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It's a strange state of affairs when even advertising agencies are leery of saying they do advertising.

For what are we to make of HumanKind, a new book from the global ad agency Leo Burnett which begins with the declaration: "This is not about advertising. This is about people," and calls for a wholesale reimagining of what advertising should be?

Chalk it up to the fact that advertising, at least the way it is traditionally conceived, is widely believed to be in its death throes, beset by a perfect storm of technology-induced cultural changes. People are no longer content to sit obediently and receive messages blasted out at them through various media channels (TV, radio, newspapers, and so on); they are often skeptical of brands and the claims they make, and are able to shout their displeasure from the digital mountaintops; but they're also happy to become passionate advocates for the brands they like, magnifying the marketing messages of those companies.

It's no wonder agencies are in the thrall of an existential crisis. HumanKind is Leo Burnett's attempt to point the way forward for the industry while simultaneously boasting of the ways it believes advertising can help (lower-case) humankind.

The book is one of a handful of recent tomes from ad agencies designed to burnish their reputations. Is it a coincidence that in this recessionary age of fitful, conflicted consumption, the books largely prefer to focus on the non-commercial aspects of advertising – on the pure creative impulse that drives it, and on the planet-fixing charitable causes that require marketing to spread their message?

You'll see barely a whisper about advertising in Brutal Simplicity of Thought, despite the fact that it was created by M&C Saatchi, the boutique London-based agency founded by industry icons Charles and Maurice Saatchi. Rather, the book, which was launched with an event at the Victoria & Albert Museum during the London Design Festival, brings together a few dozen examples of powerful ideas that altered the world. (In doing so, of course, the book neatly implies that the agency, too, is a font of such ideas).

The most aggressively chest-thumping book comes from Euro RSCG, the global network with about 11,000 employees in more than 230 offices. The Creative Business Idea Book brings together almost 30 brief case studies of campaigns the agency believes didn't just help a client increase revenue, but fundamentally transformed the brands in question. (Euro calls the ideas behind these campaigns CBIs, and has actually registered the phrase Creative Business Idea, though a quick search on Google suggests the agency isn't doing a terribly good job of enforcing its intellectual property rights.)

The book is a pleasant tiptoe through a couple of dozen of the agency's more successful and popular advertising efforts, such as the 2007 Dos Equus campaign in which the beer brand introduced The Most Interesting Man in the World; Evian's 2008 "Roller Babies" viral video of bopping, roller-skating infants getting funky in Central Park; and an Air France campaign which pitched the airline not as a mere conveyer of people but – in the words of a Euro executive – a "true well-being provider" for high-margin business travellers.

Each of these campaigns was so highly regarded that it won one of the agency's internal CBI Awards, which are handed out annually.

Leo Burnett also honours its best creative work, but the judgments cut both ways: The agency's leadership convenes on a quarterly basis to review every single piece of creative produced, and score them on a 10-point "HumanKind" scale. Those scoring seven and above are celebrated around the network; those scoring too low are subject to an internal critique. And no wonder: As the book notes, advertising that scores a 2 is "appallingly uninteresting" and "does a disservice to our industry."

Happily for some of its employees, the poorly performing campaigns aren't called out by name in HumanKind. Rather, the book is interested in efforts that embody the shifting nature of advertising. Leo Burnett is a big fan of "acts, not ads" that engage people, such as a pop-up store that opened in a popular Lisbon mall one Christmas to raise money for the Red Cross. Rather than trying to guilt people into charity, the organization chose to "sell hope" by offering shoppers a conventional retail environment in which they actually couldn't buy anything tangible. (The store scored a 8.2 on the HumanKind scale.)

To date, the highest scoring campaign was for Earth Hour, the annual stunt to raise awareness of environmental issues in which millions of people and businesses around the world turn off their lights for an hour. (It scored a 9.0.) The Saatchi book wants to engender some of the same warm and fuzzy feelings as those efforts by offering up examples of innovations that changed the world: the invention of the written word, of Morse code, of eyeglasses, of thread screws, of cash. Certain poets and inventors and political legends get a nod.

The book is laid out in double-page spreads, with a challenge on the right-hand side ( "How do you carry a cow in your pocket?") and the corresponding answer on the left (a picture of a coin) and a few sentences of explanation. All told, there are almost four dozen such examples, and if they aren't all true world-changers (does it really help the bulk of humanity to know you can control an ostrich by throwing a sock over its head?), most will make you stop and think for a moment or three.

What laid the foundations for the skyscraper? As Saatchi sees it, that would be the work of Elisha Otis, whose safety elevators "allowed mankind to rise upwards." How do you persuade customers to buy more than they can carry? If you're Walter Deubner in 1912, you attach a cord handle to an inexpensive paper bag, and then go on to sell more than one million shopping bags.

What does this have to do with advertising? The Saatchis don't answer that question directly, but their introduction contains some clues for the clueless. Brands, after all, must be brutally simple for people to understand (even if they are underpinned with a network of theories and research and emotions). The most effective sales pitches are similarly simple.

If there's a danger in simplicity – we've just wrapped up a number of elections across the country that were full of dunderheaded slogans and too little real dialogue about the provinces' challenges – you won't hear it here.

But that's partly because the Saatchis – ad men through and through – are inveterate optimists. And it seems that by invoking Keats and Delacroix and Bertrand Russell and Shakespeare, they are trying to inspire the trade into recognizing it is involved in the work of making a better world, not just a better advertised world.