Interviews

'Brands didn’t work collectively’

Ete Davies, Chief Operating Officer at Dentsu Creative, EMEA & UK and host of the Conscious Advertising Network podcast on marketing lessons from the most controversial World Cup in history.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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Tonight England will play Wales in the 2022 World Cup. We don’t know what the result will be but while the team’s performance on the pitch will doubtless be the source of fierce debate, for the marketing community one thing is clear: we have already lost.

In the 92 year history of the FIFA World Cup tournament, there has never been such a muted response from brands. From a flurry of last-minute activations, to confused and conflicting responses to Qatar’s human rights record. In the midst of what could have been a watershed moment for brand activism brands have failed to step up to this once-in-a-generation marketing moment.

Speaking on the Conscious Advertising Network podcast, Lou Englefield, Director of Pride Sports shares that the not-for-profit has been inundated with last-minute approaches from brands. She shares a genuine concern about what will happen to activists on the ground once the World Cup circus leaves town and the media attention dies down.

In such a fragmented media environment your message is dead on arrival if it is not based in tangible actions on a corporate level, rather than in PR stunts or empty statements.

Ete Davies, Chief Operating Officer, Dentsu Creative, EMEA & UK

Beyond performative activism

Yet if 2022’s World Cup Circus is difficult to watch, it’s the official sponsors who are perhaps at risk of appearing as clowns. For how in an ecosystem in which the human rights issues surrounding this tournament have been clear for years were marketers still struggling to respond at the last minute?

It’s a challenge which underlines the uncomfortable truth that performative allyship continues to be a genuine marketing strategy. Ete Davies, host of the Conscious Advertising Network podcast and Chief Operating Officer at Dentsu Creative, EMEA & UK, believes that the time for change is now. In the midst of a sea of confusion, his clarity of thinking and energy is both refreshing and real. 

He explains that ‘raising awareness’ is not a one-size-fits-all get-out-of-jail-free card enabling brands to act with impunity. “Everyone is looking for tangible actions,” says Davies, noting that the days in which a social message could be simply worn on a wristband without scrutiny are behind us.

“Gen Z and Millennials are about to be the biggest working population and they are going to have a significant influence on brands, urging them to take more action,” he explains.

He continues: “In such a fragmented media environment your message is dead on arrival if it is not based in tangible actions on a corporate level, rather than in PR stunts or empty statements.”

Collaboration for change

Empty statements are not part of Davies’ leadership style, evident in the way he leans into The Conscious Advertising Network’s (CAN) agenda while crediting his Dentsu marketing colleagues and the CAN team for making the podcast happen. 

Davies believes that the CAN manifesto makes it clear that the work of change is the collective job of advertisers, agencies and NGOs. He explains: “It is built on clear tangible actions and as an independent network of volunteers the ethos is clear.”

He continues: “There is lots of rhetoric when it comes to accountability. For me what I wanted to do with the podcast is to amplify the work the network does.” To this end, each episode of the podcast is linked to a manifesto point addressed by CAN. It also means at a time when many in the industry are leaning out of taking a stance on the World Cup the CAN team is asking the bigger questions. Questions the team hope will drive a step change across the industry. 

We spent a lot of time in the pandemic scrutinising what was happening in government. Now that Pandora’s Box is open you can’t just close it.

Ete Davies, Chief Operating Officer, Dentsu Creative, EMEA & UK

A tipping point

While sports fans embrace the anticipation of the action on the pitch, off the pitch the end result of this tournament might perhaps be more certain. As Davies explains:  “I think we are at a tipping point for conscious advertising. The world is accelerating a lot, but the challenge is that people are focused on having the conversation and challenging brands and businesses. It is impossible to separate politics and sport.”

Davies says that this year’s World Cup has come at a pivotal moment. He explains: “It comes at a time where people are placing much more scrutiny on broader issues. We spent a lot of time in the pandemic scrutinising what was happening in government. Now that Pandora’s Box is open you can’t just close it.”

He believes that just as all eyes were on the government in Covid, the World Cup is a collective moment of attention. Yet while marketers are most often in the business of battling for attention, for this World Cup many brands might be wishing not all eyes were on them. Davies is conscious of the inconsistency, pointing to the fact that the tournament is happening in a region that until very recently wasn’t on a safe travel list. 

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s tone-deaf comments that LGBTQ+ football fans travelling to Qatar for the World Cup should ‘respect the law’ of the host country are met with an honest appraisal from Davies. “It’s not your job to tell people to accept that,” he explains, adding: “Where does the line stop with being oppressive?”

Brands didn’t work collectively. If all the brands had got together and said no dice to FIFA there would have been power in numbers.

Ete Davies, Chief Operating Officer, Dentsu Creative, EMEA & UK

A genuine consumer backlash

In the wake of the most controversial World Cup in history, Davies rightly expects a backlash. He points to the fact that brands have moved slowly when it comes to responding to the tournament being in Qatar. Likewise, the move to host the tournament in Russia. Both decisions were years in the making and the subsequent marketing campaigns years in the planning. A fact which underlines how surprising it is to know that brands are scrambling to contact local NGOs and associated charities.

“Brands could have worked with NGOs and with FIFA to change things, or boycott the event,” says Davies. He continues: “Brands didn’t work collectively. If all the brands had got together and said no dice to FIFA there would have been power in numbers.” It is a lack of collectivism which is particularly apparent in the wake of a unified response to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the subsequent fallout which has triggered a mass exodus of advertisers. 

The dangers of empty promises

“I think a lot has to be said about how a brand and its representatives choose to respond in these moments,” says Davies. He continues: “For Brewdog the question is what happens if you are found to not fully backing up your allyship if you are held accountable, how do you respond?”

Davies pulls no punches in describing Brewdog founder James Watt’s response to the backlash to its anti World Cup campaign as ‘Trumpian’. “We are in an era where people expect accountability,” he continues. 

It is a shift which demands that business leaders build their brands on so much more than just their egos. As Davies explains: “If you are going to have that discourse publicly you must be willing to be accountable. It's a paper-thin PR stunt, you don't care about change if you are launching a campaign three weeks before it's cynical.”

For Davies, the big question for brands is how you go beyond communication to use your platform to work directly with marginalised groups to create long-term systemic change.

“These are big questions, what are you doing with your businesses and across your entire supply chains?” he asks. 

It’s a fundamental question which gets lost in the somewhat distracting debate surrounding ‘profit versus purpose’. A debate which all too often skirts the edges of the issue, as it is rooted in advertising, rather than the fundamentals of a business. An approach which diminishes the concept of purpose to a one-off marketing campaign rather than a fundamental of building a progressive and modern business.

As Davies notes the example set by brands such as Patagonia signify that so much of this shift is internal. “Through the line integrity is vital. So often we buy into brands on what they are doing in external messaging. Yet the question is what are they doing as allies to support in their businesses and the broader supply chain?”

The tipping point of a toxic tournament 

In a World Cup in which humanity has lost before the first kick-off it is tempting to look towards a positive tipping point as inevitable. “The biggest positive to come from this is to ensure we don’t end up in this situation again,” says Davies.

In practice, this means that brands need to be on the front foot when it comes to ethics. “Brands should not just be capitalising on it [the World Cup] but looking to drive more integrity, both in the sport and in how they behave.”

From Brewdog’s empty posturing, to the prioritisation of achievement on the pitch and allyship with the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s an integrity that has been difficult to find. Yet as Davies’ authentic approach underlines integrity is arguably the most creatively compelling force in modern marketing. 

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