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What's a 'Mad Man' Doing at a Global Humanitarianism Conference?


By Jamie Penn

After ambling up to speak at the SwitchPoint conference, somewhere in the lineup between corporate social responsibility (CSR) leaders, global humanitarian innovators, social impact strategists and serial game changers, John Newall, president of McKinney Advertising Agency, confessed that he couldn’t help but ponder his own presence there.

“I run an advertising agency for a living. We’re not global. We don’t put on conferences. I guess we’re sort of innovative, only not in a humanitarian sense,” Newall said. “I wasn’t in Syria or Africa yesterday. In fact, I was in Cleveland.”

SwitchPoint, held in Saxapahaw, North Carolina on April 23 and 24, is an annual conference produced by IntraHealth International, inviting entrepreneurs and business and nonprofit leaders from around the world to share and amplify their global impact in the fields of public health, technology, business, design, science and art. But it does so with a very specific goal in mind: to insist that thinkers and change-makers stretch themselves even further outside the box.

So, the presence of an advertising executive in a room full of humanitarian innovators just supports the SwitchPoint mission (as stated on the website): “to challenge you to stretch your boundaries, categories, comfort zones and contacts.”

Newall met the challenge head on.

Wooed a few months prior by the conference director, Heather LaGarde, Newall said that upon accepting the invitation to speak he stumbled down a path of serious soul-searching.

“Enraptured by Heather’s enthusiasm and charm … I enthusiastically said yes. Then, a week later, I went into a massive downward spiral wondering what in the world I was going to talk about,” said Newall, preempting a hum of laugher. “The good news is that the downward spiral sent me on a journey of self-discovery that actually reconnected me with what I do for a living and how it can be enormously powerful.”

Enter Unilever, the ultimate branding success story.

In 2010, several advertising agencies, PR firms and communications experts came together to communicate one of the boldest corporate moves in history in a way that would change the face of corporate responsibility and many lives around the world forever.

“Unilever, one of the biggest companies in the world, underwent a major transformation that year. Keith Weed, the chief marketing officer, became the chief sustainability officer and the chief marketing officer. The reason? It’s what people cared about,” Newall said.

This shift was born of CEO Paul Polman’s commitment to double Unilever’s revenues without increasing its natural resource consumption. In order to accomplish this, it became Unilever’s very public mission to make the world a better place.

Unilever’s popularity has gone straight to the moon and can be largely attributed to not only what the company and its agencies have chosen to communicate, but also how they’ve communicated it, Newall said.

Making the world a better place is Unilever’s marketing strategy. It’s the shining example of being the change that consumers want to see in the world. To this end, they’re not only doing better; they’re sticking to the plan.

So, it’s back to the old adage: Companies do really well by doing lots of good. But, why do some companies do good, better? Superior communications, Newall said.

Cue: advertising. Advertising can be a huge amplifier of the good going on in the world, but only when the messages are retained. Newall said that while $177 billion is spent on advertising every year, only half of the 360 advertisements that people are exposed to daily are remembered. People don't want the facts and statistics related to your organization's mission or the advantages of the products your company produces; they want what a company does and how they do it to matter to them.

“The stuff you like, the stuff you remember talks about the things you care about,” Newall said.“It’s the 'why you exist,' not what you make, that consumers want to hear.”

And, if you ask Sony, Evian, Virgin, Nationwide or Absolut among others, Newall is the man to talk to about optimizing consumer/brand relationships. They all hired him to do it.

Newall was named president of McKinney in 2012 after seven years of helping to lead the agency to a level of success that won it the title of “most effective independently-held agency in the world” by Effie International.

There have been few successes, Newall said, that have exceeded the Urban Ministries of Durham Spent campaign, designed and implemented by McKinney. Check it out here:

Newall and his team decided that gamification was the solution to communicating the insidious nature of homelessness. They designed a game that could take the player down the path to homelessness, allowing the player to witness firsthand how quickly one can spiral to destitution. They set up the problem so the consumer could relate to it.

The Urban Ministries of Durham campaign was a huge success. With over 100 million media impressions, 4 million games were played at an average rate of 11.5 minutes.

Point being: Awareness is hyper-contagious when engagement is amplified.

The companies and organizations represented at SwitchPoint, from social enterprises and organizations such as E-nable, Ipas and Intrahealth, to corporations like IBM, Phizer and Johnson & Johnson, are all engaged in global efforts to improve the world and the lives of its inhabitants. Their impact on the world stands to increase if and when their efforts are communicated effectively, Newall predicted.

"Advertsing," he said, "can be enormously influential."

You can to do a lot more good, he said to the audience, when you communicate who you are really well.

Jamie Penn is the Director of Content for Public Address System, a video and digital content production company specializing in pro-social and sustainability communications. She voraciously researches, writes about, and helps communicate CSR and social good messages for companies consumers trust. @jamierpenn 

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