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21 June 2024

Towards a thriving future: lessons from reimagining advertising

By Dr Andreana Drencheva and Dr Elisa Alt

In this article, Dr Andreana Drencheva and Dr Elisa Alt discuss how their latest report 'Towards Reimagining Advertising' offers practical ways to transform industries for a greener future.

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In a world grappling with the urgent challenges of the climate crisis, nature breakdown, and resultant social crises, the advertising industry must take bold steps towards sustainable transformation to secure a thriving future for all.

Some industries, such as fast fashion or food production, have faced significant pressure to transform because of their visible impact on resource use. These are known as vertical industries. Professional services industries, such as advertising, have been spared from the public eye in relation to their role in climate breakdown. However, these industries provide the foundation for vertical industries to operate, inadvertently amplifying their impact.

Amongst professional service industries, advertising finds itself uniquely positioned to drive positive change. By shaping consumer perceptions, aspirations, and behaviours, advertising can either exacerbate the problem or contribute to the solution. This choice was also emphasised by António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, who highlighted the role of advertising when taking fossil-fuel money: “I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction. Stop taking on new fossil-fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones. Fossil fuels are not only poisoning our planet – they’re toxic for your brand.”

I call on these [advertising] companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction."

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations

Re-imagining advertising: a collaborative journey

In 2023, we joined a group of industry-wide professionals and researchers to embark on a six-month journey and reimagine the crucial role of advertising. Our aim was to imagine radical visions of the future and understand what actions needed to be taken today to realise those visions. 

Supported by non-profit Purpose Disruptors and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), twelve visionary changemakers took part in the initiative, including from creative agency AMV BBDO, media owner Channel 4, awards body D&AD, insights agency Kantar, NatWest, and media agency OMD.

The initiative was approached using the ‘Me-We-World’ framing, which recognises the interconnectedness of individual changemakers (Me), collaborative networks (We), and systemic transformation (World). By empowering changemakers within organisations, fostering cross-industry collaboration, and taking a whole-systems perspective, we were able to experiment and test ideas for sustainable change across the advertising industry.

Sophie Howe shares her thoughts on the 'Towards Reimagining Advertising' report.
Sophie Howe shares her thoughts on the 'Towards Reimagining Advertising' report.

Offering practical solutions for professional services

In June 2024, we published our Towards Reimagining Advertising report to outline the ideas, discoveries, and recommendations from this journey. The report's insights extend beyond advertising, holding relevance for other professional services as roots industries. These industries, with their ability to influence business practices, can help us to transform toward a thriving future for all.

The report identifies three interrelated pathways for transformation of the advertising industry that can also be applied to other professional services:

Shift the output

  • Redirect industry creativity towards positive climate impact, creating campaigns that drive long-term, sustainable change. For example, adopting a climate lens on all creative output and promoting sustainable practices even in campaigns for products that are not sustainable by default.

Shift the model

  • Embrace circular principles, long-term strategic thinking, and radical innovation toward shared prosperity for media and creative agencies, media outlets, and brands. For example, re-using and sharing creative assets across clients and campaigns and implementing zero-waste production processes.

Shift the client

  • Inspire sustainable practices, support a clients’ transformation journey, and ultimately, align with clients committed to a thriving future. Give up clients that harm people and the planet. For example, supporting clients to integrate sustainability into their marketing strategies and business operations.

Take action toward transformation today

These long-term pathways toward transformation may seem out-of-reach, demanding both sacrifice and difficult decision-making. However, there are actions we can do today to ensure we catalyse the shift towards a more sustainable future.

We recommend professional service organisations to:

Invest in internal changemakers to experiment

  • Identify and support individuals with innovative vision, ideas, and a passion for driving change, regardless of their role, tenure, or title.
  • Invest in changemakers over time, offering them the financial and logistical resources to lead transformational work, rather than treating sustainability as a side project.
  • Foster a culture that values experimentation and diverse perspectives, allowing changemakers to test new ideas and embed innovative practices. 

Build networks across organisations to transform the system

  • Build strong networks of changemakers, supporters and cheerleaders, across the ecosystem to share knowledge, emerging solutions, and resources, and thus amplify the impact of individual efforts and accelerate progress.
  • Create safe spaces for open dialogue, experimentation, and co-creation to break down silos and facilitate the emergence of innovative solutions.

Support the change to a thriving future

The ‘Towards Reimagining Advertising’ report offers a wealth of insights, examples, tools, and recommendations for businesses and individuals committed to sustainable change. You can download it for free, share it with your networks, and join the growing community of changemakers to redefine the role of business in creating a thriving future for all.

Are you a sustainability/ green champion in the advertising industry – from creative, media, and insight agencies to media outlets and brands? We would love to hear from you to paint a fuller picture with our ongoing research and support changemakers inside the industry with practical insights.

Get in touch to share your experience safely and anonymously today: Every story matters.

In this story

Andreana Drencheva

Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship

Elisa Alt

Lecturer in Entrepreneurship