Why this CMO believes marketing should be on the side of justice
- 14 December, 2021 07:31
“I’m a political campaigner, a political strategist and a justice reform activist,” says R/GA global CMO, Ashish Prashar.
The global marketing chief has walked an unusual - and unlikely – path to his current role. “My journey has been radical,” he agrees.
From once being incarcerated, Prashar rose from reporter to press secretary for leading political figures like Boris Johnson and Joe Biden before going on to have a global remit as marketing chief for digital agency, R/GA. At its core, he sees it as a role that's about people.
“Predominantly, my work has been storytelling - building and developing campaigns centred around people. The main thing I bring is how I connect with individuals,” he says. It’s something he also believes is much needed in boardrooms.
“Bringing that energy and type of communication into the corporate world has never been more critical,” he says. “My vision as a leader, activist and CMO at R/GA is to be reflective of the society we live in and our values. While I have work to do, I believe we are making progress towards that goal.”
Defining a human-first company
Designing a more human future at R/GA has to start with people. “People in your own company want to hear from you; people outside your company want to hear from you. They want to talk to someone who feels like a real person, who understands their issues or understands their concerns,” Prashar tells CMO.
“I believe anywhere there are people, there is power. These powerful people can be the creatives designing meaningful experiences for our clients and the people who interact with them.”
As part of this human-led approach, Prashar believes the ad world can influence wider culture and society. It starts, he says, with creating a powerful new narrative.
“It's our responsibility as a creative industry to question what ideas and values we are disseminating, what stereotypes or biases we're introducing, and to whom we are giving platforms through our work,” he continues. “Creating a new narrative really begins with questioning our past, examining the narrative we’ve built or that we subscribe to, and bringing in people who have been harmed by that narrative. It is essential to find solutions to our problems from and with the people who experience the impact of those problems.”
As such, the conventional corporate marketing and advertising model needs to be disrupted, according to Prashar, because the ‘typical’ model doesn’t recognise social issues and issues-oriented around justice or equity.
“These are issues that are not going away. As advertising and marketing leaders, we need to start playing an active role in the right side of history, by doing right by society, right by people,” he says. “We have an opportunity to influence culture well beyond our clients and our industries. I don't think there's a way to escape talking about or considering politics or social justice in most business decisions anymore. I don't think there's a way where brands and businesses can say suddenly: I don't care about these issues anymore.
“Who brands and companies choose as partners to help them deliver work has never been more critical.”
Read more: How brands can respond to cancel culture
Corporates and activism
Prashar has campaigned for bail reform, ending solitary confinement and the restoration of voting rights. But does he really believe the corporate world is open to justice reform and activism?
“Historically, businesses have not been interested in taking a permanent, effective stand against the criminal justice system, or loathing to let profits slip through their fingers,” he admits. Yet he points out 70 million Americans have a criminal record: One-third of its population.
What’s also clear is the global pandemic and racial reckoning that ignited nationwide protest is forcing corporate America, society and the world “to acknowledge that we could no longer stay silent”. One example is the ‘Clean Slate law in the US, along with efforts by other major US companies including R/GA, JP Morgan, Verizon and CVS. Prashar sees these promoting social justice and second-chance hiring and reshaping how these big corporates show up in the world.
“At R/GA, we have had a lot of success with this approach of partnering with nonprofits to addressing other social justice issues. Other corporations need to move away from the typical CSR model and standard practices,” he says.
Prashar also puts his commitment into practice through board positions at Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out NYC, Just Leadership USA, Leap Confronting Conflict, the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, and is a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.
“My biggest opportunity is to help companies navigate that change and be right on the forefront of it,” he says. “Individuals affected by the criminal justice system face immense barriers, even after their sentence. As corporate leaders, we must continue to advocate and raise awareness to shrink the criminal justice system.”
While there are promising steps in the right direction in the corporate world, Prashar says a lot more needs to be done to scale back a system deeply entrenched in systematic racism. “Corporate firms must continue to build on the progress that has been made and stand together to eliminate the stigma,” he adds.
Harnessing the power of marketing and advertising
Coming around to the power of consumers, Prashar believes individuals have far more than at any other time to send signals to the organisations they deal with.
“They can stop shopping with you tomorrow or stop buying from you and stop engaging with you. They can boycott you if you do something stupid that's politically ill,” he says. “If you decide you don't believe in voting rights, they can suddenly not fly with you. Or if you don't believe in certain things that are important to consumers as an equitable society, they don't have to shop with you now, knowing that is their power.”
All this makes Prashar adamant consumers are no longer willing to continue supporting businesses that don't align with their values. “Business must be reflective of the society we live in and recognise the consumers are at the centre of the process.”
Against this, Prashar sees the advertising and marketing businesses as one of the most powerful industries in the world because of the ability to reflect society, even if it hasn’t traditionally been on the side of justice.
“Our people are the ideas that make money for our clients so we can decide what work to take on, who we work with and human our approach to that campaign or project. Our people are the culture and our clients want those ideas but what comes with that is our values, and that’s how we bring about change and address societal issues,” he concludes.
“Our industry has an opportunity to influence to make a difference.”