Last week I was lucky enough to sit on the D&AD White Pencil jury. I was with a terrific group of judges, judging the work I care most about - work that is here to do good. We looked at a vast amount of entries from around the world and figured a few things out in the process. I wanted to share some reflections on a hugely thought-provoking week.
Good is happening at scale. The number of entries to the White Pencil category was double the entry of last year. It’s a great thing. Yes, it meant a lot more judging, which meant exposure to a lot of work that was powerful and often harrowing, which was sometimes emotionally exhausting. But ultimately it was uplifting, because on display were hundreds of pieces of fabulously smart thinking and creative invention from the hearts of NGOs and mostly from the hearts of for-profit brands who were embracing the social call.
In the twin realms of design and communication, good is happening at scale. For brands looking for new relevance, for the creative industry looking for a legitimate canvas, and for the world, that’s the best possible news.
NGOs: increasingly armed Davids to fell their Goliaths
When a small NGO uses wit and cunning to bring down a big brand or trip up a gargantuan social evil, it’s just wonderful. There were some fantastic examples on display this year, showing a really smart grasp of production, technology and social media in order to floor their Goliath.
For example, the way Greenpeace used their perfectly created “Everything Is Not Awesome” spot with social media pressure to persuade Lego to stop its Shell-branded merchandise. Or the way that citizens of Wunsiedel used and confused an annual neo-Nazi march through their village by setting up a pledge mechanism that made a donation to a fascist reform charity for every yard the march progressed. It meant the neo-Nazis raised money against themselves, and is one of the most deliciously ingenuous ideas I’ve seen for a long while.
For-Profits: getting it more or less right
Although Lord Leverhulme’s mantra to “do well by doing good” is a century old, only recently have significant numbers of for-profit companies looked to reconcile what they do for their balance sheet with what they do for the world. As this translates to initiatives, these companies are exploring new ground, looking for the right balance between doing and saying, between supporting a cause and using it. And as these initiatives translate to design and communication, these companies are having to find new balances between despair and hope, sincerity and mawkishness, worthiness and entertainment.
Last week, for the most part, we saw companies getting it right. A handful of entries felt way more self-serving than world-serving, and were roundly rejected by the judges. A handful of entries were great initiatives short on execution, lacking the creative clothes to make them compelling stories of good. But outnumbering those outliers were entries in which the company was genuinely committed to the cause and telling their story with power and flair. Sport England’s This Girl Can, Buick’s human traffic signs, Burger King’s Proud Whopper, Always’ Like A Girl, G-Star’s For The Oceans range: all terrific initiatives with great executions, using budgets and reach to take their causes to the world, showing the world’s for-profits the way.
British for-profits: where were you?
With its Global headquarters in London, Unilever is the shining example of a company that is linking its fortunes with those of the world. But the translation to execution was not there this year from Unilever, and other British for-profits were barely at the party with most of the judge’s favourite examples coming from the United States, China and the Far East.
Maybe British companies and their agencies have not yet realised the new rule of cut-through marketing: you make vastly stronger connections with your audience when you care about the same things that they care about. It’s a bold step but it’s one that British companies need to take, and quickly, to serve themselves and the society they are part of.
Climate change: too little change
From both NGOs and profits, we saw a tremendous amount of invention. But most of it centred around improving the human condition and precious little around helping to address the increasingly bedraggled state of the environment. With scientists agreeing that climate change is coming harder and faster than we feared, we need Unilever’s Project Sunlight plus irresistibly brilliant communication multiplied by a hundred to tackle the most serious problem of all: overconsumption.
While every little helps, what we saw last week - messages grown in grass and recycling schemes based on potato printed bags or cardboard boxes - felt drawn from an old idiom rather than a brave new one; one that can arrest us, provoke us and seduce us all into doing something to create a sustainable life for the generations that will come after us. The search goes on.
Good is all you need
It was great to be asked to judge the White Pencil. It was also fortunate. I would not - could not - judge any other category. For me, those other categories largely serve the interest of the agency or writer or designer or business; advancing their salary or profile or reputation. It has some worth, helping to sharpen our skills, but it is not the end. The end is to take our sharpened skills and use them to persuade the world of better things. That is the only end worth aiming for.
I applaud D&AD for the White Pencil category; for staging and promoting it earnestly and thoroughly. Having said that, I hope they will go further next year. I hope they will exclude entries from brands who are structurally bad (oil companies, tobacco companies, betting shops) even if they do some initiatives that do some good. I hope they will create a different set of White Pencil sub-categories to define and attract different stages and levels of pro-social excellence.
And most of all, I hope they will state that Black Pencil winners (winners of the ultimate accolade) can only come from those who win a White Pencil first. For me, there is no creative excellence without social contribution. If we could all be persuaded of that, there is no end to the good we could do.