Purpose At Work: How Ad Council Partnerships Elevate Brands And Social Impact

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The most powerful media inspires, motivates and brings us together around issues that matter. Companies that join cultural conversations and build movements carve out a competitive advantage. They foster consumer relationships that go deeper than transactional exchanges. While a novel concept decades ago, purpose is now a core component of what consumers expect from the brands they do business with.

Since 1942, the Ad Council has been working with companies, as well as nonprofits and government organizations, to manifest behavior change. “It’s not a brand first message,” Laurie Keith, VP of Media, Social & Emerging at Ad Council, tells We First.

“We work in the donated media space. We can’t put Coca-Cola at the end of a campaign. Media companies won’t just run it for free. Yet, we have seen a lot of success with brands.

One example is our ‘Love Has No Labels’ campaign. Coca Cola, Pepsi, State Farm, Allstate, P&G, Unilever, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and all these competing companies came together. They said, ‘We will fund this campaign. We will remove our labels in support of diversity and inclusion in our country.’ When we launched the campaign, they all removed their labels on social media for that day.”

Keith says that a campaign can run anywhere from $200,000 for a digital first initiative to $2 million for a national campaign. “We’ll go out and find funding from brands, foundations or VC firms.” The Ad Council is increasingly practicing this funding model. Brands pay for a social good campaign rather than seeking money from nonprofits.

You might ask, ‘Why would a company donate money to an advertising campaign that doesn’t show their label or market their products?’

The ‘Love Has No Labels’ campaign won an Emmy, garnering earned media for all contributors. The companies got to use the iconography and branding in their own marketing materials. By putting your cause first, you show consumers that you’re part of a movement that’s bigger than your brand or industry. That builds goodwill, trust and loyalty.

How Collaboration Drives Impact

Collaboration is a big part of the Ad Council’s media strategy and goes beyond company donations. The organization works with an Advisory Council. It’s composed of researchers, executives, philanthropists, teachers, doctors, scientists and other experts.

“We have four focus areas; health, safety, family/community and education,” Keith explains. “The issue has to get approved and vetted by the Council. They consider things like national importance. ‘Would we actually see the needle move on this issue from a communications campaign?’”

Once approved, the Council approaches experts to understand the nuances of the issue. “We hone in on one or two golden pieces of insight that we turn into a creative brief and send to our agency partners,” Keith says.

The Ad Council’s 120 or so team members act as researchers, idea generators, PR reps and facilitators. “We’re doing a lot of outsourcing to our partners too,” Keith says. It’s partly the gig economy. It’s partly not carrying the overhead. It’s partly being agile to move with the marketplace. I think we’ll see that even more with COVID-19.”

While the organization pays for production costs, they partner with top U.S. advertising agencies who do pro bono creative work. Before creative goes to production, it’s filtered through the Creative Review Committee. The Committee consists of top CMO’s and Chief Creative Officers. It’s then presented to media companies, who donate the airspace.

“A lot of the companies we work with, like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple and Pinterest, do annual planning. We meet with them towards the end of the year to discuss the top priorities and the issues they want to donate media against,” Keith says. “Sometimes they’re in-house teams, like Facebook’s Creative Shop, developing custom creative for their platform.”

To assess performance, The Ad Council runs A-B testing, measures site traffic and monitors KPIs. “Between brands and media companies, creative agencies, nonprofits, government agencies and talent, it’s like everyone comes together to get the message out there. It’s not every day that Google and Facebook discuss how we’re going to tackle an issue like xenophobia.”

How To Choose The Right Social Good Campaign

Even with four focus areas, it can be difficult to pinpoint the causes that need most attention. “Right now we have about 40 campaigns. We took on coronavirus efforts. There’s like 22 campaigns under that umbrella. We just announced that we’re going to distribute work from Black Lives Matter. It’s a lot,” Keith confides.

“We’re thinking about scaling back on the number of national campaigns and focusing more on issues like social justice. We want to tackle this and commit on the long term.”

The legacy media organization also offers counseling services. It recently launched the Ad Council Edge program. The initiative is geared towards small nonprofits and startups dedicated to social good. “Maybe they are just starting. Maybe they’ve been around for a while, but want to get into social good. We help them with anything from information to full fledged ad council campaigns.”

What Makes An Effective Social Good Campaign

Whether you’re new to social good marketing or you’ve been tackling social issues for decades, it’s important to review what makes a successful campaign.

“Identify the cause,” Keith advises. “Make sure it’s not a one-off. Talk to the top issue experts. Sometimes brands miss the mark and come out with something that’s tone deaf or isn’t rooted in the issue.”

“The research is really important. Align yourself with the right content creators. Make sure the production company understands how to tell the story. Ensure the talent is actually passionate about the cause. In fact, try to find talent that cares so much they will do it for free. You can reach out to them anytime that you want. Feeding America has done a beautiful job at that. They call it the Celebrity Council.”

The Ad Council’s collaborative approach offers lessons for brands looking to scale their impact and message. Build alliances around social issues. Finding a common goal. Leverage your skills and synergies to accelerate awareness, engagement and impact.

Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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