Using Creativity as a Weapon in the Fight for Global Sustainability

It is that time of year. Trends large and small decorate naughty and nice listicles. 2018 has been a stressful year for the marketing industry, as it has for the real world. But there are positive signs that give me hope for our shared future.

2018 saw the introduction of the most significant prize in the Cannes Lions pride. The Sustainable Development Goals Lions “celebrate creative problem solving, solutions or other initiatives that harness creativity and seek to positively impact the world.” With an unexpected 898 entries in its first year, it is clear that creativity is an important weapon in the journey to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Powering deeds, not words, this is a kind of creativity that is different from old school CSR comms. A tiny Micronesian island was the first nation to build environmental protection into tourists visas. The Palau Pledge won the inaugural Sustainable Development Goals Grand Prix (and a boatload of other awards) as it changed immigration policy.

It is an ingenious idea. And unlike an ad slogan or travel poster, one that others could adopt.

Another example of innovative activism won the PR and Design Grand Prix. Trash Isles lobbied the UN to recognize the giant mass of plastic waste in the Pacific as a country. What a brilliant way to bring attention to a serious problem that no individual country can solve. In 10 years of studying the PR Lions, I think this is the first time an entry in the Public Affairs and Lobbying sub-category smashed through to the top award. Yet, given the serious nature of PA work, this is where creativity is needed the most.

Non-profit organizations are also showing the way. Norad, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, is shining a light on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Working with the inventive H+K team in Oslo, they created ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Night Trek’. This is a unique hiking trail up one of Norway’s beautiful mountains. Consisting of 17 light installations representing the SDGs, it literally illuminates the need to work together to achieve these goals by 2030.

Cause marketing has always done well in awards shows. But the growing trend to align with the SDGs isn’t driven by CMOs wanting to win more gongs. Corporations like Procter & Gamble (an H+K client) recognize it makes good business sense.

The smart people at Cannes didn’t invent the movement for brands to align their sustainability actions with the SDGs. I am proud that H+K is in advance of this trend. Better Impact™ was launched in 2017 to help our clients identify which of the 17 goals most align with their company’s performance, stakeholder values and purpose. It is something that corporations in all sectors are doing, as the architecture of the SDGs encourages partnerships and collaboration.

I am also proud that H+K is supporting WPP Common Ground in the quest to achieve SDG: 5 Gender Equality. Creativity can help gender balance the world, which in turn will fuel progress on ending poverty and other vital goals.

Even if they don’t explicitly call out an SDG, brands are using their influence to stand up for values such as gender equality. Diageo’s global CMO, Syl Saller, recently challenged her agencies to submit their statistics on gender diversity and pay gaps. As painful as those figures are, I applaud companies publicly using their power to make change happen faster.

As a Cannes jury member for the PR Lions, I saw first-hand that brands have well and truly accepted the challenge to act as a force for good. But it is about action not just awareness. “Tears are not enough” was a saying we coined in the jury room as we reviewed case after case addressing serious issues.

I can’t wait to see what’s entered in the SDG Lions for 2019. Not just to be inspired by the visionary ideas, but as a window on real change happening worldwide. In 2018, €323,280 from the SDG Lions entry fees were donated by Cannes Lions to projects advised by the UN. Let’s triple that for every new year until 2030.

This article was cross-posted on LinkedIn