Going for Green: Is the ad industry moving forward on climate crisis?
We ask if the industry is gearing up for a serious reckoning with climate impact
25 April 2023
Finally, an ad campaign that everyone is talking about. Even outside the industry. Starring Hollywood superstars Rose Leslie and Kit Harington for Make My Money Matter, the initiative was set up by Richard Curtis to encourage people to save their money with organisations that protect our future and are environmentally friendly.
Created by Mother, the ad puts pressure on the UK's high-street banks to stop financing fossil fuel expansion. Climate change is one of the defining issues of our era, hence its popularity.
But there is a bigger issue to consider here. Advertising (and advertising agencies) have made significant strides in terms of social responsibility in recent years. Yet advertising could still face its toughest test yet when addressing the burgeoning climate crisis.
In a sense it's become a victim of its own success. So how does a business that has become so hyper-optimised in terms of selling goods justify its future at a time when consumption is seen by many as damaging to the planet?
Towards Green Growth
Apologists will always claim that advertising drives choice rather than demand, but this argument is harder to countenance given the skew in the past 15 years towards performance-based marketing above brand-centric activity. So how does advertising move forward on green issues?
Thankfully, it’s already taking action in the shape of robust industry initiatives - not least is Ad Net Zero, which introduced a five-point action plan to help advertising businesses address the climate crisis. In addition, AdGreen recently highlighted the opportunity for carbon reduction in the ad production process.
Agencies themselves are also taking a more proactive stance by launching specialist sustainability divisions to apply their creativity towards green-themed client work. The most recent of these is AMVxGreen, offering clients of AMV BBDO advice and solutions in the field.
This type of service is already meeting with high demand. Network MSQ has its own sustainability agency, MSQ Sustain, and has invested significant resource in ensuring that it tackles climate-themed issues. James Cannings, the founder of MSQ-owned agency MMT Digital, is now the network's chief sustainability officer. He says that its activity in the area is two-fold - "getting our own house in order" while also working with clients to address their sustainability concerns.
When it comes to its own operations, MSQ is committed to a "core net zero strategy" based on carbon reduction, tree planting and carbon removals as it progresses towards a position of being carbon negative.
Cannings adds on client-focused activity: "Consumers are cynical, sceptical and respond better to 'we're not perfect but here's what we're doing'. So our job is not to tell our clients that we should stop marketing and making ads, the world's not going to accept that yet. But over the next five to ten years to lead grown up conversations about the products and services that we're helping to sell and understand where clients are on their journey so we're not accidentally greenwashing for them. But getting the message right as they move on their journey."
Creative highlights from MSQ Sustain include activity for AXA Investment Managers and a campaign to launch 1T.Org, a platform for tree planting that was announced at the World Economic Forum. MSQ also publishes an annual sustainability report and works to reduce the carbon footprint of its own websites.
While this type of focus is undoubtedly laudable it also has business benefits for agencies. Tina Fegent, the marketing procurement expert, says that between 5 and 10 per cent of the criteria for agency selection is now typically based on an agency's sustainability credentials.
Green Advertising & The Reluctant Client
However, while Fegent welcomes ideas such as the launch of AMVxGreen she's yet to be convinced that there's a widespread client demand for green-related consultancy from agencies: "I'd say it's good for agencies to diversify and keep up with what clients want. But it's the context that's important. I can't think of any agencies I've worked with that have been put on pitch lists because they offer consultancy services on this."
But AMVxGreen's co-founders, Mark Graeme and Jonny White, are understandably convinced that there's a market for its services. They indicate that they are seeing an increase in the number of sustainability-related briefs in the market and also sense an opportunity in working with brands to avoid allegations of "greenwashing" in their communications.
White says: "The whole concept of greenwashing is probably the biggest thing on clients minds. How do we communicate and make business sense because consumers are demanding it? But also how do we do that in the right way that isn't going to get us into hot water and fall foul of regulations?"
AMV has already worked on green campaigns for clients including Bupa, and has advised electrical retailer Currys on its role in the circular economy. The agency is building on a rich heritage of green-themed work. Its 'Trash Isles' campaign for Plastic Oceans and LadBible won a Grand Prix at Cannes in 2018, while 'Hope Reef' for Sheba highlighted the demise of coral reefs. Mark Graeme says: "That's the task really, to keep the bar high and to find campaigns, projects and challenges that we can take into this year and next year. Sometimes that isn't quick wins, but it's great to see longer projects bear fruit."
Graeme points out that "the bigger prize is the cultural impact that sustainability has on consumers' lifestyles." Meanwhile, MSQ's Cannings is clear that agencies can do more to address the climate crisis. One move he's in favour of is that all advertising awards should reflect the importance of green-related issues by rewarding work across categories based on around 25 per cent sustainability criteria.
Cannings also believes that advertising can learn from disciplines such as customer experience where experts are focusing increasingly on "humanity-centered design". It will be fascinating to see if ad agencies are able to build a similar sustainability emphasis into all their work for clients. As Cannings concludes: "You can debate whether commercialism can solve the problem it's created but we need to see leaders on this."
The Green Pioneers
AMV BBDO - With a client portfolio that includes Sheba Hope Reef, in partnership with Mars Sustainable Solutions, Addresspollution.org, for the Central Office of Public Interest (COPI), and Trash Isles developed with LADBible, AMV is the most awarded agency in the UK for sustainability and has launched a dedicated consultancy AMVxGreen. The agency believes that sustainability should never be an afterthought, it should be central to the brand and the business no matter the brief or the client.
Dentsu - The agency network has a dedicated sustainability unit, Dentsu Sustainability Lab, to help clients develop green strategies and ads. Campaigns for clients include Toyota's 'Fuelled by Everything', WWF's 'Stop Wildlife Crime', and Procter & Gamble's 'The Lion's Share'.
EssenceMediacom - In 2022, the agency launched its sustainable programmatic marketplace service. This unites “trusted UK publishers with clear Net Zero strategies who have committed to decarbonising their media supply”, and aims to reduce the carbon footprint of campaigns while rewarding publishers who set decarbonising their business as a priority.
Havas - In a similar vein, Havas Media Group launched a sustainability marketplace in 2021, which offers clients access to publishers and networks that are focused on building a sustainable media ecosystem, and to target spending around sustainability-oriented content.
Mother - The agency launched Mother Goods in September 2022. The idea is to "create goods that do good". To help develop ideas and products that "that can make real tangible change to big world issues."
MSQ Sustain - MSQ Sustain offers consulting services to help clients assess their sustainability performance, develop strategies, and identify opportunities to reduce their environmental impact. The business also provides sustainability-focused creative services, including the development of campaigns and messaging.
McCann - McCann Worldgroup launched its global sustainability department in 2021, under the leadership of former McCann London director Jaclyn Kaminski. The unit is focused on delivering creative thinking for clients on green and other sustainability issues.
Publicis Groupe - Specialist creative sustainability consultancy Salterbaker is part of the group's UK portfolio, and provides strategy and communications for clients on climate issues. Clients have included Bacardi and Nestlé.
Revolt London - As part of its positioning as an "activist agency" Revolt puts an emphasis on climate change consultancy and communications. Green-focused work includes Budweiser's 'Energy Collective', 'Glowing Glowing Gone' for Pantone, and activity for water saving initiative Save our Streams.
Total Media - In 2022 the agency, which has also achieved BCorp status, launched a service for clients offering completely carbon neutral campaigns.
Weber Shandwick - The agency's global Sustainability Taskforce brings together experts in the field to develop solutions for clients.
Wunderman Thompson - In late 2021, Wunderman Thompson Commerce launched the global Sustainable Commerce Practice. A partnership with Vaayu, the climate technology company, it aims to drive responsible consumption across digital commerce channels.