In recent years, some of the smartest politicians have pointed to the creative industries as leading drivers of growth in the Western world. Policy experts have rightly argued that many social problems require completely new thinking and that civil servants and politicians need to learn creative problem solving to come up with innovative ideas. And promoting design thinking has even become an official policy in some countries such as Singapore and Denmark.
But while the design and creative industries have generally been happy to teach the world of politics how to generate new and better ideas, there hasn’t been much learning the other way. Never have we heard anyone talk about what the creative companies could learn from the world of politics. When was the last time you were invited to a conference on how designers could learn to think like politicians?
But when it comes to doing good in the world, to take on a greater responsibility, and make a bigger impact, there’s a lot politicians could teach designers and other creatives about defining their policies. Looking at the social responsibility of most large agencies, it is striking how primitive it is. Many don’t even have a clearly stated policy. And if they do, it’s, at best, the usual generic stuff about saving energy and behaving responsibly.
This illustrates a blind spot in much of the world’s creative community. When you ask most agencies the very same questions they ask their clients—Why are you in business? Why do you do what you do?—most have difficulty articulating anything that goes beyond restating what they do. Typical answers are: to do great work, to help our clients be successful. When hard-pressed, some might say to get peer recognition (another way to say "win awards"). Social responsibility programs don’t address the key question of how a company’s key offering—creativity—makes the world better. Only a few niche agencies have a clearly articulated broader social goal. Ironically, many big brands are actually much more progressive than the agencies they hire.
Many agencies, maybe realizing this, then do a few do-good projects a year. But it is unclear what their impact is and why the agencies have chosen to the projects they did.
There are several reasons for this. The main one is obvious: Creative agencies do what clients ask them to do. Like a good defense lawyer, they silently embrace the idea that everyone has the right to be heard in the court of public opinion. Another reason is that many don’t think their work can make a big difference; after all, they are not doctors who save lives or even engineers that build the infrastructure that makes roads, bridges, and running water possible. They see creative work as the icing on a cake that has already been baked.
But it’s time to rethink that notion. The creativity community holds a tremendous collective potential to enact positive change in the world. Many major social problems can be solved only if design, ad, and communication agencies take their responsibility beyond behaving well, saving energy, and throwing a few charity events every year.
How? All good creative agencies are partners and advisers to the brands they work for. They have the ability to convince a brand do things it never would have dared to think up on its own. Not only do they have the collective spending power of $450 million, they specialize in changing opinions, raising awareness, getting politicians elected, and much more.
Fortunately, a couple of enlightened competitions can serve as model examples. The world’s biggest design award (measured by the size of the prize), INDEX, is about improving life through design. Another promising sign is the fact that D&AD, a nonprofit organization governed by representatives from the global creative community, recently marked the 50th anniversary of its White Pencil award, given to a campaign that addresses a specific challenge: Raising awareness about "Peace One Day," to 20%—enabling the campaign to gather momentum and hopefully helping end some of the world’s conflicts. This turns the client-agency relationship on its head and challenges, with agencies pushing their clients to do something to promote peace. Big brands become the agency’s levers to achieve a social objective.
To be part of the solution to big global problems, there are two main political skills creatives must embrace:
Spend your time and money where they will do the most good. Instead of randomly and impulsively choosing which projects to back, agencies need to look at the world’s many problems and devote their energies to causes where they can make the biggest difference. Vestas’s "WindMade" labeling initiative, identifying products made using wind energy, is an example of how communication can play a major role.
The second skill creatives must learn is how to collaborate with their competitors. Agreeing on common goals and then working together to achieve them is an essential part of furthering social good. The former Swedish Prime Minister Oluf Palme famously described politics as the art of the possible. To achieve big things, agencies need to work together, share ideas, and support their direct competitors. One agency that promotes peace isn’t noteworthy, but an industry that comes together around a common goal can enact massive change.
As the power of creativity increases, so does the responsibility to do something meaningful with it. Politicians in the developed world speak of re-stimulating growth via creativity and innovation. But that’s not all we should be doing: Designers and creatives need to direct their creative and innovative skills to advancing important political causes. And the only effective way to do that is by engaging people in a large-scale, coordinated fashion, using the same smart ad-campaign skills that brands have hired them to dream up for decades.
Rasmus Bech Hansen is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.