for nearly 30 of those hundred years.

This sense of pride is driven by a strong belief that advertising can be a noble profession and that what we do is fundamentally of great value and good.

Good for businesses and the economy, good for consumers and society as a whole, and good for our people – the men and women who work in the advertising industry.

There are plenty of people ready to trash advertising and portray our influence as entirely malign

My agenda will demonstrate and celebrate not just the economic but also the societal benefits of the advertising industry; the values as well as the value of what we do.

In so doing, we will strive to ensure a long-term, sustainable future and we will continue to attract the best talent into our agencies.

Why is this the right time to be talking about this? The landmark of the centenary and the prevailing zeitgeist make this agenda urgently relevant. The assertion that "the advertising industry is here for good" begs two fundamental questions.

First, will the industry be commercially robust in the immediate future, let alone in 100 years’ time?

Second, can we confidently say that our industry is a force for good in our economy and our society?

Today, these questions are inextricably connected. Only if the answer to the second question is truthfully "yes", and can be shown to be so, will the answer to the first question also be a resounding "yes".

As we know, there are plenty of people ready to trash advertising and portray our influence as entirely malign. A choice recent example is the journalist Peter Oborne at Advertising Week Europe, who described advertising as "consumerist sewage", going on to say that "advertising is objectionably consumerist, selfish, driven by commercial considerations which conflict with wider society considerations like family and decency". Note the clear assumption that "commercial considerations" will inevitably be at odds with decent society.

I believe our purpose is to apply our creativity to helping brands articulate and fulfil their potential

There are two main reasons why our values and wider role in society matter more than ever today.

Reason one is the fallout from the financial crisis. Since then, there has been a major political and economic discussion about how our version of capitalism emphasised one element of our human nature to the exclusion of others. Namely, that we are individuals who seek to maximise our material self-interest.

We in advertising are often seen as the poster boys for making us more materially focused by driving us to want things we can’t necessarily afford or don’t need and so forth.

What politicians and economists are now saying post-crash is that we need systems and policies that recognise that we are more than just consumers, that we exist in relationships and have values and ideals beyond just our material well-being.

We have the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of this development. We can help businesses articulate their values and their contribution to the common good, as well as the individual benefits of their products and services.

Reason two is the impact of technology. The ubiquity of the internet and the rise of social media have profoundly changed the market we operate in. That this is a cliché makes it no less true. People know more about the brands they buy and the companies behind those brands than ever before, and they care more about what those brands stand for.

Brand choices are made on the basis of whether or not brands keep the promises that they make (as has always been the case) but also on the values that lie behind the brands and their wider societal contribution.

There is a lot of evidence to support this view. A Cone Communications report on global corporate social responsibility in 2013 indicated that 92 per cent of consumers would buy a product with a social and/or environmental benefit; only 6 per cent believed businesses had no responsibility for supporting social or environmental issues; and 91 per cent would switch brands to one associated with a good cause given similar price and quality.

Some (such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks) would take this even further and contend that the same forces of transparency and empowerment that have changed the relationship consumers have with brands have eroded levels of trust in governments and institutions. And into this vacuum brands must take on the role of agents of social cohesion.   

As a result, much of the best recent business thinking is about the need for brands to define their higher purpose (above and beyond return on investment or profitability) and to articulate clearly their defined values. Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia is an ex­cellent example of this school of thought.

This is not hippy do-gooding. It is a business imperative because brands that do this succeed, as Sisodia exhaustively proves, showing that a basket of 28 "conscious businesses" outperformed the S&P 500 over a period of 15 years by a factor of 10.5.

The advertising industry plays a pivotal role in this: we work at the interface between brands and consumers, and we make promises on behalf of brands. So I believe our purpose is to apply our collective creativity to helping brands articulate and fulfil their potential. But if we are to continue to be trusted to do this, we need to be clear about our own values and our own societal contribution.

In his discussion at Ad Week, Oborne relented a little and said: "I’m not against advertising as such; I’m strongly in favour of it. I’m just asking questions about the wider social questions. Politicians need to look at the way advertisers conduct their business."

So it’s clear: if we don’t do this, it will be done for us.

But, more than this, I believe that if we properly communicate the positive contribution of the advertising industry, we will enhance our ability to attract the brightest and best people into it.

The millennials and post-millennials who are the future of the industry are a values-driven, idealistic tribe. Forty-eight per cent have sought, or will deliberately seek, out employers whose corporate responsibility behaviour reflects their own values, according to a 2014 PwC millennial survey. Research by Global Tolerance showed that 61 per cent of the millennial generation only want to work for organisations doing social good.

So to attract and retain the best talent, we have to tell our story in a way that will inspire them, and we have to create careers and working environments that will nurture and fulfil them.

And we have a fantastic story to tell. What could be more exciting than the power of creative thinking to transform businesses?

My agenda will address three key stakeholders:

1. Clients and the economy.
2. Consumers and society.
3. Talent – the people who work in the business.

My first commitment is that the IPA will draw up a code of conduct for the membership. We will codify the best practice that already exists among our members and we will invite people from outside the membership to contribute to it.

This is normal practice for professional trade bodies. I believe the process of developing the code will encourage lively debate and a positive discussion about how we ensure the highest standards within the industry and how we best fulfil our obligations to all our stakeholders. This will also raise the bar for how those stakeholders (especially clients) treat us. Let’s take one very small but significant example: if we are prepared to pay our suppliers in reasonable time – say, 60 days – surely our clients can do the same?

Clients and the economy

Turning specifically to clients, we are an incredibly important, digitally led part of the UK’s economy, a huge and growing employer and a leader within the creative industries. Advertising underpins £100 billion of UK GDP (Advertising Association/Deloitte). We support 550,000 jobs (Boston Consulting Group) and we are the second-biggest part of the creative industries.

Between 2011 and 2012, the value of exports from creative industries grew by 11.3 per cent, versus 2.8 per cent for total UK exports (Department for Culture, Media & Sport).

We will ask member agencies to contribute to an annual league table, which will list the gender splits by department and seniority

The IPA Effectiveness Awards are an international benchmark for making the case for the economic contribution of advertising. I will be proposing a new effectiveness prize to recognise commercial campaigns that have demonstrably created societal as well as economic value and have shown the virtuous link between the two (think Always "#LikeAGirl", Barclays "LifeSkills" or Dove "campaign for real beauty").

As part of the client agenda, we will host a series of events exploring the importance of brands’ higher purposes and how agencies’ thinking and creativity have contributed to unlocking those brand purposes, the resultant return on investment and the lessons to be learned. In many cases, the outputs may be far removed from what has traditionally been called advertising.

Consumers and society

Never before have we known as much about consumer behaviour, or had as many powerful media tools at our disposal.

With this power comes great responsibility. I would like to see us demonstrate that we are taking this responsibility seriously and ensuring that our clients are too.

There are a number of issues where we should be leading the agenda, helping our clients become more progressive (and therefore relevant) and making a positive contribution to the national discourse.

At the Advertising Association’s Lead summit earlier this year, Richard Eyre said that the old argument that "if something was legal, it was fine to advertise it" was no longer good enough.

Should we not also be prepared to say that it is no longer good enough to say we merely reflect society?

Can we not set ourselves a higher ambition and realise a more progressive role?

We will explore five key topics relating to advertising’s role in society and use the outputs to inform the code of conduct:

1. The depiction of women and the issue of diversity in advertising.
2. The use of big data and the implications for privacy.
3. The rise of content, "native advertising" and the blurring of lines between marketing and editorial.
4. The cultural contribution of advertising as one of the creative industries.
5. The perception and reputation of the advertising industry and its practitioners.


We will continue the excellent work that has been done to professionalise the workforce.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the IPA, the then president wrote: "Education and training schemes will take an important place in the work of the IPA during the next 50 years of its ever-growing sense of responsibility in changing times." And those words still ring true today.

Until now, the IPA has been mainly a corporate membership body, but we will encourage personal membership through a qualifications-based points system. This year, 153 people will qualify for MIPA status and it is our intention that, over the years, personal membership will come to be seen as a vital designation of professional expertise.

I am pleased to announce that the IPA is working towards achieving chartered status and we hope very much that this landmark will be achieved before the centenary.

For years, we have been talking about promoting diversity and gender equality in advertising, and progress has been made – but there is still a long way to go.

While the gender split is neutral overall, women still only account for 25.6 per cent of those at the highest level of seniority (up from 22.2 per cent in 2013) and they make up 37.1 per cent in "another executive management role" (up from 30 per cent in 2013). In particular, we need to continue to work to ensure that women are better-represented in creative roles – 77 per cent of traditional creative roles and 73 per cent of digital creative roles are male (IPA Agency Census).

The percentage of the IPA employed base coming from the black, Asian and minority-ethnic communities has steadily increased over time but, at 13 per cent, we still don’t look sufficiently like the make-up of the nation.

Change will only come if we are more transparent about how we are doing. So, in partnership with Campaign, we will ask member agencies to contribute to an annual league table, which will list the gender splits by department and seniority, as well as showing the percentage of BAME employees in each agency.

Again, this is not a "nice to do" – it is a necessity if we wish to remain relevant to our clients, to society as a whole and to the people we need to attract into the business.


Under Paul Bainsfair’s direction, the IPA has developed a long-term strategy based on three core pillars of activity:

1. What agencies do (creativity, media and effectiveness).
2. How agencies make their money (commercial).
3. Who they need to do it well (talent).

I am confident that this agenda will inform and enhance the IPA’s work across all three of these areas.

We should be proud of what we do and of the contribution we make. I want us to be positive about the overall impact of the advertising industry and for us to show that we take our responsibilities seriously.

As Bill Bernbach wrote: "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it on to a higher level."

I intend that, during the next two years, we will reassert – and secure for the future – advertising’s role as a culturally, socially and economically enriching force for good.

I am very grateful to all the many council members, past presidents and friends who have informed and encouraged this agenda and believe it is a timely and fitting way to mark the start of the second century of the IPA.

Tom Knox is the incoming president of the IPA and chairman of DLKW Lowe


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