The White Pencil 2012

As D&AD gears up to award its first ever White Pencil, sponsored by Unilever, at November’s White Pencil Symposium, D&AD Trustee Steven Johnson discusses how creative businesses can turn sustainability into opportunity

Launched to reward the use of creativity for social good, D&AD’s White Pencil has articulated the ambitions of a new generation of design and advertising talent. It has sent a message and sparked a movement: creative thought for social change.

Above and beyond the award and this year’s Peace One Day brief, I believe the White Pencil is a barometer for deeper shifts within our culture, our economy and our industry. These shifts will create exciting new roles and opportunities for us as creative practitioners, but will challenge us to embrace new concepts, skills and responsibilities.

Consumers are changing. They are becoming increasingly aware of the role that business and brands have played in creating many of the social, economic and environmental challenges we face. They are frustrated with business-as-usual responses and are connecting and collaborating to collectively demand more from their brands: more responsibility, more transparency, more humanity.

Brands are changing. Those brands progressive enough to respond pro-actively to these consumer trends are rapidly moving sustainability and social change (SCS) issues from the periphery of their communications plan to the beating heart of their business model. Brands that view SCS as an obligation will soon be overtaken by those that embrace it as an opportunity – an opportunity to recruit, motivate and retain staff; to build brand equity; to drive business growth.

Without even considering the emergence of brands and business models based on completely new economic principles (collaborative consumption, social innovation, shared value), the ripple effect is clear: consumers are changing, brands are changing, we must change.

Calls for advertising and design to be more responsible or sustainable have traditionally been based on moral arguments. Whilst valid, these arguments were easily trumped with reference to consumer choice or the benefits of economic growth. As a result, the justification for anything other than incremental change struggled to reach the boardroom.

However, we’re now looking at a hard-and-fast business case that demands a more radical response to SCS issues: a not-too-distant future in which the ability to innovate around SCS will decide which brands  successfully engage consumers, which agencies win business and which creatives get jobs.

Let’s rule out ignoring it from the outset. Creative businesses that cling fast to ‘business-as-usual’ will quickly lose relevance. A ‘clean’ supply chain is central to a sustainable brand and in the same way that the likes of Walmart will now reject suppliers if they don’t meet rigorous sustainability standards, we will soon have a situation in which brands will demand proof of ethical, responsible and sustainable practice from their agencies as a prerequisite to doing business.

Furthermore, let’s not fool ourselves that these credentials will relate only to internal practices such as environmental statements, employee welfare programmes and pro-bono schemes. Given that consumer trust is both a brand’s greatest and most quickly diminishing asset, agencies will have to develop new ways of relating to consumers as human beings whilst ensuring their work is ethically water tight in its messaging and cultural references.

We are already seeing signs that the more progressive brands, who are already embracing SCS as an opportunity for innovation, are pulling away from their agencies, frustrated at a lack of synergy, sensitivity and creativity around these issues. If we lose the brands, we lose the business.

Beyond ignoring SCS altogether, we have two options that differ in subtle but important ways. We could respond to the challenge, reluctantly drag ourselves up the agenda, ticking boxes along the way. Or we could do what we do… and get creative. We could embrace the opportunity, use these emerging trends as a springboard for innovation, creating new forms of value for clients, new revenue streams for agencies and a new relevance for the role of creative practitioner.

As a species we are facing some of the most urgent social, environmental and economic challenges in our history. The consequences of this are that, as an industry and as creative practitioners, we will soon be staring at fresh, complex challenges closer to home. In both cases, creativity and innovation will become essential for survival. And who is better placed to rise to this challenge than us, the global creative community?

Steven Johnson is director of social research and design company Collaborative Change, founder of the Considered Creative project and a D&AD trustee. He works directly on social change projects and collaborates with design and advertising teams to incorporate SCS issues into agency practice. The announcement of the winner of the first ever D&AD White Pencil takes place on November 27 2012 at the White Pencil Symposium. The Symposium marks the launch of a series of gatherings. It will bring together global thought leaders from agencies, brands and beyond and set the tone of a conversation that is just getting started. Chair: Steven Johnson. Speakers: Paul Bennett, chief creative officer and a managing partner at IDEO; Freya Williams, co-founder and global head of strategy of OgilvyEarth; David Jones, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide and One Young World; Marc Mathieu, VP of marketing, Unilever. For more information on the White Pencil go to

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