Panic at the sustainability briefing: how to really make a difference with your advertising

Author and copywriter Glenn Fisher on how to break the cycle of imitation

Wait, I suddenly thought. Making a difference — is this a sustainability thing?

A huge number of clients these days keep asking me to ‘ramp up the sustainability’ or ‘bring the ESG messaging front and centre’? Perhaps that’s what’s meant by ‘making a difference’.

I panicked. I wondered if my idea was wrong. You see, my immediate thought was to write about how — as a copywriter, a marketer, a business owner, whatever you call yourself — when it comes to writing about making a difference, you should look inside. My idea was to write about how we should put the onus on ourselves as creatives. To me, making a difference means making a difference to the ideas I have, the research I do, the copy I write, so that my messaging is original enough to, in some small way, make a difference, be that in behaviour, sales, or even — yes — sustainability.

Quick confession: though I think it’s important to live in a sustainable way (I mean, we really have effed everything up folks—it’s time to change), I don’t agree with the current trend in the world of advertising and marketing to ‘big up’ the sustainability messaging. It’s like when banks advertise to ‘show their human side’—the fact you need to evidence your humanity means the problem runs a lot deeper. Adverts that display loveable, waist-coated bank clerks kicking a ball back to a bunch of kids are only more evidence of systematic failings that aren’t likely being addressed at the core. Same with sustainability. An advert by some big petrol company saying it’s pledging a tree a month to the local park is only an exercise in emergency PR. Sustainability is only achieved through being sustainable: not creating an ad that looks nice, features a sentimental Coldplay song, and wins at Cannes.

But then I got thinking, or rather, I got connecting.

It’s what you’re really paid to do as a copywriter: connect ideas. And I started to realise that my initial thought, that to make a difference as a copywriter can only be achieved by focusing on your own abilities and seeking ways to improve your creative thinking, is in fact connected to the whole drive to increase sustainability messaging. How? Well, as all the lazy copywriters like to say: let me explain…

As I’m sure you’ve noticed yourself, this whole sustainability thing has become cliché. It’s already as old as the oil we’ve overused. But why? Simple answer is because everyone is looking around at the advertising everyone else is doing and saying: Hey, they’re bigging up sustainability in X way, we need to do the same. And so, from their office on high, the suits create the universal brief: big up sustainability, they say. Naughty suits, right? But wait! Hold your scorn. Because this is where we come in. Us creatives receive this generic, fear-driven, all-aboard-the-bandwagon brief and what do we do? We look around at what others are doing and we do the same so that the suits are appeased. Alas, we are as guilty as the suits.

Cue anodyne and almost identical copy finding its way onto websites, hoardings and two-pages spreads up and down the country. Nay: all around the world. Awards must be given to someone, so awards go to the best of a bad bunch of the most well-designed pieces that look nice but, in reality, do little to ‘make a difference’. It’s a vicious circle.

So, how do we break out of the circle? How do we as creatives ‘make a difference’?

As my gut told me before I got bogged down by sustainability paranoia: you must turn the focus back on to yourself as a creative. You must up your game. You must realise that the only way you can create better advertising and really make a difference is by pushing back against the easy imitation option. You must use your creative skills to illuminate a potentially different path for the client—never forget those poor suits are only trying to do their best.

Truth is — and I’m sure there’s some Zen Buddha out there who’s articulated this a whole lot better than me in the past (or maybe Ogilvy wrote a memo about it. Anyway…) — all change must come from within. And so, whether it’s writing about sustainability — or any other trendy touch point — regardless of what it is you’re being asked to advertise, if you want your copy to make a difference — whatever that might mean to you — the most important thing you can do is invest in and ‘big up’ your own creativity.

Featured image: Patagonia

Glenn Fisher

Glenn Fisher is the author of The Art of the Click and host of The Fix. You can find out more at

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