Cutthroat, challenging, lucrative; just three words that can be used to describe the advertising industry. But there is one company striving to break the mould – Ethical Media Sales & Marketing, whose director, Michael York, told Alex Blackburne about his vision.
Advertising is a relentlessly profitable business. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, in the first half of 2012, the UK spent the most it’s ever spent on six months’ worth of digital advertisements, with £2.6 billion thrown into marketing products and services – up 12.6%.
And that’s not all. Mobile advertising rocketed 132% to £181.5m; video rose 43% to £69.8m and banners in social media shot up 36% to £134.2m.
Globally, some $506.3 billion (£315.9 billion) is predicted to be spent on advertising this year. The world of advertising is clearly expanding.
Surely, then, it won’t be long before the personally-tailored ads from Minority Report are being installed in shopping centres? Indeed, in February last year, the BBC reported that these kind of adverts – which speak directly to the consumer (“John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now!”) – are not just a mere pipedream.
It could be argued that this increased ad spend is just another sign of a progressively consumerist society. But there is a dark side, too.
In April 2010, a well-documented explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig saw 20m gallons of oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Shares in the company swiftly plummeted, and chief executive Tony Hayward resigned from his position as a result, followed two years later – somewhat belatedly – by the chair of BP’s safety committee, Sir William Castell.
But in the three months after the disaster, the oil giant spent $93m (£58m) on advertising. According to the US House of Representatives’ energy committee, this was “to keep Gulf Coast residents informed of issues relating to the oil spill and recovery and to ensure transparency during the recovery process”. An example of such an advert can be found here. “We will get this done. We will make this right”, Hayward says at the end of the video, after narrating over images of BP’s clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.
But this kind of advertising confuses the viewer. Despite the fact that what they’re seeing is in effect a public information film rather than a product advertisement, by focusing on the more positive angle of BP’s determination to make amends for the disaster, the viewer is led to conveniently forget that it was BP that actually caused the catastrophe in the first place.
It’s all an attempt to make the company seem like a responsible global firm, not the environmentally damaging, profit-driven conglomerate that it actually is.
This is the cutthroat nature of advertising. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and indeed, one man is on a mission to transform the industry for the better. Michael York has set up Ethical Media Sales & Marketing (EMSM) – an advertising sales agency that he set up to sell space in progressive, environmental and ethical media, to the market known as ethical consumers.
Having worked in marketing for global justice title, the New Internationalist, for many years – a role he still spends half of his time undertaking – York founded EMSM earlier this year.
“I saw a bit of a gap in the market and thought I could set something up to try and sell advertising in a different way”, he says.
“I know exactly how it works; I knew what I liked about the way certain people worked and I knew what I disliked about other things, so I just wanted to do advertising sales in a much more upfront and honest way, and work especially with small groups to try and get their marketing to actually work and be cost effective.”
When York has his New Internationalist hat on, he runs the marketing for various ethical mail order shops such as Amnesty and Friends of the Earth. For the EMSM side of his work, he sells the advertising space in a range of environmental and political titles, including the Friends of the Earth membership magazine called Earthmatters; the Centre for Alternative Technology; a couple of Soil Association titles; Red Pepper; the New Internationalist and a vast website called openDemocracy.
“As well as having a highly targeted group of over 100,000 print readers and 500,000 web readers, EMSM’s unique selling point is the fact that I know the ethical market inside out”, York explains.
“The way I live my life in terms of the things I do and the things I consume are exactly the sort of things that I am trying to sell within the media I represent. I’m incredibly comfortable talking to the charity world, organic food producers, car clubs and educational establishments that might be marketing development or environmental courses. It’s just where I’m coming from, so I just feel that I don’t appear like a typical kind of annoying advertising sales person when I’m talking to people.”
But whilst many advertising agencies will fight tooth and nail to seal a certain deal or get the best possible price for another, EMSM’s attitude is much more liberal – insofar that profit isn’t its primary driver. Instead, client satisfaction and impact of advertisements are at the top of its agenda.
I’m keen to make things work for people, rather than quickly making my commission and then dropping it – Michael York, EMSM
“The worst thing for me is to force somebody to spend some money on something you don’t think is going to work, and that’s what’s happening so much in the advertising world –making money quickly and people getting commission and agency discounts when they’re a media buyer, and the whole thing is quite wrong”, laments York.
“I want to do it in a different way, and I’m hoping that that’s coming across with everybody I’m talking to, and that I can have a good relationship with the publishers so I can actually come back and say that a certain campaign for a small charity, for example, really hasn’t worked, so we should perhaps give them a bit of free web space or a free e-news space or something.”
“I’m keen to make things work for people, rather than quickly making my commission and then dropping it.”
Moving away from advertising, the media world is often not much more ethical. Doorstopping and so-called ‘death knocks’ are common practice – especially in the tabloid press – while phone hacking has cast a very dark shadow over certain newspapers – most notably The News of the World, which was forced to close down last year because of the outrage surrounding its involvement in the scandal.
Lord Justice Leveson, whose much-reported inquiry looked into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press”, is due to publish a report on the matter later this year, with media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s vast empire expected to take an almighty hit. His son James currently sits on the BSkyB board, and responsible investment campaigners FairPensions today launched a campaign to oust him from the organisation altogether.
It’s clearly a hot topic, so in line with this, Blue & Green Tomorrow’s final guide of 2012 is on responsible media. But does this term actually exist or is it an oxymoron?
“Responsible media for me means honest media that is trying to tell the truth. Real Stories from real people”, York describes.
“It’s not set up purely to make money; it’s set up to tell stories and report on news that’s worthwhile. All the titles I represent will be environmental titles, social justice titles or political titles, and all coming from where I believe things should be written about and reported on. Journalism is at the heart of the publication rather than advertising.”
“I would turn down media that came to me that I didn’t believe in what they were writing about. Also, if I were approached tomorrow by Shell to try and do a bit of greenwashing in the New Internationalist – very unlikely, I know – then I would know that both me and the publisher would want to turn them down.”
“Even a national newspaper like The Guardian has got to make compromises and will take advertising that you know its owner really wouldn’t agree with, but they’ve just got to meet those targets and sell advertising space.”
“I’m always flicking through the New Statesman to see what advertising it’s getting, to see if there’s anything I should be thinking about, and I am quite appalled by the McDonalds adverts, the car adverts, the British Nuclear Fuel adverts and so on. I can’t believe my eyes when I see a multinational oil advert from a company that is ripping apart the Canadian landscape to extract fuel from tar sands backed by a British bank who is supposedly owned by the British public. It depresses me – that’s exactly where I don’t want to be.”
And that brings us to an altogether more contentious issue. Companies across the world have latched onto the growing concern for the environment by turning to greenwashing – making their products, services and business appear more environmentally-friendly (or less environmentally-harmful) than they in fact are.
This is a devious and deeply worrying trend, but luckily, it’s fairly easy to spot. A quick Google search for a company’s environmental record is sure to uncover any would-be greenwashers. Greenpeace set up StopGreenwash.org in order to try and expose companies that fall foul of the practice, while organisations like the Carbon Disclosure Project release in-depth statistics relating to the carbon footprint of many of the world’s biggest firms. However, being exposed usually does little to stop greenwashing occurring.
“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth”, said the late American advertising guru Bill Bernbach. But sadly, that mantra is oft-forgotten in media circles nowadays.
But what of the future? In which direction does Michael York see the advertising industry heading in? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? An imminent shift, perhaps. Or is the advertising world destined to continue on a road seemingly lacking in morals and ethics forever?
“It will just depend on what people are prepared to pay, in terms of placing those adverts. If it’s working for those advertisers, then it will just continue”, York predicts.
“I think there is a definite growing demand for an alternative way of life and things that make a difference, like car clubs, local organic food or fairly traded clothing. I hope that consumer power will force the people that are running the big media companies to make different decisions, to push these kinds of advertisers a little bit more, and maybe give these advertisers slightly better deals than the big multinationals that have got all the money to throw at a brand. So that advertising isn’t just about making money, it’s about promoting useful services or products that don’t harm our world.”