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Are the roles of charities and agencies changing when it comes to making social change?

Charities exist to drive donations in order to fund providing solutions to those in need. However, as communications channels have evolved technologically in recent years they have begun to find themselves taking on a role as influencers in order to inform, engage, change behaviours and mindsets. 

In a world where charities can have direct conversations with potential supporters through social media and donation websites like support.org, they are able to control the conversation better than ever before.

According to WaterAid’s mass engagement director, Jonty Gray who was one of the judges at this year’s The Drum Social Purpose Awards, the role of the third sector is changing “significantly” but many charities have yet to realise it. 

“Charities as we know them now will disappear and we will become social purpose brands. We have to play a different game and we are not being supported in that endeavour by most of the agencies that we work with,” he stated.

“Charities are largely based on a transactional model and it’s not about transactions entirely but engagement and the difference that charities can make in the world. So, the use of agencies has to change as a consequence. Most of the agencies we speak to are still stuck in a framework of thinking that has to change moving forward…Agencies need to be a lot more proactive.”

He went on to discuss the competition created by charities in similar spaces that ave made an attempt at a land grab for support rather than work in unison to solve a collective issue.

Meanwhile, the advertising sector is coming under pressure to use their expertise to communicate, educate and change mindsets to authentically make a difference when it comes to consumer behaviours. 

Also on the jury panel was Kate Bosomworth, the chief marketing officer for M&C Saatchi, who agreed with fellow juror Chris Gorrell Barnes, founder of Adjust Your Set, that there was more opportunity for collective action across the advertising industry.

“We need to look to each other as neighbours more, not just with other agencies but our clients so the level of collaboration could be far greater. There are some really exciting opportunities around collaboration,” she said.

“If you look at how start-ups and tech businesses collaborate, their sectors might be moving faster because of that level of collaboration which will be a good focus for the industry. I do think that most agencies, as with any other business now, knows that the social core of their business is absolutely key to talent and retention as it is to clients. For me that should become business as usual. I'm slightly put off when businesses celebrate the work they are doing because now it’s expected."

“We are without a doubt the most influential industry on the planet and we need to use that influence to protect the planet,” added Gorrell Barnes.

“It’s brilliant seeing all of these charitable initiatives but there is a real lack of action on the climate crisis from the industry. It’s the only thing that really matters and we need to focus our attentions and drive the conversation onto it and use our creativity to inform people and to let them know how bad things are and how they can act.”

Chairman of the jury this year, Rueben Turner, creative partner and founder of The Good Agency, talked about the measurement that takes place within advertising and how that related to social purpose campaigns: “This industry is brilliant at measuring things but it has been measuring the wrong things for too long – we want to see measures and different measures and we want to see proof of impact and if you don’t see that in an entry then what are you doing? We measure but we don’t measure the things that matter and that is the biggest, and most exciting, shift.”

Hilary Jones, ethical director for Lush Cosmetics highlighted the issue around how risk averse the third sector could be which meant that the level of creativity when it came to ideas that cut through proved rare. “We struggle to find those partners that want to work in that way – all of the red tape around it can slow us down and stop us from working in that way. We need to find a way to be braver and bolder together," Jones said. 

This prompted Bosomworth, who had been involved in the development of ‘This Girl Can’ campaign for Sport England, to discuss her previous experience of working with services charities: “I guess they are similar to other sector charities if you group the sector businesses they were competitive to the point of land grabbing even though they were all trying to achieve the same thing and I was absolutely gobsmacked by that. That’s still present.”

Gorrell Barnes added his belief that while the conversation around social purpose in advertising had advanced and that it was waking up to what it could do in order to make a positive social impact away from shareholder value, there was still much work to be done.

“I don’t think a brand that doesn’t have a positive social impact will be around in 10 year’s time,” he would go on to state in terms of the changing attitudes by younger people in society to make a difference.

“Charities play a huge role in order to drive the necessary changes and pull the leaders really we in business and government into take action and they've got to be much harder and much tougher.”

Jo Wallace, creative director at JWT acknowledged the cynicism that has developed around brand purpose and marketing initiatives adopted simply to sell products: “It's easy to choose a purpose, but then what if they all choose to follow a similar purpose, then it’s a case of having to start differentiating all over again.”

Highlighting earlier in the year that Lush chose to close its social media activity down, Jones added: “There's a definite feel from the younger audience that they expect more from brands and that they expect something more than the goods they're purchasing, that they do want that they might not always be shopping for just that. I mean we can still see that fast fashion and stuff that is a home purchase is still happening, but at their core they are craving something more than just the goods arriving from Amazon… young people want to work for brands with purpose, don't they?”

The Drum's Social Purpose Awards will be announced at a lunchtime ceremony taking place on 13 November at Café de Paris. More details can be found at the dedicated website including the list of this year’s nominees.

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