Certified Good: B Corp Helps Create Better Businesses
The environment and sustainability were once again in the spotlight at last week's G7 summit. Some agencies have already embraced B Corp status to do their bit
Corporate and social responsibility attracts passionate views across the advertising industry. It’s reassuring, then, that this doesn’t dissipate wholly as hot air when it comes to making agencies more sustainable and inclusive businesses. And as the Greta Thunberg effect sweeps the globe, adland seems to be doing its bit.
Several agencies have applied for, and gained, recognition as B Corporations. B Corp certification is being awarded to companies (close to 4,000 of them in 74 countries) that can prove that they balance “purpose and profit” in order to drive “a global movement of people using business as a force for good.”
Achieving B Corp certification however is not an easy process. Perhaps that is why it makes it that much more meaningful. It is the only certification that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. Certified B Corps are “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.” The process can take typically anything up to two years, and companies must be recertified every three years.
In early May, Total Media became the first independent media agency to win the coveted B Corp status. It followed in the footsteps of UK-based agencies including Havas London in winning the recognition (Havas laying claim to be the first major ad agency to be named a B Corp back in 2019). VCCP and MSQ Partners are two of the agency groups currently on the journey towards B Corp status.
Why do it?
But why go down that route in the first place? Xavier Rees, the CEO of Havas London, says: “I passionately believe that if you run a business generating the kind of revenues that we do, you have a responsibility beyond simply maximising profit. Business can, and should be, a force for good – and it’s eminently possible to have a positive impact on your employees, local community and the wider world without inhibiting commercial success.
"It’s not about prioritising people and planet over profit, but ensuring each factor is balanced in the decisions you make as a business.”
Mike Sell, the chairman of Total Media, adds: “Environmental concerns, global warming, the pandemic, the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter have all combined to build serious momentum behind the whole Environment, Social and Corporate Governance issue.
"We had been attempting to tackle some of these issues ourselves, and the B Corp process was a logical progression for us to address the process in a more formal and structured manner. We received immediate, and unanimous, support from our teams – and were inundated with staff volunteering to participate in the various working parties that we set up for the process.”
Why achieving B Corp Status Is Critical?
So what exactly does it mean in practice? Rees says Havas London’s B Corp-inspired initiatives include “significantly enhanced paternity policies, genuine flexible working (even before the pandemic), eliminating single-use plastic from our café and kitchens and pledging, at a group-wide level, to become carbon net-zero by 2025. All these initiatives will have a tangible impact on our people and the planet, and significantly reduce our negative impact on the world.”
He adds that the move was inspired in part by clients - Mark Cuddigan, the chief executive at Ella’s Kitchen, introduced the agency to the B Corp concept in the first place. “Social and environmental impact is increasingly a consideration for companies – and they want to work with likeminded partners,” says Rees.
Sell says that B Corp status can be a business driver and motivational factor for an agency’s people: “We’ve been invited on three new business pitches recently where the client has asked whether we have, or are in the process of applying for, B Corp accreditation.”
VCCP and MSQ Partners have each embarked on achieving B Corp status, so what has the experience been like so far? Steph Brimacombe, CEO Europe and Global Chief Marketing Officer, and Rebecca Coleman, Group General Counsel, at VCCP, are the B Corp programme leads at the agency. They say: “As a business, we already have a number of social and environmental initiatives in place and recently received Planet Mark accreditation. We are now working towards B Corp, which we believe will act as a badge of trust and will send a clear message to everyone about our core commitment to operating more sustainably.”
Ben Rudman, executive director at MSQ, is overseeing its B Corp bid, which is in its early stages. He explains that it’s a relatively complex process as there are nine different organisations under the MSQ banner: “It’s a good way of moving the organisation forward at the same time and showing and assessing what we are doing more widely. It enables us to bring together a lot of threads and articulate them under one banner. A B Corp is a really good way to talk about what you’re doing in a positive light in terms of what you stand for in terms of sustainability, your people, and your clients, partners, suppliers and local communities. It covers all the core bases and ensures purpose is at the heart of your business, not just commercial interests.”
The VCCP duo adds: “To obtain the certification we have to look at every aspect of our operations globally and engage with almost every part of the business. As such, and beyond the obvious requirements of the accreditation, we hope that this way of thinking becomes part of the fabric of the agency and our decision making, whether that’s in the suppliers we use for our offices, the way in which we travel, or the way we conduct our productions.”
While this kind of commitment is impressive, Rees at Havas London says advertising generally could work harder on sustainability and community engagement: “The industry talks a good CSR game, but agencies on the whole simply don’t think about this stuff enough — and there remains a distinct lack of transparency, accountability and long-term, codified commitment. B Corp certification puts our money where our mouth is and demonstrates there is no reason why other agencies cannot commit to these same standards.”
But what advice do B Corps have for others considering the move? Sell says it’s important to “try not to make this a ‘top-down’ process – a directive from the board. Ask for volunteers and get as many of your people involved in the process as possible.”
Rees says: “It’s an incredibly rigorous process, but that’s what makes it so meaningful. The hardest part was initially getting our heads around the task at hand – the enormous list of questions can feel quite daunting – but once we broke it down into individual questions that you can assign to each person best-placed to answer them, it became much more manageable.”
However, he adds that he preferred to create a smaller working group of people to manage the process: “We initially didn’t want to get too many people involved, so we kept it to quite a small working group which we resourced properly. This was, in part, because I was a bit nervous about how many people would be into it initially – but people have really embraced it. The best thing I can say is that B Corp doesn’t feel like it’s my thing anymore; there are lots of people driving it forward. But, for the initial certification process itself, a small, dedicated group worked well.”
Despite the hard work and energy involved in achieving B Corp status, it’s clearly a rewarding and worthwhile process to undertake. As Sell explains: “During the process, one of our team said: ‘you spend around 25% of the week at work, so why not help to create a business that you want to work for?’”