Is it time for a more responsible narrative in digital marketing?

Responsible narrative in digital

I must admit that I was somewhat blown away by an excellent interview with author, speaker and business consultant Simon Sinek on the subject of millennials in the workplace recently. So much so that when I got home I sat my teenage daughters down to watch it with me, as I feel that it covers some fascinating and incredibly important topics.

In case you don't have a spare 15 minutes to watch it right now, the thrust of Mr. Sinek's argument is that millennials - those born after 1984 - are hard to manage in the workplace because they are lazy, unfocused, impatient and have a massive and unwarranted sense of entitlement.

Now, before you decide that I'm a monster for subjecting much-loved children of an impressionable age to such flagrant abuse, I should add that he goes on to blame these purported characteristics largely on the 'failed parenting strategies' of over-indulgent Generation X parents such as my good self. Not to mention the endless distractions of smartphones and the soul-sucking need to live a life as glossily perfect and successful as those that everyone you know seems to be living: according to their Facebook pages anyway.

I wasn't really sure how my daughters would react to such a scathing indictment of their generation and the world they live in; but I have to say that Mr. Sinek's line of thinking struck a pretty major chord with them, and perhaps even helped to make a little more sense of my draconian stance on banning smartphones from the dinner table.

Can digital marketers really be more responsible?
In the interests of honesty, I should probably declare my own colours at this point. We're an integrated creative agency with a pretty big vested interest in the digital arena. I also like to think that our work on marketing automation and digital transformation for our clients has been pretty groundbreaking.

So am I really the guy who should be telling my daughters to step away from the smartphones and go outside to play with a Frisbee instead? Do I really have the moral authority to banish mobile devices to the utility room for charging once it’s time for us all to go up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire?

Well, yes, actually. While I think that my wife and I have always taken an old-fashioned line on all things social and digital with the kids, we’re about to take an even firmer line; and get this folks, our daughters actually agree with us, having seen what Simon says is waiting for them in the big, wide world of work.

In fact, I now firmly believe that it’s time for every digital marketer to get with the programme and start taking responsibility for the world that our kids have got to live in.

Forget the nanny state. It’s time for business to bring people up properly.
Even before watching the aforementioned interview, I was well aware that several brands have already taken the brave step of trying to arrest the catastrophic erosion of social lives by social media.

Honourable mentions are due here to Always for the wonderful #likeagirl campaign, and of course Sport England for its memorable #ThisGirlCan campaign. Both harnessed the power of digital and social media to promote positivity and aspirations that went far beyond the media space or the usual confines of marketing.

I also loved Canon's #selfieless campaign this Christmas, which was created in conjunction with the Red Cross in Britain and got some serious traction worldwide, with tweets coming in from events as far afield as Spain and South Africa.

Having said that, the notion of social responsibility in marketing doesn't always work. In 2008, Sir Terry Leahy, then CEO of Tesco, confidently predicted that there was going to be a revolution of green consumption and that Joe Public was about to start spending big in order to drivean organic, zero-carbon, responsible and sustainable future. What he failed to take account of is that people don’t always allow their espoused values to govern their actions. For example, while many people say they’ll pay more for organic and locally-grown produce, the need to make ends meet forces them to join the queues at discount supermarkets. This is the so-called Value Action Gap, which recognises the significant differential between noble values and pragmatic actions.

Even Unilever's bold target to halve its carbon footprint while doubling sales looks like a big ask at this stage, given the harsh realities of the Value Action Gap that exists in today’s Just About Managing (JAM) society. Being responsible is a complex and demanding area in which to achieve balance. That’s why brands that simply talk about having a purpose won’t cut it any more: they have to walk the talk day in and day out.

Yet despite the harsh economic realities and the somewhat depressing political landscape, I actually think that we're going to step back from the precipice of bad parenting and social media madness.

To my mind, the likes of Always, Sport England and Canon aren't simply marketing products and ideas, they're talking about a better way of life for our kids by starting to deliver real meaning and purpose.

So call me old-fashioned. Call me sentimental. Put it down to the burst of positive energy one always feels at the dawn of another New Year. But I really think that this is the year that brands and marketers can both start to provide a little much-needed leadership - and hope - to the much-maligned millennial generation… and we can all play a part by showing a little of the tough love that used to characterise good parenting.

Dan Vivian is New Business & Marketing Director of Bristol based agency Proctor + Stevenson, who have a reputation to go where other agencies fear to tread