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Can the ad industry become sustainable?

November 16, 2017

A look at an entrepreneur who wants to revolutionize the ad industry. Andrea Henao is a former advertising executive who left the corporate world to found her own business — a boutique ad agency that vets its clients.

Symbol Werbung Times Square, New York City, USA
Image: Imago/robertharding

Andrea Henao wants to change the ad industry. Two years ago, the Berlin-based French entrepreneur founded an ad agency that only works with sustainable brands. 

I met Henao in her offices, not too far from the Berlin’s notorious Alexanderplatz. The premises are decorated with second-hand furniture that she bought online, and art pieces collected and made with friends and colleagues. While showing me around, she shared the stories about the furniture and art. Henao understands the importance of stories. And she knows just how brands come up with stories that appeal to customers with certain values. 

With rising consumer awareness about environmental issues and labor practices, brands increasingly emphasize ecological footprint and employee working conditions. Unfortunately, ad campaigns do not always tell the truth — they exaggerate, embellish and lie. And this is something Henau wants to change. 

"We really believe that we are responsible for the ad that we promote, hence we promote exclusively sustainable brands," she tells me.

Andréa Henao, Co-Gründerin von 360 Agency Berlin
Andrea Henao chose Berlin for her agency because it is more sustainable than other major European capitals Image: DW/C. Chimbelu

From advertising to advocating 

The ad industry has yet to play a significant role in ensuring brands tell the truth.The onus to reveal false claims has generally fallen on activists, consumer groups and the media. But Henao believes advertisers can play a bigger role. 

"It’s extremely important to not only promote [when] paid to do so [but] to look what is behind the brand,” she says."It’s our responsibility as well to ensure that there is really perfect alignment between production and communication."

Henao’s agency restricts itself to brands whose operations are based in Europe because it is easier to obtain information about a company’s ecological footprint and its labor practices. And unlike other advertisers, 360 Agency Berlin doesn’t participate in pitch processes. Instead, the company is approached by potential clients that undergo a vetting process. 

"It did happen a few times to actually decline [some] clients because they were very vague in the way they were answering," Henao says. "And we could identify that some process was probably not aligned with what we stand for." 

Going beyond sustainability 

Henao wants to go further. She wants to establish an audit process that would in the future allow the agency to audit clients randomly and reward them with a label (certificate) if they continue to adhere to its criteria of social responsibility. 

Apart from sustainability, Henao is also a huge advocate of data protection. 

Infografik EN How users rank corporate social responsibility for digital media

"We are trying as much as we can to fight for better regulation of data privacy," she says. "We can see it more and more openly that more people get pissed off about advertising."

The agency has been invited to take part on discussions on data protection and advertising by European authorities and the  World Economic Forum. 

"The advertising industry, more specifically the online advertising sector, has created business models that have a non-sustainable dependence on personal data collection and hyper-targeting," says Claudio Cocorocchia, who heads the World Economic Forum’s Information and Entertainment System Initiative. 

"I personally cannot see how industry’s obsession with personal data can continue to be healthy for business," he adds.  

So while it may sound like Henao is flipping the ad industry by demanding for more data protection and vetting her customers, it may be only that she is keeping with the times, instead of only allowing the bottom line to dictate her business strategy. 

"It is really important to redefine the terms of advertising," she says. 

Influencer - a new profession?

Chiponda Chimbelu DW Journalist
Chiponda Chimbelu A business journalist with a focus on Africa, and diversity and inclusion.
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