An ad exec’s wise warning about social media


There was a time when corporations could merely say, “We’re green,” and consumers, not yet as scrutinizing as they are today, or perhaps simply less equipped to check up on corporate claims, would believe it. For corporations, those days probably feel like a lost Eden. “We help the environment,” Mega-Conglomerate X would announce, and Consumers Y & Z would smile and nod, and be duly impressed, and lo, it was good (for the companies, anyway).

Now those days are gone, and big businesses can’t just talk the talk, but must walk the socially responsible walk. Such is the argument of Who Cares Wins, a new biz book and pseudo CSR manual by David Jones, CEO of the French advertising giant Havas.

There’s nothing new about arguing that businesses need to be socially responsible and prove they do positive work (whether that means environmentally-friendly operations, community outreach, or other good deeds). Nor is it news that companies need to care about what customers say about them on social media. The book’s main argument is that these ideas are now intrinsically linked. In short, companies will be punished in the latter space for not being transparent in the former.

Some would argue that this rhetorical marriage isn’t new either. But in a recent a sit-down with Fortune, Jones said he continually meets CEOs of major corporations who remain blissfully unaware of social media and its power. Worse, many of them wish to ignore it.

“I talk to people all around the world about this stuff, and they look at me like I’m a left-wing loony,” he said. “To young people or people in media, it probably seems like I’ve written something obvious. But to so many executives, it really isn’t obvious. If you talk to CEOs today, many of them think social media is a fad, something trifling that will go away.”

Whether or not you find its premise interesting or newsworthy, the book is mostly a delight. A slim little volume with an appealing cover, Who Cares Wins doesn’t always know what it wants to be — corporate guide, market trend analysis, or autobiography. But Jones, a charming and engaging Brit, makes up for these small weaknesses with amusing personal anecdotes and hordes of examples, many of them stories that even the most attentive newshounds could have missed.

Everyone in the business world remembers, perhaps with a sad laugh, when BP (BP) leader Tony Hayward said that he wanted his life back after the Gulf spill. Five years ago, Hayward’s gaffe would likely not have achieved the same level of notoriety. What’s different now? Social media.

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook — Jones heaps continual praise on the latter, perhaps due to his seat on Facebook’s Client Council — there are new laws of conduct for CEOs, almost like a corporate version of the Miranda rights: anything you say or do can and will be tweeted, Facebooked, and used against you in the court of public opinion.

The book is fat with instructive case studies. Companies that have done it right include GE’s Ecomagination (GE) campaign and Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A.” Those who haven’t include “Oil companies should clean up after their messes,” a particularly unfortunate marketing slogan from Chevron (CVX), as well as Toyota’s (TM) clumsy response to safety problems in 2009. Some of the worst offenders have been BP, along with Kenneth Cole’s (KCP) famously insensitive Egypt tweet.

Jones can occasionally seem self-serving. His social media success stories include Havas clients, notably Evian’s viral Roller Babies ad and the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign. Yet that’s probably unavoidable in a book about successful marketing campaigns, written by a guy who happens to run one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.

Jones inserts repeated plugs for Havas’s own outreach and activism program “One Young World,” which Jones founded. In a section about Unilever (UL) CEO Paul Polman, Jones introduces him as “Polman, a One Young World Counsellor,” which seems gratuitous. The middle section of the book features eight color photographs of Jones with famous politicians and executives. The photos are a bit baffling, as this is not an autobiography.

Jones does write entertainingly about his own social media gaffes. An Ad Age article published on his ascension to the top spot at Havas quoted two of his public Facebook updates: “Sitting 5 seats down from Cameron Diaz at TED — I wish she’d stop staring at me” and, “The joys of jetlag … #fuckihatetravelling.” Seeing his own posts in the article made him regret them. The passage is funny, informative, and admirably self-deprecating.

Who Cares Wins is mainly a warning to other executives that they need to get with the program, or else. Jones telegraphs this agenda with sub-headings like “You can’t opt out” and “Be prepared — social media is always on the record.”

Bottom line: Corporations need to be “fast, authentic, and transparent” on social media. As Jones told Fortune: “When something bad has happened, the company should not believe it has more than one minute to react and take proper action.” Everyone from CEOs and marketing directors to bottom-rung employees should pay attention.

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