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We’re not saving lives

Starcom's Wanju Lee says we may not be saving lives as marketers, but we can change the world for the better

People in our line of work often use the phrase, ‘we’re not saving lives’. I am not here to disagree with them. In fact, I’ve been guilty of throwing around the ‘it’s only advertising’ card myself.


But what are we actually doing?

I, like the majority of the people who have accidentally found themselves in this industry, have wondered the same thing.

When it comes down to it, we are in the business of behaviour change. Brands pay us (agencies) to change the way that people act. From how people spend their money, to what they feel when they see a logo.

But the thing that makes what we do so interesting, and that means that our job descriptions are littered with words like, ‘dynamic’, ‘fast-paced’ and ‘ever-changing’, is the fact that we are constantly navigating and influencing culture.

While the race-related issues and events that have led to the moment we now find ourselves in are far from new, culturally we are seeing a shift.

A moment that is leading a movement; a movement that has been driven by people.

And while it is not my intention to over-state the significance of what we do, I genuinely believe that as an industry, we are uniquely placed in this moment, because the industry spends billions of dollars daily to interact with people.

Advertising has more power than we realise, which is in equal parts dangerous and encouraging.

We have the choice to put money behind the content and publishers that we want to align with and support. We can give platforms to the people we want to hear from. We can get in front of the world and create something that educates, connects or confronts people.

However, this also means that as an industry, we have a duty of care to the people we talk to and the brands and voices we represent. And we need to do better.

If changing people’s behaviour and influencing culture is truly at the heart of what we do, we need to address the entirety of people and culture.

We need to challenge the idea that it is not our place to have an opinion. Our place is holding a mirror up to society. It is absolutely our place. In fact, we get paid to make it our place. But this place doesn’t just belong to a few, it belongs to everyone, equally.

So how do we ensure that when we say we are talking to ‘everyone’, we actually mean it?

We need to hire (and retain) people from all backgrounds, fill boardrooms with them, cast them, ask for their opinions, actually listen to them, and care what they think and feel.

We cannot say that we are talking to [insert country here], until we produce work that speaks to the diverse group of individuals that make up that country.

And like any industry that wants to not only survive, but thrive, we need to think long term and we need to start with our own foundations.

We need to eliminate the systemic biases that are going into our algorithms and shaping our companies. We need to address the data that we’re not capturing, and the people that we’re not addressing. We need to educate ourselves on the things we do not know, but should. And practice saying the things we might not know how to say, but that need to be said. Only then can we learn how to move forward in a responsible and sustainable way.

With EMBRACE (a diversity and inclusion initiative at Starcom and the wider Publicis Groupe), we are working to address these issues because we know that, as an industry, we need to do this better.

And to paraphrase Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock (Co-Founder, Soursop), if we’re doing it right, we probably won’t get credit for it, nor should we.

We may not be saving lives, but if we do our jobs well enough, we can help change the world for the better.