Inspirational leaders – Stephen Woodford – The advertising industry must do more to drive real World change

We were thrilled that Stephen Woodford, grandee of the advertising world, who has held leadership roles at Leo Burnett, WCRS/Engine and DDB/adam&eveDDB, accepted our invitation to speak to Grace Blue as part of our series of Leadership talks.  An early advocate and campaigner for diversity in the industry, Stephen used his tenure as IPA President (2003-2005) as a platform to lead the industry’s first ethnic diversity initiative whilst also transforming its professional qualifications into an award-winning learning and development programme with over 35 courses.  Since 2017, Stephen has been CEO of The Advertising Association – the trade body which represents advertisers, agencies, media and research services in the UK advertising industry.  As an Executive Search Consultancy that specialises in this space, Grace Blue are always keen to gain insights into the current themes surrounding the industry at large and we asked Stephen to shine a light on the issues that are at the top of his agenda.

On climate change, Stephen believes passionately that the advertising industry must do more, and change at pace.  Employing over 300,000 people in the UK, it is estimated that the industry emits circa 1mn tonnes of carbon per annum (based on pre-COVID levels of travel).  He argues that we should be inspired by blue chips like Unilever and Sky, who despite having hugely complex supply chains, have made remarkable progress in reducing their carbon footprints.  He posed the question – is the advertising industry part of the problem or can it help towards finding a solution?  In an era where consumers are more than ever acting in socially responsible ways, it was no surprise to learn there is a trend for talent becoming increasingly uncomfortable working in an industry that encourages people to “buy more stuff”.

As a response to this, The Advertising Association has recently launched Ad Net Zero – a programme to lead the industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2030 and, most importantly, to use its power and voice to change behaviours as fast as possible.  Initiatives include advocating that businesses resist returning to pre-pandemic levels of travel (why fly there when you can zoom instead?), The Creative Energy scheme which encourages organisations to switch to green energy suppliers, and carbon offsetting.  Stephen championed WPP and the Purpose Disruptors #ChangeTheBrief initiative, a movement which is advocating that every output (be that a creative campaign or media plan) is used as an opportunity to encourage more sustainable behaviour in society through advertising, and use media and marketing investment to achieve this.  We were also encouraged to hear that by 2025, the UK Government have indicated that all businesses will need to be reporting on their emissions data with listed companies having been required to report on this since 2019. The combination of regulatory push and consumer pull will be transformational in every part of our economy in the coming years

The second major focus of The Advertising Association is diversity, and we were all heartened to learn about All In, a landmark cross-industry census, with results to be published in the summer, which will track and report on all facets of diversity every two years.  We all know the industry needs to make much more progress on all facets of diversity and inclusion, with even the government, via a House of Lords committee, having challenged it to attract and train more British people from diverse backgrounds.  So we asked Stephen – what are the easy wins that could help it on the road to changing this?  His answer was simple – start by bringing an end to routine where the sons and daughters, families and friends of those who work in the industry are increasingly forming the new recruits, so the industry gets more and more ‘like itself’. Instead businesses should introduce open-access, paid internship and apprenticeship programmes to make the industry more accessible.  He took the time to champion Publicis/Saatchi & Saatchi’s brilliant Open Apprenticeships scheme which is making a commitment to give training and even help to find accommodation for people wanting to join the scheme from wherever they currently live in the UK.

Stephen told us that it’s too early to tell how Brexit will affect the industry from a talent perspective.  The hope, however, is that a points-based immigration system will create a more level playing field for global talent, and that London which has been a magnet for international talent for the past 20 years, will be able to hire the world’s brightest and best, not just Europe’s.  The encouraging news is that as far as Britain’s £11bn advertising exports are concerned, the growth rates have so far barely been dented by Brexit.

We finished the session with asking Stephen what he believes the lasting impact of the Pandemic on the industry will be, to which he responded “the realisation and recognition that people working from home, really are working from home”.  We were all in agreement with his point of view that the hybrid way of working from home/office is exciting and liberating and will hopefully increase diversity by opening up more jobs to people who neither live nor want to commute to London.  Furthermore, he has a vision that a positive side effect of larger companies now requiring less square footage could be to stimulate a renaissance for inner-city living, with vacant office space being redesigned for affordable residential purposes.  His biggest hope is that industry uses the Pandemic as a way to reset and create positive change. He reported that the leadership of our industry were united in wanting to see a more trusted, more inclusive and greener advertising industry, with the Pandemic and its impact accelerating change acting  as both a powerful and positive ‘re-set’ moment in time.