CEO delivers live brief to students with enticing prize on offer

14 October 2021
Headshot of Don't Cry Wolf founder John Brown. John wears a t-shirt and baseball cap
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Second year BA Creative Advertising students have been set an industry brief by John Brown, CEO of brand activism PR agency Don’t Cry Wolf.

 

John started Don’t Cry Wolf in 2018, following a decade of experience in creative communications roles. In just over three years his business had outgrown its London headquarters, with John opening a second office in Truro in July of this year.

John has challenged Falmouth’s Creative Advertising students to deliver a strategy that demonstrates the benefits of communicating authentically to marketing and communications agencies.

The students with the best ideas will be offered a three-month paid internship, and budget will be put in place for their ideas to be executed during their placement.

Rather than define success at his PR agency solely by the coverage achieved for its clients, John prefers to measure the impactful actions taken. Or as John puts it, “using the power of a brand to do more than sell shit to people.” 

We caught up with John to discuss brand activism more broadly, and to learn how businesses can do more to improve the policies that matter most to their customers. 

Things matter to people now. The apathetic political generation is dead. 

Why should higher education institutions embrace brand activism?

Every new student coming into a university is acutely aware of brand activism. They’ll have been involved in activism previously in one way or another; from going to a protest or simply signing petitions online.

Things matter to people now. The apathetic political generation is dead. Students want to know about a university’s stance on things – does your institution align with their values? Do you care about anything beyond your business? 

According to WWF, just 20 of the FTSE 100 are reporting on their carbon footprint and sustainability goals. Plenty more have, however, made a lot of noise about their ‘commitment’ to sustainability.  

It was really interesting to hear you talk about the buzzwords businesses use, like “sustainability” and “welfare”. What advice would you give businesses when talking about these kinds of policies? 

It’s a mistake brands often make – to show intent rather than action. Brands often say things like ‘we’ll be net zero by 2040’, but what does that mean? How can I track that? More often than not I can’t, and the business themselves won’t know because they won’t have conducted the research to determine what their carbon impact actually is.

According to WWF, just 20 of the FTSE 100 are reporting on their carbon footprint and sustainability goals. Plenty more have, however, made a lot of noise about their ‘commitment’ to sustainability. 

So, communicate transparently. And show your strategy. How are you going to reduce your carbon emissions? I want to see a reduction, not an offset. And report on it every 6 months – if some things are going well and some things aren’t, then say that. That’s fine. None of us are perfect, but if we keep taking steps in the right direction – actual steps, not silly buzzword steps – then that’s how we progress. We need to be bold about transparency, that’s how we can make positive change. 

And remember, being transparent, even if you’re still in the process of weeding out the bad stuff, makes you fearless. Transparency is absolutely critical to an effective brand activism campaign. Show the road map and do your best to stick to it.

Investors want to back companies doing positive things.

Some people might say that brand activism will hinder your profit margins. What gave you the confidence to start Don’t Cry Wolf?

Firstly, I think that’s a lazy comment. For anyone who says brand activism harms your profit margins – well I started this on my own in 2018 and now I employ 20 people. Plus, I can afford to give 1.5% of our revenue to charity. 

If you want to get statistical about it, in 2018 Unilever’s sustainable living brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business, compared to 46% in 2017. Also, the stocks of brands which focused on their ESG impact (environment, society, governance) outperformed those that didn’t in 2020.

On top of that, investors want to back companies doing positive things. BlackRock, who are an enormous investor, sent out a letter saying that they would only invest in companies who have policies regarding sustainability, diversity and pay. Believe me, that had plenty of CEOs sweating. 

 

Off the back of that, are there any areas of your own business that you have identified for improvement?

Sustainability and diversity. We’re still better than 80% of our competitors on sustainability, but there’s more work that we need to do. 

And being a more diverse business will make us a better business. Currently only 20% of our employees come from underrepresented groups, which we need to address. 

Diversity brings different perspectives and much more creativity. We’ve taken our first step by committing to the Rooney rule, which means that we can’t close a job advert until someone has been interviewed from a minority background, we don’t require a degree or a set of academic qualifications to apply for a role, we’re allowing people to operate remotely and flexibly and we are transparent about the wage and time required for each role.

Finally, we invest an awful lot in advertising our positions across a number of different publications and forums to attract as diverse a talent pool as possible.

Who would you want to work with most? 

Policy makers. I’d love to run the comms for the Green Party. I don’t want to see it as a fringe party anymore. I want it to attract working class people, not the same middle-class people we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

I’d also love to work with Patagonia and Nike. Nike has huge cultural relevance and there’s enormous space for them to do more good things.

 

You mentioned in your talk that you love getting briefs from companies who have the power to make an enormous impact, even if they’ve put profits ahead of people in the past – it’s interesting that you didn’t mention a big oil and gas company. 

We’ve been approached by big oil and gas companies, but we won’t work for them. Look at their actions – they’re still investing in delaying the status quo for as long as possible instead of putting their money into renewables. 

Ultimately, I just want to work with people who care about getting more than profit and can use the power of what they do to help make society a little better.

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