From Apple To Advocacy: Why Media Arts Lab Is Doubling Down On Social Impact

With a new leadership team and a renewed focus, Apple’s long-time ad partner is looking to take its brand of marketing for good mainstream.

From Apple To Advocacy: Why Media Arts Lab Is Doubling Down On Social Impact

For the past few decades, it’s been best known as Apple’s ad agency. The partnership between the Cupertino tech giant and TBWA\Media Arts Lab has been among the tightest ever between an agency and a brand. Read any Steve Jobs biography and you’re sure to find TBWA\MAL’s creative chairman Lee Clow.


A few years ago, the agency launched a separate social impact division called MAL\For Good that focused exclusively on marketing and advertising with a goal of making the world a better place. It’s most high-profile work won gold at Cannes Lions in 2015 for Conservation International’s “Nature Is Speaking” campaign, and the agency helped Laurene Powell Jobs launch the non-profit XQ Super School. Other campaigns include work for Chicago Cred, a job-training and anti-violence organization founded by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, environmental law organization Earth JusticeBest Friends animal rescue, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and for-profit philanthropic organization The Emerson Collective. The agency is also creating content for the XQ Super School Live show, that will air on CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX on September 8.

But now, aligning with a rising trend in both consumer culture and marketing research, MAL\For Good is expanding its scope beyond clients with a dot-org, and they’re aiming to help brands of all types use their marketing muscle to do some good while boosting their bottom line. While the agency says it wants to use its communication skills to help make the world better, recent studies suggest it’s also good for business.

A 2016 study by Edelman found 80% of global consumers agree that businesses must play a role in addressing societal issues. Unilever reported in 2016 that 33% of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. Deloitte reported that 87% of millennials believe that business success should be based on more than just profit.

Wieden+Kennedy Portland and Nike Foundation alum Julia Plowman was named MAL\For Good’s managing director in February, joining global creative president Duncan Milner who moved over in October 2016 after leading the creative team at TBWA\MAL since 2000. Right now, MAL\For Good has 28 employees and is growing with its own offices on the TBWA\Chiat\Day campus. It’s also converting a monster tour bus that Mitt Romney used during his presidential campaign into the MAL\For Good HQ, a social impact incubator on wheels, connecting clients with creative communities.

“We’re growing because more and more brands are investing in social impact,” says Plowman. “We’re here to help them do it right, do it authentically. And that takes strategy, planning, and creativity. You can’t just knock-off authentic social purpose ideas; you have to build them deliberately and diligently. That takes real investment. And that’s exactly what we specialize in.”


After three years of helping a variety of organizations, Plowman says the time is right to expand the social impact agency’s work. Milner adds to that, saying it just makes sense as more brands put their values into how they do business. “When we started we were really focused on Laurene [Jobs] and Emerson Collective’s needs, so we did that for a while,” Milner says. “But now we want to look past that into the future. There’s a desire for us to grow and build on that work.”

It’s an interesting move, to create an entire agency with this focus, given how much work traditional agencies are already doing in this space. State Street’s “Fearless Girl” by McCann New York being the most high-profile example, but other award-winning work this year includes Ogilvy Brazil’s “Strong Girls” for Nestle, and Nomades Mexico City’s gender violence awareness campaign for Tecate. Or Nike’s “Equality” work from Wieden+Kennedy. And that’s just around gender issues and inequality.

The agency says the growth in consumer sentiment around social impact and sustainability is strong enough that it represents an entire new shift in marketing and advertising, much like how digital and then social media impacted the ad business. Before it became commonplace, there were specialists–and MAL\For Good sees itself as the specialist for social impact. The agency has worked recently with Starbucks and Toms.

“This is the forefront of a new focus–it’s important to show brands how they can do it,” says Plowman. “Marketing is changing. It’s becoming deeper, more complex, and more transparent. The work we do helps brands to communicate their values and beliefs outwardly, but also internally to employees. Ultimately, our work is about emotionally connecting a brand with its different audiences deeply.”

The key for any brand looking to do more with its marketing budget is to look at it as a long-term investment. Social impact is not a gimmick.

“Are you really in this or not? Your toe is dipped in but you’re not committing,” says Plowman. “You can’t change public schools, help health care or poverty with a one-off. These are long-term commitments.”


The first questions to ask when incorporating social impact with a brand are: what’s important to the brand, and what’s important to its audience? The Venn diagram between the two is a good place to start in finding where that brand can make the best, most effective impact.

“For me it’s always been about trying to find the truth, in the product, the opportunity, and work outwards from that truth,” says Milner. “It comes back to identifying that truth, what is authentic–let’s talk about that. Once you find that, and the audience it will connect with, then you have a path to follow.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.