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Can advertising ever contribute to humanity in a positive way?
Entrepreneur Amy Williams thinks so. "Advertising has to have a role in society, advertising has to offer a value exchange back. If it is just there to sell more crap you don't need, it's not doing anything useful, therefore it'll just get ad-blocked, it'll just get ignored," she told CNBC in an interview last month.
She's summarizing the late ad guru David Ogilvy's attitude to his business, one she learnt while a graduate trainee at his eponymous advertising agency in London.
"Advertising has a role to play, it is a huge economy, it's billions of pounds that are funding journalists' salaries … advertising is fuel for a lot of services and products that we use. Thinking about advertising's role in society is really interesting," she added.
Williams, now the founder of ethical advertising tool Good-Loop, knew she wanted to start a media business that had a social purpose at its heart — and would be seriously profitable — but she wasn't sure where to begin.
She had joined ad agency Ogilvy's graduate training scheme in 2012 and having Unilever as a client made her aware of the impact social purpose can have on sales, the classic example being the FMCG company's Dove soap brand and its long-running "campaign for real beauty."
"Dove is that obvious example where they come and talk about real beauty in challenging fake beauty standards, but (it) actually sells more soap. And that idea of having a real social mission that matters to people, but using that to actually drive commercial goals, I found that really exciting," Williams, 27, said.
After three years at the agency, Williams left to work out how she could create her own ethical business. As well as freelancing in marketing and doing bar work, she went to Argentina where she volunteered at a children's charity. It fed 30 children for the equivalent of £10 ($12.59) a week and Williams was struck by how far that money went.
"(I realized) you could do a lot of good in the world with not much money and I know a place where there's a lot of money. So that was where it was like, right, I'm going to build something using that ad money to fund good causes," she said.
She also felt there was a big problem with how ads are distributed, with a focus on the size of the audience rather than its quality. "A lot of it is just about a numbers game. How many people can we get (to see an advert), how many eyeballs can we get?"
When she worked on clients' briefs at Ogilvy — a creator of advertising rather than a buyer of ad space or media — she was used to focusing on the benefit to consumers. "In a lot of the creative agencies, that's a fundamental question asked in every brief, right. Like, what are we adding back, what are we kind of connecting with in a meaningful way? What's our role in the consumer's life? Then, when you look at the media (buying) landscape, none of that is considered," Williams said.
Then Williams had the idea for Good-Loop: a tech company that lets consumers choose a charity to donate to for free when they watch an ad online. When someone views a video ad for say, Toms shoes, 15 seconds into it they are asked: "Which cause would you like to support?" via text that appears below the ad, and they then choose one of three charities that Toms will donate to. Other clients have included Unilever and Nestle, as well as London street-food company Kerb and dishwashing brand Method.
Good-Loop buys its online ad space in bulk via an automated system, "wraps" it in its ethical ad player and charges advertisers based on the number of times a viewer watches 15 seconds of a 30-second ad (a cost per engagement model), Williams explains.
"How we make money is, because of our ethical wrapper, more people watch the ad and (we) get higher engagement, higher completes. So, we can charge the brand more often. It's essentially about increasing the value of the media we bought in bulk … Typically we charge an advertiser on the completed (15-second) view," she says.
Fifty percent of the money from the advertiser will go to the charity chosen by the user, and the other 50 percent is taken by Good Loop and used in part to pay for the advertising space. Williams claims that once people have clicked on the charity of their choice, 80 to 90 percent watch to the end of the ad — a crucial measurement for advertisers in a world where one in four U.S. internet users block ads, according to eMarketer.
Once someone has watched an ad and clicked on their charity of choice, they are asked if they consent to tracking online. About two-thirds of a sample Good-Loop asked agreed, and the system will learn what causes people prefer, with a customizable charity option being developed so that consumers can request for favorite causes to always feature next to the adverts they are shown.
In 2019, Williams wants to build more audiences, and go for Series A funding of about £1 million ($1.26 million) to £3 million to grow her U.K. team (currently five sales staff in London and five developers in Edinburgh) and launch into the U.S.
Hiring hasn't been a problem, Williams said. "Lots of people reach out, actually. A nice thing about building a company like ours … is it does spark people's interest. There are so many smart creative people that work in advertising and marketing who are a little bit jaded, who are a little bit like 'hmm, there must be more here' and I think that we tap into that and go, look this is a way to use all that expertise to build something scalable and profitable and seriously commercial, but feel like you're doing some good in the world."
Who would Williams love to use her platform? Brands that have already got the idea of a social mission, such as Lego, which started selling bricks made from sugar cane in August.
"Increasingly, it's about conscious consumerism, it's about buying brands that reflect the world you want to live in, like you know every pound you spend is an investment in that future. So buying Method over some other cleaning product is showing that you want to buy a product that has those ethical standards."