Work imitating Ads imitating Work

We wear our professions like a badge. “What do you do?” is one of the first small talk questions you encounter. It’s another speedy way of imposing a ranking order on everyone we meet, now that society has abandoned that handy class system.

If you work in advertising for example, you can expect a range of reactions to this answer, varying from those who imagine you work in a martini-fuelled den of unbridled creativity, to those who look at you through a Bill Hicks veil of contempt.

In agencies, we often talk about the effect that an advertising campaign has on our target consumers. Less often however, do we talk about the effect of advertising on the lives of the people who work for these companies. Given that where you work, can be such potent defining characteristic of who people think you are – we don’t consider this angle with anything like enough weight.

Last week’s IPA talk on supermarkets offered us a compelling example of this from Tesco and their iconic line “Every Little Helps”. The effectiveness case study charted the evolution of the supermarket from a pile’em high fairly downmarket grocery store to a pioneering business always focused on putting the customer first, as illustrated by their “Dotty” Ads. The positive transformation was tangible. It affected sales and brand image and carried right through to their ability to recruit staff. By shaping the cultural meaning of the Tesco brand, advertising helped make Tesco a workplace to be proud of.

Every Little Helps is clearly a fantastic advertising idea, and clearly a mantra which could shape an organisational culture. But the inevitable question was raised by the audience – which came first? Did the advertising change the internal culture, or did it just reflect the changes which were already happening? The honest answer from Paul Hackett of Red Brick Road, was “Both”. Tesco had already started to make small but significant changes to how they operated, a strategy which the agency picked up on and reflected in the sentiment of the advertising. This mirror was then held up to the public, influencing how both the customers and the staff viewed the supermarket. Staff became proud to work there and proud staff do the best work.

In other words, the Advertising created a positive feedback loop.

Without overstating it then, advertising can potentially do so much more than merely showcase products. It can actually impact on the fundamentals of your business. It can increase staff pride, create a sense of common purpose, motivate and inspire. If you run a business where staff performance is the difference between success and failure (and as we move into post-industrial sectors, this will always be the case), workplace brand image matters. Advertising has the potential to go beyond marketing strategy and fuel a cultural company movement. And as everyone knows, in any organisation, when strategy is up against culture, culture wins every time.

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