I’ve only sold one thing. Time.
I know I’m not alone. Between the ad agencies, PR firms, media buying and digital shops, there’s at least 200,000 others around the world just like me. We use urgent sounding words and witty acronyms to describe what we do. Spend endless hours parsing our differences. Fundamentally, we all sell the same thing. Our time.
In the late nineties, just as my agency career was starting, I was engaged in a debate with my senior leadership team about which emerging trend to focus on. Where should we focus our time in order to grow our business further?
Our Creative Director strongly advocated for us to hone our chops in branding. I was captivated by the growing body of work led by BSR.org and the broader trends around corporate social responsibility. While neither of these trends were new – both had been part of the communications and marketing vocabulary for a stretch – they were rapidly rising forces. I made a dent, but the expanding dot com bubble pulled us down the branding path. We maintained a CSR “practice,” but we joined a crowded field of other agencies looking to sell our available hours as brand building specialists.
A vast majority of agencies made similar decisions in their evolution. Today their revenue streams are largely dominated by the time sold helping clients in some aspect of brand management. While there are the occasional briefs and pockets of work with more of a purpose-driven rather than profit-driven focus, those remain on the margins in comparison.
For the most part, those 200,000 agency practitioners wake up each day, selling as much of their time as possible to help brands sell as many products as possible. At their disposal, a trillion dollar media budget and weaponized data targeting capabilities.
While I’ve accepted this truth for decades, the absurdity of it hit me hard during a recent kayak trip with an agency friend who needed to vent about his day. His client was looking for fresh ideas on how to make their food brand more synonymous with the upcoming holiday season. The brief was short fused, success metrics were set purely around increasing sales by a few points over the next few months.
My friend, like many I know in the agency community, is adept at flipping between a wide variety of industries and social topics with deep insight and wit. I listened to him describe the resources he and his team spent on this brief. Research, focus groups, endless bits of social blips and dizzying data. Lost hours in Zoomland.
I could tell by his recap of the work, it was of high quality. Which made this story even more sad once he told me the lead brand manager was terminated, replaced by a new one who then cancelled the brief. This story is so common for my agency peers that it’s among our most shared cliches.
Reflecting on this story as we floated down the Mississippi, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from a Buddhist Master – “how do you know how much time you have to waste?”
According to the current climate science we actually know: less than ten years and time is slipping away by the second. The changing climate will require the wholesale transformation of our social and economic structures. This transformation will either continue to be thrust upon us by fiery fits of climate rage, or we will take control as best we can and seize it for our advantage through schemes like the Green New Deal. Regardless of which path, one thing is certain — there is little time to spare.
There are plenty of hot takes regarding the what and why of climate change.
One can doom scroll their way through any day of the week and find enough jaw dropping data about the devastating impacts playing out IRL. As I write this, most of New Orleans is without power after the strongest hurricane in its history passed over its already battered city. However, what’s in short supply is the how of actually building a more sustainable climate future. Most know it’s coming, the majority get why it’s important, few have a handle on how we can truly reengineer our daily, local operating models to get and stay below 2oC.
We need to be spending far less time tinkering with small questions like how to brainwash people into buying just a little bit more product during the next holiday consumption cycle, and far more time building new systems that can protect our ability to enjoy future holidays at all.
#CancelBrands and all its various off-shoots is in the right ballpark but largely swings and misses. In the context of what every leading scientist confirms is our climate reality in the next decade, we need to stop wasting time shaming brands for whatever cultural crime they may commit. Instead we need to invest our time dismantling the branding industrial complex at its roots. We need to shift from growing short-term market share to ensuring long-term mass market survival. Transition all those bloated, overworked, lost hours in Zoomland, into creative, systems-minded innovation workshops. Funnel more of that trillion dollar media slush fund into food resiliency, waste prevention, energy and fuel transition projects, community-led safety or home stability initiatives. We need those bright minds, like my friend, who are adept at flipping between a wide variety of industries and social topics with deep insight and wit, to redirect their time away from “helping people buy stuff” and towards “helping people build better stuff.” We need to step back from propping up the convenience and consumption economy and center the construction of a new regenerative and resilient economy built on compassion and care.
This move is not only a better use of our time, it will give us something we need right now: a fair shot to get the next generation right. A key ingredient of successful branding is the mining and honing of insights. Those sharp statements of clarity that can help trigger an action.
It’s time we embrace the truest of all universal insights – brands are meaningless on a dying planet.
Written by Chris Chamberlin, President at Effect