“Normal was a bit shit for a lot of people”

To mark Conscious Advertising Month, Jake Dubbins, Co-Founder of Conscious Advertising Network, explains why now is the time for an industry reset.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director


“When we talk about a return to normal, whatever normal was, we need to remember that normal was a bit shit for a lot of people.” As Jake Dubbins explains so clearly, ‘business as usual’ is no longer a meaningful strategy for the industry, particularly when it comes to addressing the fact that the ethics of the industry urgently need to catch up with the speed of advertising technology.

This is where the Conscious Advertising Network comes in; the voluntary coalition has established a six-point manifesto to help bridge this gap. A wide-ranging and long-term approach that many brands are seeking, not just because it's Conscious Advertising Month, or that the industry is in the grip of a Facebook boycott. But because both employees and consumers alike are demanding more accountability from brands as to where their advertising appears. 

From the coronavirus emergency to the climate emergency there will always be people who don't have the time, don’t have the information, or simply don’t want to engage.

Jake Dubbins

The reset moment

A growing number of brands and agencies from O2 to Accenture Interactive have signed up the CAN manifesto and the movement for advertisers to take responsibility for their supply chains has fast become a mainstream one. A momentum increased by early and wide-ranging support from ISBA. So, are we now at a tipping point? Or on the flipside, as the Facebook boycott drops out of the headlines, will we see a return to the status quo?

It is clear that maintaining the status quo or going backwards isn’t on the agenda for the Conscious Advertising Network. For while the coronavirus crisis is having a devastating impact on the creative industries it has also put the human cost of fake news firmly in the spotlight. As the world grappled with inexplicable news linking 5G networks to the spread of coronavirus, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement putting the impact of hate speech into sharp focus, the issue of advertising funding hate has risen up the agenda. 

Yet there remains those in the industry who believe that purpose in advertising is little but a passing phase and that the industry is increasingly out of step with the reality of consumers' lives. Dubbins recalls that the response from some parts of the advertising ecosystem to the launch of CAN was “well done, but you will probably go away soon”. Yet the industry’s tendency to fixate on the next big shiny object is not a strategy that will help solve complex issues such as hate speech and fake news.

He explains: “From the coronavirus emergency to the climate emergency there will always be people who don't have the time, don’t have the information, or simply don’t want to engage.” However, he believes that a growing number of consumers not only care about this issue, but increasingly expect brands to take action. 

Coronavirus is redefining the social contract between business and society

According to Accenture’s 2019 Global Consumer Pulse survey, 65% of consumers want brands to take a stand on issues that are close to their hearts and 37% have stopped doing business with a brand because of its words or actions about a social issue. Over half (55%) believe individual protest action can make a difference in how brands behave.

Speaking at the AOP event earlier this month Amir Malik, board member at CAN and digital marketing expert at Accenture Interactive, highlighted the importance of ethical advertising to the future of marketing. He examined the way in which COVID-19 is redefining the social contract between business and society at an unparalleled pace. He believes that ultimately the response to this crisis separates those company leaders who say nice things from those who take meaningful action for their people, clients and communities. 

The problem is the entire ecosystem. This is all about the ethics catching up with the technology of modern advertising.

Jake Dubbins

Led by brands

If the battle against fake news has been Led by Donkeys the industry response has been led by brands, rather than agency holding groups. Yet in the midst of the Facebook advertising boycott and the awareness of CAN, this is starting to change.

“The industry created the status quo. Yet what is most encouraging to us is that a couple of years ago there was a real ostrich mentality but now it feels like there is a far greater understanding,” Dubbins explains.

“We never had engagement from the holding companies before, but now all of the big six have been in touch,” he says. However, what is clear according to Dubbins is that many agencies are responding to their clients: “Ultimately it is the clients that have responsibility for their supply chains.” He points to the similarity in how the fashion brand needs to take responsibility for sweatshops in its supply chain, as the same issue that impacts brands who need to get a grip on their advertisements supply chains.

We need to talk about (more than) Facebook

The growing tranche of advertisers boycotting Facebook has brought the issue of hate speech and brands taking responsibility for where their advertising appears to the top of the industry agenda. Privately, a number of CMO’s report that this month they have faced internal pressures from employees who want to see immediate action on this issue.

Yet the challenge for the industry is bigger than a single platform. “Facebook is a problem, not the problem,” explains Dubbins. “The problem is the entire ecosystem. This is all about the ethics catching up with the technology of modern advertising.”

Then of course there is the thorny issue of whether boycotts work. “A lot of companies have pulled advertising from Facebook for longer than just July,” he explains. The focus on Facebook means there is a greater discussion about the policies and problems of Facebook’s advertising ecosystem, which ultimately the CAN team believes can only be a good thing.

“Our ultimate goal is for brands and big advertisers to take responsibility for where their advertising appears,” explains Dubbins. This means addressing the issue of advertising fraud. With upwards of 15% of programmatic ad spend going nowhere, the industry faces significant question marks over both its ethics and efficiency. 

“In five years’ time Facebook might not be the market leader, but brands will be demanding human rights and ethical policies designed to combat the spread of hate and misinformation,” Dubbins explains. As to Facebook’s Nick Clegg’s assertion that the social giant is simply a ‘mirror’ to society, Dubbins is unequivocal in his rebuttal of this passive view. “It’s horseshit and tedious in the extreme,” he declares.

There is a tipping point happening because hate and misinformation is touching every aspect of society.

Jake Dubbins

The tipping point

In the midst of the economic and emotional fall out of the coronavirus crisis, brands must beware of kicking this issue down the road. For arguably while the crisis has made the day-to-day life and business conditions for many marketers more challenging, it has also pushed the issue of ethics up the consumer agenda. As Dubbins explains: “There is a tipping point happening because hate and misinformation is touching every aspect of society.”

“From hate speech against women, the trans community, scientists; there is a lot of hate. It isn’t just directed at one group,” he continues. Pointing to the spread of fake news linking 5G technology to coronavirus, Dubbins explains that the climate of misinformation around COVID-19 affects us all. “There has been a mainstreaming of the issues, which demands action,” he adds. 

The heat of the Facebook boycott may well subside in coming months but the fundamental challenge of ensuring the ethics of advertising catches up with the speed of technology is going nowhere. Conscious of the scale, breadth and depth of the issues the industry is facing and the harmful effect of hate speech, marketers that continue to stand on the side-line face difficult questions. As Dubbins explains: “A few years ago people were inadvertently funding hate speech but now by not engaging you are complicit.”