Long before brands like Dove and Gillette were tackling social issues to differentiate their products in the marketplace, the nonprofit Ad Council leveraged the power of mass media to shift attitudes and behaviors around an array of important topics. From Smokey Bear’s pleas to prevent forest fires to the memorable reminder that “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” the Ad Council has been a steady force in the use of public service messages to drive positive social change.
As president and CEO of the Ad Council since 2014, Lisa Sherman has upheld the organization’s legacy of harnessing media to tackle prominent issues of the day, such as the opioid crisis, gun safety, suicide prevention, STEM for girls, and diversity and inclusion.
“For the past 75 years, we have been leveraging the talents, the resources, and the generosity of the communications industry to take on the most important issues facing the country,” she says. “The industry really provides its services and talents pro bono, so it’s quite an extraordinary contribution that it’s making to society.”
The ANA Center for Brand Purpose spoke with Sherman on a range of topics, including how the Ad Council partners with companies and what it takes to lead an effective purpose-based campaign.
Q. How do your campaigns typically come about?
Ideas for campaigns come to us in a number of ways. We have an advisory committee made up of researchers, educators, and public policy folks who focus on studying emerging trends and issues. They advise us on the most critical issues of the day, and they help us determine if communications can effectively move the needle on those issues.
We’re about galvanizing the public to change behaviors to improve their lives, or the lives of their families and communities. A campaign has to go through a filter, and it has to have a specific call to action and a very targeted audience, which is Communications 101. We are a non-partisan organization, so while some of these issues are politicized, we don’t do any legislative advocacy. And, in some cases, companies will come to us because they are doubling down on issues like climate change and sustainability and they want to see if they can work on it collectively with the Ad Council.
Q. So companies will offer to work with you to amplify their own work around an issue?
Exactly. Purpose-driven marketing has become an important part of many brands’ focus, and we’re lucky enough that many of those brands come to us to partner on issues. Our “Love Has No Labels” campaign, for example, has 10 brands funding the effort, because diversity and inclusion are important to them and fundamental to their values. Collectively, they feel that all boats can rise if we work on something together. These companies include Bank of America, Budweiser, The Coca-Cola Company, Google, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, P&G, State Farm, Unilever, and Wells Fargo.
We have a coalition around our STEM work that includes a group of amazing brands that care deeply about this issue, including Bloomberg, GE, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, and IF/THEN, an initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
We also have a coalition that’s formed around our bullying-prevention efforts, and we are focused on a number of other issues, including climate change, where we have a number of brands involved.
Q. What is expected of the companies that are in these coalitions?
One expectation is that they help fund the effort. While an agency provides all the strategy and creative on a pro bono basis, we still need funds for production, distribution, research, and more. After that, the brands help activate the campaigns. They have become media entities in and of themselves, and they’re helping to activate with employees internally, as well as pushing it out to all of their platforms.
For Love Has No Labels, for example, a lot of the brands help activate the campaign around different moments in the year. Many of the brands will have an activation for Pride Month, and they’ll use the assets from the campaign to help get the message out. P&G created social graphics co-branded with Love Has No Labels with the line “Labels are for Products, Not for People,” and its employees marched in Pride parades in co-branded t-shirts. Bank of America had pop up banners, ATM screens, social content, and other collateral that featured the line, “Bank on Love.” These were ways of personalizing the campaign and making it relevant to their brands and their companies and employees.
Q. Which Ad Council campaigns are you particularly proud of?
On average, we have more than 30 different campaigns in the market at any given time. We recently had a campaign focused on gun safety, taking on the fact that eight kids per day are killed or injured in their home because a gun was not secured properly. We’ve tackled the issue of breast cancer with a campaign targeting African-American women, who sadly are dying from breast cancer at a rate 40 percent higher than white women. We launched a campaign focused on STEM education for young girls, who are dropping out of STEM subjects around middle school; we are highlighting women role models who are doing very cool things in STEM. And we launched a new iteration of our diversity and inclusion effort, Love Has No Labels, which challenges viewers to consider why it takes a disaster to bring us together.
Q. Which campaigns have surprised you?
We’ve had a number of great wins. When we launched Love Has No Labels on Valentine’s Day 2015, I experienced something going viral for the first time. We did an installation on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica where we had an X-ray screen, and behind the screen, all you saw were skeletons. They were hugging and dancing, and eventually those people behind screens emerged and, when you saw them, they were very unexpected couples, families, and friends. In that moment of looking at the skeletons, everyone had conjured up their own notion of who was behind the screen, so the element of surprise was shocking and caught everyone’s imagination to the point where people started spreading the message around the internet. I remember I kept hitting refresh on my computer, and by the end of the second day, we were over 40 million views. A week later it had gone around the world and everyone was talking about it, because it was a moment in time in culture when this idea was so resonant.
Q. What are the key ingredients of an effective purpose-driven campaign?
For any company that’s thinking about doing this, the issues they take on and how they approach it have to be authentic to who they are. It has to be core to their values as an organization. Because two-thirds of millennials and gen Zers expect brands to take a stand, they have expectations for authenticity. They understand when someone’s talking the talk or walking the walk. It has to be authentic, and it has to be something the brand is going to take on for the long haul. A company can’t just be in and out of an issue, because that negates the notion of authenticity. If you care about climate change or diversity or ending poverty, you can’t do that in one round of creative. You have to show up at every touchpoint possible to demonstrate your commitment to that issue over time.
Q. What are the key differences between marketing around a social issue or cause and marketing a brand or product?
I would have said five years ago that the approach to selling a product or putting together a public service effort would be quite different, but because of this coming together of purpose and purpose-driven marketing, the lines are very blurred. The basic tenets of moving people emotionally to get them to do something — to buy a product or get a mammogram — they’re the same. It gets down to a great insight, well-done creative, and narrative storytelling that moves hearts and minds. It’s hard to do, but it’s that basic.
Q. What does it take to lead an effective campaign internally?
Number one, it’s creating an environment where people are not afraid to share their thoughts and ideas. The people closest to the work need to have a voice in how they do the work. Traditional legacy organizations in the past were very top-down-driven, with a lot of the decision making centered in the hands of a few people. For us to be nimble and get to market fast, we have to drive that down through the organization. And you have to have a culture where people aren’t afraid to take risks. People are always afraid of making a mistake, but I like to think mistakes are never fatal, they’re just feedback. To the extent that we can learn and iterate, we’re always going to do better when we try something new and it doesn’t work, because we’re going to get feedback about how to make it better.
Q. Which companies are serving as role models when it comes to combining social messages with their brands?
I fundamentally believe that brands can be a force for good and a force for growth. There are so many companies that are doing that. Marc Pritchard at Procter & Gamble is an unbelievable leader and has taken on big issues like sustainability, diversity, and inclusion. Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman, who recently stepped down, was not afraid to be very clear that his investments in taking on some of the world’s biggest issues were going to be good for shareholders and profits in the long run, even if they might not be in the short run. He was willing to take that risk because he understood that he was playing the long game. I admire Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia. That company is very focused on the environment and outdoors, and when it received a $10 million break in its taxes because of the Trump tax cut, she decided to take that money and give it to organizations on the ground working on climate change.
The common thread for all these companies is that they’re putting their money where their mouth is. They are saying, “My business is going to be better because my customers are going to make purchasing decisions based on shared beliefs.” If we have shared beliefs, that’s going to be better for business. It’s about being authentic and true to those core values.
Q. What kinds of organizational and strategic changes have you focused on at the Ad Council?
One of the things we’ve been focused on is digital transformation. How do we leverage technology for good? How do we tap into an Alexa skill, as we did for our food waste campaign by helping someone who wants to know the best way to preserve asparagus and make their foods last longer? Or how do we use a technology like VR to allow somebody to be in the shoes of someone else and have empathy around feeling different, or how do we use Snapchat filters for bullying prevention, or chat bots about the importance of voting? There are so many tools available that we want to leverage in order to drive impact for the issues we take on.
We’re also focusing on media and the messengers. Celebrities were always great messengers, but now we have all these amazing influencers on social media who have massive followings, and who can talk to their fans and communicate truly important messages. We created a program called Creators for Good, where we have hundreds of creators who all care about important social issues and who have adopted our campaigns and are helping to create content and sharing our messages on their channels and platforms. So far, we’ve had over 200 partnerships with talent on behalf of critical social issues.
Q. How do you see the work of the Ad Council evolving in the future?
With the power of technology as we know it today, with things like AI and 5G, there’s an opportunity to do more experimentation. You can go into a market with a specific message for a specific audience based on data analytics, and then test things in real time, iterate, and then scale it up. Leveraging the tools available to us will allow us to be more effective at reaching the right people with the right message in the right place at the right time for the outcomes we’re hoping for.