how agencies should work with high carbon clients


Shell, BP, Jaguar Land Rover and British Airways. You may have seen these trademarks across the UK in recent weeks, although it is unlikely to have made you want to buy a Landy 4×4 or book flights to New York.

If you’ve spotted the UK-wide campaign of subversion, you’ll know they weren’t the only black-marked names on the Brandalism and Free Cities results list. Some of London’s biggest advertising and media agencies, including Ogilvy, VCCP and MediaCom, have been named and humiliated alongside their polluting clients.

What do we want? Agencies to boycott their high carbon clients. When do we want it? Now!

Highlighting her belief that the advertising industry had escaped scrutiny for its role in the climate crisis and is complicit in environmental destruction, Brandalism’s Tona Merriman insists that: “Greenwash is second wave of climate denial, in which polluters use bogus carbon offsets and “net zero” to delay meaningful climate action.

“Even when they are not actively deceiving the public, the constant fabrication by advertisers of new desires for endless cycles of consumption is ravaging the planet. We need a paradigm shift.”

However, with the approach of COP26, the largest international summit the UK has ever hosted, the advertising industry has cleaned up, with hundreds joining Ad Net Zero – an initiative of Advertising Association, ISBA and IPA, which has the ultimate goal of achieving zero net carbon emissions by the end of 2030.

While Merriman and Brandalism are right, how should agencies work with high carbon clients and, given all of this progress, is it fair to accuse agencies of ‘promoting’ climate change for their purposes? work for high carbon customers?

Boycott the boycott?

Think local, Bristol residents urged Stokes Croft to boycott Tesco. #StopHateForProfit shouted civil rights groups that organized the Facebook advertising boycott last summer. Boycott GB News, rallied Stop Funding Hate. When people are not happy with something, the “boycott” is a timeless arsenal in their arsenal. But is this still the most effective form of combat?

“Boycott is such a strong and limited term, but not particularly progressive,” insists Kathleen Enright, CEO of Salterbaxter, a sustainability consultancy. “It leaves no room for progress, to help someone take a different perspective, or to push for change. Any boycott and no change would be a sad situation. ”

ISBA CEO Phil Smith agrees with Enright, saying the problem with bans and boycotts is that they don’t get us where we need to go – a sustainable future with a growing economy and greener products.

“Many of our members, including in sectors that have historically had a high carbon impact, are on this path: transform their operations, reuse existing creations and decarbonize their activities and value chains. In many cases, the agencies themselves help their clients with this work.

And the reality, according to Chris Norman, founder of the Good Agency, is that the agency-only boycott is unlikely to have a massive impact on the operations of most high-carbon companies, because it is not. not mainstream brands or, if they are, the consumer side of their business is not important.

“Business and regulatory pressures are driving change, but a boycott by the agencies would increase the pressure for change and, through a combination of activities and actions, they will have to change,” he says.

Be brief

Rather than refusing to work with high carbon clients, Enright says its sustainability consultancy is boycotting the briefs. “More agencies should do the same,” she insists.

Four in five ad agencies are willing to refuse to work with brands and other industry partners if they don’t work in an environmentally sustainable manner, according to a recent Campaign survey.

According to the survey, carried out exclusively for Campaign‘s Knowledge subscribers.

“We refuse memories that are fallacious, memories where walking does not support the word, memories where it is a reward without commitment,” insists Enright. “We reject briefs where ambition is not where it should be for a 1.5 degree future.”

Proximity to the problem is not a bad place to be

Perhaps the biggest blow of the year, last week British Airways (BA) handed over its advertising and CRM account to Uncommon, after a shootout against incumbent Ogilvy.

An unusual winning client for an independent agency that prides itself on working with environmentally conscious brands, the shock date actually fits into Iris’ overall philosophy – that it is normal to be close to the problem, as long as you work to solve it, as strategy director Ben Essen explains.

“Net-zero is a numbers game, so the greatest decarbonization opportunities lie with high-carbon customers,” he says.

When deciding whether to accept a new client, he exposes “traffic light” system that focuses on three issues. First, who are they (are they a high carbon customer, are they serious about decarbonization, do they have a clear, net zero funded strategy)? Second, what’s the job (will our mandate allow us to help them reduce their impact or engage us to help them green their image)? Third, how will the relationship work (will we be able to challenge them, are they seeking our help in solving the climate problem)?

“Although there are many customers who would not pass our ‘traffic light’ test, we have currently decided not to take an outright boycott approach,” he says. “The problem is too complex and our range of services too diverse.

“We would prefer transparency. Where organizations are open about their work for high carbon clients and its problematic nature, where tough questions are asked and how they plan to move from where they are now to net zero.

Green complaint code

Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) presented plans to tackle environmental and sustainability claims, giving brands until the new year to ensure their claims comply with the law.

The Green Claims Code follows research that found 40% of green claims made online could be misleading. Given that companies that make false or misleading claims will now be investigated, is the code enough to clean up the industry?

“The AMC Green Claims Code, as well as a new review of the Advertising Standards Authority, has helped raise awareness of advertisements that could be perceived as “green laundering,” said Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association.

“Accuracy and honesty in all advertising is paramount and this is an area carefully regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which expects advertisers to be able to prove any claim they make. on the environmental impact of the products and services they offer. “

However, for Enright, the code doesn’t go far enough. “I don’t think the Green Claims Code is close enough yet and I don’t think it’s driving change in the right places,” she insists.

Enright explains that the basic principle of the code is to avoid misleading customers. “It’s zero point, around 1995 – it’s just not enough, not today,” she says. “I don’t think it will help brands or agencies clean up their act. We need to take a Scope 3 perspective where it is the responsibility of communication content to drive sustainable business transformation and consumer behavior change towards low impact lifestyles. ”

A total ban on fossil fuel advertising?

Back in May, Amsterdam became the first city in the world to ban ads aviation and fossil fuel companies, in an effort to reduce “excess” advertising of fossil fuels. Although this is an important step, it is difficult to predict the impact this decision will have.

“Our point is that we should collectively focus on the real change of helping businesses accelerate towards a more sustainable future, not fiddling around the edges,” argues Enright. “Banning advertising sounds like a boisterous tactic rather than a gradual strategy. Fossil fuel and aviation companies need to look at the sustainability agenda and start an honest conversation with consumers about the issues they are tackling, where they are making progress and what is holding them back.

Regarding the UK market, Paul Bainsfair, Managing Director of IPA, says it should be noted that the fossil fuel and aviation companies are mature and largely stable in terms of size, with little growth, so the advertising will focus on the brand share.

“A ban on advertising for these products would therefore bring almost nothing in terms of an effective solution to face the climate crisis, but would have major consequences for our company, in particular job losses”, he said. declared. “I would be surprised if such a ban, like the one in Amsterdam, would happen in the UK.”

For Woodford, advertising promotes innovation and competition, which allows a company in any market to show why its product or service is better than another.

“This is the lever to pull, whether you want to see people switch from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles or from fossil fuels to renewables, as people search for more sustainable alternatives for the planet,” he argues.

“We need to see innovation in every industry because sustainability will be a key driver of competition this decade. Preventing the advertising of certain categories of products goes against this. While this can generate a day of positive headlines for politicians, it will not necessarily lead to the desired outcome of change through innovation within an industry. A ban, however, will hurt the media and advertising industry, reducing funding for content and journalists. “

With COP26 now running until November 12, the next few weeks will be a significant showcase of how the advertising industry can help tackle climate change.

“The fight against climate change is the great challenge of our generation. It is the one that calls out to every individual, every community, every business and every nation – and it cannot and should not be avoided, ”warns Smith.

“Advertising, like all other sectors of our economy, must play its part in ensuring that we meet this challenge and leave a more sustainable world for generations to come. “

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