Critical Mass CEO, Di Wilkins Thoughts on Ethical Purpose

When a meaningful opportunity to help our clients fulfill a purpose-driven project comes along, we take it.

 

Tell us about yourself and what you do.

My name is Di Wilkins, and I’m the CEO of Critical Mass. I’ve been a part of Critical Mass for just over two decades now, and I’ve been the CEO for almost 14 years. I’d say my overarching focus is to make sure that our agency is growing in a way that helps us fulfill our mission: to design experiences that make people’s lives better.  Lots of things impact our ability to do that—our talent, our culture, our capabilities, our global footprint, our approach to client service. But more than ever, we’re acting on our belief that our own sense of ethical purpose plays a giant role in our ability to be successful—in our day-to-day work, and in our humanitarian work, as well.

 

How has the shift towards more responsible or politically correct advertising impacted your work?

I’m glad you’ve asked this question, but the terms I’d use are “inclusive” and “purpose-driven” rather than “politically correct.” And from the vantage point of the digital space, I don’t see a “shift” toward these ideals—more like an acceleration. I say that because we’ve been helping brands of all sizes espouse inclusive and purpose-driven marketing practices for a long time (and we’re not the only ones).

When a meaningful opportunity to help our clients fulfill a purpose-driven project comes along, we take it. Clients are always eager for the chance to do some good, but they often need encouragement in the form of strategic or creative help, or a new kind of approach to data, social, content, innovation, etc. To be clear, not all our clients (or their projects) are purpose-driven. Not yet, anyway. And we do believe it’s largely a case of “yet”—by greater and greater measures, younger generations are expecting brands to provide meaning and purpose alongside products and services. We believe this expectation will continue, and brands will answer.

And as far as impact on our work goes—we’ve gotten better, because purpose-driven work helps us attract immensely passionate people with tremendous problem-solving skills and profound human empathy.

 

 

Can you give some examples of clients that have adopted a responsible approach and how they’ve used creative to help further their message?

We’ve had very different kinds of clients embrace very different kinds of causes. Since your question nods to social responsibility, then I’d be quick to mention Bayer’s “Leaps” initiative—an attempt to use the Life Sciences to solve ten seemingly unsolvable global challenges (things like congenital disease, agricultural shortfalls, and ecological degradation). To succeed, Leaps needs to drum up support from a wide variety of audiences and be seen as a team of sincere, humanitarian innovators. To help them communicate that positioning, we partnered with Leaps to create an experiential installation that symbolized a story of perseverance and launched it at Summit in LA—a gathering of innovators for whom “impossible” doesn’t exist.

 

Automotive has furnished our clients (and us) with some really different opportunities to do some good. Ever since Nissan launched the all-electric LEAF, we’ve designed numerous owners’ portals that acknowledge environmental conscientiousness while showcasing the tangible benefits of owning an electric car (e.g., reduced emissions, cost savings). Those are things our clients, LEAF drivers, and Critical Mass all care about—shared values. We also brought Nissan’s “Red Thumb” campaign to life digitally. The goal of Red Thumb was to curb distracted driving, especially texting behind the wheel. After an announcement on NBC’s “The Voice,” over 50K visitors came to the page we designed, and hundreds of companies, police forces, governments, and schools were eager to get involved.

 

Glad is another special example—cause marketing with a simple message at its core: “give better.” Each year, people stuff thousands of pounds of donated goods into trash bags, but finding a charity and transporting donations can be pretty difficult. So, we asked—what can we do to make giving easier? Our team designed a special yellow Glad bag and made it available on glad.com (for free), and we included a national database of charities that could pick up bagged donations. Next, we built a #GladToGive platform through social campaigns, a celebrity-headlined video series, and an expanding range of symbolically yellow Glad products. Hundreds of thousands of bags went out, and donated goods got to where they were most needed.

 

Do you believe this helps brands develop a deeper bond with their audience? Might taking a stance on social/political issues also turn away some potential customers?

The answer is yes and yes. Supporting an issue can endear you to some people and demonize you to others. So, the follow-up question is: “what should a brand do?” Here’s what we recommend: know your values. Know what you stand for. And know your customers. Brand values reveal themselves when an organization has honest, in-depth conversations about how their purpose as a brand aligns with their products and services, as well as the values of their employees and customers. It’s a challenging but rewarding process. Taking easier routes can leave a brand vulnerable and dangerously unmoored in a climate of culture wars, backfiring political affiliations, and social change.

 

Are there any specific causes your agency as a whole or you yourself hold near and dear? If so, tell us about them.

We’ve always been diligent about clearly defining our agency’s values and specifying the causes that matter to us. It wouldn’t help us to say that we’re purpose-driven and value-driven if we couldn’t say exactly what “purpose” and “values” mean to us. So, many years ago, we sat down and defined five core agency values (and, in time, we brought in a sixth): Honest, Inspired, Driven, Purposeful, Real, Equal. These values are at the core of how we work, how we treat our clients, how we treat each other, and what we expect from ourselves. They also propel our commitment to making a positive impact in the world.

 

We couldn’t live by these values and not define certain areas of purposeful focus that matter to us. (How could we do otherwise and purport to be “real” and “purposeful”?)  So while we’re always thrilled to join our clients’ causes and humanitarian goals when they invite our help, the areas that are near and dear to our hearts are Advancing Education, Protecting the Environment, Supporting Human Health, and Championing Equality. These are not niche issues, but rather massive challenges that require the work of many hands—governments, NGOs, brands, agencies, and individuals. We believe we have a part to play. More importantly, we believe we have a responsibility to give back. Our agency has grown into a global team of talented people with the capacity and power to do things of immense scale and import. As such, we believe we have a responsibility to make a positive impact in a sustainable way while helping others (including our clients) do the same.

 

As we move towards more socially conscious advertising, are there any campaigns from the past that you think simply wouldn’t be able to get made today?

This is a fascinating question. Certain advertising tropes have pretty much gone (or are going) extinct. The quaintly dutiful homemaker, the beer commercial supermodel, the Marlboro man, and a host of other problematic figures have somewhat receded from view. But the underlying issues have not. Gender stereotypes remain. Racial biases persist. Harmful products get marketed. Children get targeted left, right, and center. Things are better, but we have a long way to go.

 

What inspires me, however, is seeing a new generation that is incredibly aware of and attuned to these underlying problems—and these young people are not only a segment of consumers that brands have to answer to, they’re also becoming the backbone of agency workforces. And before long they’ll hold positions of leadership in agencies, brands, government, universities, and everywhere in between. The more we encourage their voices and their passion for positive change, the better.

 

Is there a specific campaign for a good cause you worked on that you’re most proud of? Or a favorite campaign from another agency.

We’ve been a part of many great causes—and very different ones at that. Female empowerment, child welfare, global access to education, environmentalism, charitable giving, public safety, and others.

But as a digital agency, we’re able to do more than drive impressions—we can create immersive and visceral experiences. Here’s an example. The United Nations Mine Action Service needed a way to convey the horror and human toll of living in a region plagued by landmines. They were facing a problem called “cause fatigue”—a saturation of causes in an already saturated marketing (exacerbated by the fact that the root of this particular cause, land mines, existed far away).

So we created a physical exhibit in the New Museum (in NYC) and designed an iPhone app to go with it. As visitors made their way through the exhibit, iBeacons triggered a simulation via the app (experienced on headphones and the mobile screen). Visitors weren’t just subject to an impression; they were made viscerally aware of a humanitarian calamity. We helped get the message out by turning exhibit-goers into advocates.

A second version of the exhibit was permanently installed at the UN General Assembly during its grand re-opening, and it also lives on in documentary form on the UN Visitor’s Tour. The exhibit reminds thousands of people every day of the dangers many communities in the world face, where people risk life and limb as they simply walk to school or work.