Joel Edmund Nettey (IAA): Our Power to Influence Change

Joel Edmund Nettey is Senior Vice President of the International Advertising Association (IAA) and becomes its President and World Chairman in October. Here he talks about advertising during the pandemic and what drives him to contribute to the development of diverse communities.


Note: Translated from an article in Horizont Swiss, edited by AdForum for length and concision. See the original article here 

Anyone who is at odds with their own advertising existence or thinks that advertising is coming to an end should listen to Joel Edmund Nettey, the Senior Vice President of the IAA, who becomes its President and World Chairman in October 2020. His perspective on the world and advertising is refreshing, stimulating and hopeful. 

You studied at the University of Ghana and ended up in advertising. Please tell us how that happened?

That’s a long story! In high school I wanted to become lawyer. Somehow, while studying economics and psychology at university, I changed that and started thinking about a career in banking/finance. But just when I’d completed the second year of a three-year honors degree program, the lecturers went on strike over disagreements they were having with the government. The strike lasted close to a year. During that hiatus, I got very involved in student activities which involved organizing events and approaching big brands to sponsor them.

I got hooked on that whole process of generating ideas and convincing marketing managers to bring their brands on board. I think my loving psychology also helped me in the whole “understanding consumer behavior” space. So by the time the strike was over and we went in to complete our final year, I was convinced I’d never be able to survive in the straightjacket 9-to-5 life of banking. I was hooked on marketing communications and marketing generally. I think the bug’s still got me. So you see, very much like a lot of other things in my life, my foray into advertising is really a story of “adversity turning into opportunity”.  

What fascinates you about advertising in general?

What fascinates me the most is the power we have as advertising people to influence change, whether it’s in changing bad behavior, or positively reinforcing desirable behavior, or even to educate. Brands, people, nations…all depend on advertising to positively impact their fortunes. Advertising is probably one of the greatest influencers of behavior.

Why should young people go into advertising?

In my opinion, there are very few professions where you get to influence outcomes the way advertising does. It’s quite fascinating, the opportunities that are now presented in advertising. Especially with everything technology offers – speed, digital, data…It’s definitely more unique and inspiring than when I started advertising some 25 years ago.

When I started, there was no school in my part of the world – Ghana, West Africa – that offered a course of study in advertising. That’s totally changed today. Even outside of formal education, the internet offers material and examples that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. So in my mind, now more than ever, young people who want to change the world, influence behavior, support causes and so on, anywhere in the world, can consider a career in advertising and marketing communications generally as a means to achieve those ends. Advertising gives you the platform and opportunity to do that. Purpose-driven brands and campaigns are definitely the winners in this space. 

Why should companies advertise now, in the middle of this crisis?

Classic marketing communication or advertising will tell you that the brands that are remembered coming out of a recession had a consistent presence right through it and are the ones who typically generate the most loyal customers. But there are also some practical, common-sense reasons why this is so. First, the most common knee-jerk reaction of most businesses is to cut back on “expenditure” in a recession to improve their bottom-line. Although it seems like the commonsensical thing to do, what it does essentially is give those brands that stay the course a greater Share Of Voice in the market…which then means that even for the same amount of spend, they get better impact and thus better returns.

And second?

We all know the AIDA model of advertising, which essentially suggests that all things being equal consumers go through four stages in their decision-making process, namely Awareness, Interest, Desire and then Action. So if you think about it logically, even if customers are not up and buying during the throes of a recession, they would consciously or unconsciously go through those stages as they interact with the communications/brands they come into contact with during that period. So as they come out of the recession, they are more likely to have gone through at least the first two stages (awareness and interest) for the brands that they have seen and heard during the recession. Coming out of a recession, therefore, such brands are more likely to be in the consumers’ desire and action stages as opposed to brands who go quiet and would now be creating or re-creating awareness. 

And third?

There’s also the “softer” side of the reasoning that informs the importance of advertising during a recession. For instance, at this moment, in the middle of this pandemic/recession, there is a lot happening. People are at their lowest, and by default, as humans, we remember who was with us at our darkest hours…and naturally gravitate towards them. So for brands, it’s important that they not only advertise, but that they support causes that mean a lot to people in these difficult times. 

What’s your favorite campaign ever?

There have been lots of campaigns I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Currently though I think the campaign that’s reigning on my “love list” is Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” is a powerful idea or principle that’s timeless. It will last forever, literally. And that Nike had the “character” to support Colin and what he stood for, at a time when they could have lost significant market share in their biggest market over such a sensitive matter, says a lot for Nike itself as a brand. Of course it says even more about the people behind the brand.


What motivates you to contribute to the development of diverse communities?

One of the things that motivates me and has been my guiding principal for a long time is the poem Desiderata. Among other things, Desiderata says: “As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all people”. I have to be honest in saying that in this “diversity” conversation there are groups whose belief systems I can’t relate to. But that’s fine. Truth is they probably don’t believe in some of the things I believe in either. Which is also fine. That’s the beauty of a diverse world. So, we all need to “be on good terms with all people” and treat the next person the way you would want to be treated.  

How do you explain that to people?

I keep telling people that the fingers of the hand are not equal, and yet we need all of them. So the world is such that you will always meet different people: tall, fat, slim, short, black, white, brown…and the beauty of it all is that the world is like a canvas – you need all the colors, images and shades to get the perfect picture, and that is why it’s important for me that we recognize that and give that prominence in everything that we do, whether it’s in our offices, recruiting practices, equity in salaries across genders, casting for commercials where relevant and so on.

What do you see as the advantage of diverse groups?

It’s a fact that the more diverse a group is, the more likely you are to find varied skill sets and experiences that when put together make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.  So that’s my motivation, really.

What do you see as the advantages of explicitly diverse corporate cultures for companies?

It tells people upfront what you believe in, that you are welcoming, that when they come in there, regardless of their own peculiar strengths and weakness, their nature, they are going to be accepted and given the opportunity to flourish. That, at the very outset, gives anybody who is looking for a job the essence of hope, because everybody wants to at least aspire to be the best they can be – and the only way you can be the best, or aspire to be the best, is when you are in an environment that allows you or encourages you to excel. And of course, once people come in and give their best, it’s the organization that ultimately benefits. 

Do you see any other advantages, perhaps those that affect the collective?

Diversity – and inclusion – enables companies to benefit from the different experiences, cultures and knowledge of different people. Like a harmonious choir, you get a much better melody when you can harness all these strengths than to have any part sung alone, regardless of how important that “part” is (or thinks it is). 

What are the characteristics of corporate cultures that are explicitly designed for inclusion? 

Generally, an inclusive workplace makes all employees feel like they are part of the team. They feel valued and this makes them bring their A-game to work every day, because they feel appreciated and know that their thoughts and opinions, however small, will be heard and at least considered. There’s also equity in access to opportunities for growth, remuneration, promotion and access to roles etc. 

Are there any first signs that make you hopeful?

For instance, in our advertising world we are gradually seeing more women advancing to the C-Suite as CEOs and in creative leadership etc. But I don’t think it’s happening as fast as it could. Of course there are also real challenges with gender and how much time women are able to dedicate to work in the typical long hours of an agency establishment, because of the other important roles they play in their families in most cultures. I understand that. But it is important, for me, that they are encouraged and supported to be the absolute best they can be…and must definitely earn equal salaries for equal work done. Within teams in inclusive organizations also, one generally finds more collaboration between employees and more of a focus on “the people” by management.  

Final thoughts on diversity?

It is said that “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”.  No one wants to be invited to a party as a spectator. Such a “guest” would rather stay at home. So I just want to encourage everyone – brands, marketeers, politicians – not to make half-hearted attempts at diversity. Let’s go the whole hog and push for proper inclusion. That’s when we can truly harness all the benefits.

 Joel Edmund Nettey is the Senior Vice President of the International Advertising Association (IAA) and becomes its President and World Chairman in October 2020.