We are living in history shaping times. You could say that about any time in history but there are very specific and converging challenges and opportunities that the society is facing in 2023. 

Firstly, the cost of living crisis. We are living through a period in the UK of a sustained squeeze on the quality of life. The Resolution Foundation has found that workers in the UK are £11,000 worse off a year after 15 years of “almost completely unprecedented” wage stagnation. This comes in a perfect storm of rampant inflation with the UK having the highest inflation in western Europe.  

Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation has said: “Nobody who’s alive and working in the British economy today has ever seen anything like this. This is definitely not what normal looks like. This is what failure looks like.”

This is having a massive effect in the advertising industry. The latest 'All In Survey' results revealed that 21% of our community are aiming to leave their company in the next 12 months. The most common reasons cited are pay, better opportunities,  and work life balance. 

If the industry does not have the living wage and flexible working as standard in a cost of living crisis how on earth can we hope to attract and retain diverse talent to our industry? How can we pivot to consciously invest in the future talent of advertising?

The second critical issue is the polarisation of society. The weaponisation of division through the ‘culture wars’ and a desire to focus on what makes us different rather than what unites us is in exact opposition of the efforts of the advertising industry to become more diverse, more inclusive. The number of UK newspaper articles referring to a ‘culture war’ rose from 21 in 2015 to 534 in 2020. In 2021 it reached nearly 1,500. 

These confected, divide and conquer, narratives are literally atomising culture into very exclusive groups. This backdrop of polarisation is driving real world harm. 

In the year to March 2022 hate crime based on race was up 19%. Crime against religious communities up 37%. Hate crime against disabled people up 43%. Hate crime based on sexual orientation up 41%, even higher against the trans community at 56%. These figures are not from some ‘woke’ research group, they are from the Home Office, not exactly known for its inclusive policies in 2023.

Advertising is funding this polarisation through funding content that contains hate speech and misinformation. Both in social media and in legacy media. Generative AI newcomers Chat GPT and Midjourney threaten to supercharge this problem. 

How do we consciously choose to withdraw our advertising spend from content that drives hate and division and invest in diverse and inclusive media? How do we consciously represent the wonderful diverse communities in our advertising? How do we invest in minority owned media both to build our brands with citizens that we often ignore and to co-create a diverse and pluralistic ecosystem? How do we lead the ethical debate on generative AI?

Thirdly and the issue that will dominate all of our lives for the rest of our lives. Climate. The March 2023 IPCC Synthesis Report clearly states – “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

This is a pretty bleak statement. 

Advertising has a huge role to play here. We are the architects of desire. We talk a lot about using the power of creativity to drive business results. What if those business results are going to drive us into oblivion?

Are we going to continue to greenwash and serve the interests of fossil fuel companies who have publicly stated that their ambitions do not meet the Paris Climate Agreement? Are we going to continue to fund rampant climate misinformation? Or are we going to consciously pivot to using our talent, our creativity, our problem solving power to change the direction of history?

The advertising industry, as one the key culturally adjacent industries should not underestimate its power to shape our realities – for good or for bad. Which path are we going to choose?

The Conscious Advertising Network panel at MAD//Fest will be on the Brand Innovation Stage on 4 July

Conscious Advertising Panel (CAN) - A pivotal time to pivot to conscious advertising

Jake Dubbins, co-founder CAN
Dinah Williams, founder + director, Avenir Network
Jerry Daykin, VP Head of Media, Beam Suntory
Tom Mills, Global Head of Media Investment, Haleon
Jennie King - Institute for Strategic Dialogue