question of the week

Why do DEI objectives rarely feature in client briefs?

A recent report suggests DEI & sustainability objectives rarely find their way into client projects. We ask why brands are hesitant to do so, while claiming to respond to the climate crisis

By Dani Gibson

A recent WARC report - The Future of Strategy 2023 - suggests that while many companies have taken great strides towards responding to the climate crisis they fail to feature sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) objectives in client briefs, suggesting an intention-action gap in what marketers say, and what they do.

The report unpacks the key trends considered pivotal to the future of strategy and is based on a worldwide survey with 971 client- and agency-side strategists. Nearly 60 per cent of strategists acknowledge that DEI objectives rarely find their way into project briefs. A striking 50 per cent claim that sustainability considerations are seldom present. On the other hand, marketers seem to have amplified their discourse on the pressing nature of sustainability challenges. The question remains: why does an intention-action gap persist?

The report goes on to add that strategists expect this to change, and strategies of the future will need to imagine better ways for this to grow. This might mean things like demand switching, the circular economy, radical innovation, and doing (and wasting) less.

We ask whether marketers feel ill-equipped due to budget constraints or a skills gap? Or are brands silent on sustainability due to the pervasive fear of greenwashing, where proclamations exceed actions? Is there an organisational mindset deeming sustainability too costly?

Deb Caldow, global marketing director, Diageo

I believe it comes down to 2 main issues.

There are some who simply don’t know what to say or don’t have anything to talk about. This might be because their business hasn’t made sustainability a priority, or they haven’t worked out what their role is in the transformation, or maybe they think ESG is the supply and procurement teams problem to fix. At worst, marketers don’t know what to say because there is no genuine progress to talk about or they don’t think leading the change is their job.

The more existential issue? If a marketers role is not to drive humans to consume more stuff, what is their reason for being? The marketing industry is at a massive inflection point, one which I am hoping and agitating for us to lean-into, not away-from.

For others, the line from Ronan Keating’s power ballad sums how marketers might feel on communicating brand sustainability narratives – “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”. Those that have something genuine and important to share with consumers, but don’t for fear of greenwashing backlash (green-shushing)…. it’s this behaviour I am most concerned about. As marketers we have the unique role of creating desirable consumer behavioural change, offering more sustainable options and supporting the transformation to living life within planetary boundaries. What a missed opportunity for us shape more sustainable lives, using the best of all our creativity and story-telling to turn the tide.

It’s not just a moral obligation – this is about business resilience – making sure that there is a future for the companies and brands we support.

At Diageo, we are working across both issues. To reimagine marketing’s role in creating a sustainable future AND provide our marketers with support on how to be both creative AND compliant on sustainability communications.

Jo McClintock, VP Brand & Marketing, Trainline

As marketers you need to wear two hats, one hat on the business performance and another on the cultural responsibility as a brand. In my opinion we need to find a way to do both, all the time.

It's our job to bring ideas that break conventions to the table whether that be in the space of DEI or Sustainability, whilst giving the business confidence in delivering on its core business goals. We must take a leadership position and not wait for permission.

Whilst it may sound its "all on us" we do not need to do this alone. Develop trusted relationships with internal stakeholders to understand their perspectives and work with a brilliant creative and insights team to deliver a powerful idea that aligns with your goals and has integrity - there is no need to fear.

Dan Tendler, strategy director, Wunderman Thompson

As advertisers, we have an incredibly privileged position when it comes to driving change. Not just for our clients, but for society. The work, the content, the ads we create – all of them are opportunities to help normalise behaviours that make us all more ‘sustainable’.

Rather than waiting for a client to want to shout about what they’re doing to be greener, the job is to recognise that almost any brief can be ‘sustainable’. We need to be empowered to understand that as individuals, we have that agency. We can be the spark. We can be the ones to push for that difference.

Turning a CRM-brief into a way to help existing customers use a product for longer? That’s now a sustainable brief.

Taking an experience-brief and suggesting product repair as a new revenue stream? That’s now a sustainable brief.

Using a brand brief to showcase ‘lower carbon’ ways to use the same product (i.e. showing four people in a car, rather than someone driving on their own)? That’s now a sustainable brief.

Consistently pushing forwards and celebrating these more sustainable behaviours can make a real difference. And they’re all things we can start to do today, while trying to never lose sight of the fact that our future is always worth fighting for - no matter who you are or where you are.

Andy Last, Executive Partner Purpose and Sustainability, MullenLowe

Marketers have been talking about sustainability because investors are demanding ESG commitments from their companies, and their boards are looking to the marketing department for a return on those investments. Why isn’t this showing up in more briefs? For three reasons in particular:

Increasingly well-policed anti-greenwash regulation is forcing marketers to think twice about what they brief. When the ASA banned a series of Shell ads earlier this year, they ruled that the company couldn’t oversell its environmental initiatives as long as it remained a major polluter. For while the company did indeed spend $4.3 billion on low carbon projects in 2022, the vast majority of its $25 billion capital expenditure was spent on extracting oil and gas. While you can understand why this might make marketers hesitant to include sustainability in briefs, that silence is increasingly taken as an admission of guilt;

Sustainability is complicated and few agencies have the specialist capability to understand the nuances and identify a creative route for sustainability that can be taken without fear of backlash;

Marketers and agencies have also been squeamish about demanding commercial returns from ‘doing good’ briefs – reserving them for awards season. Without the same commercial rigour and targets, the case becomes harder to make in a safety-first marketing world.

But sustainability is no longer a choice for business. The regulatory environment is only moving in one direction (even Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement deferring the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 doesn’t affect the overall 2050 net zero goal and was met with a series of confirmations from the motor industry that they would be sticking with their 2030 plans for electric new cars); sustainability reporting is now a requirement from investors and the majority of supply chain partners; and sustainability is increasingly a driver for retail customers.

Which makes it no longer a choice for marketers. Agencies with any sort of eye on the future need to develop their sustainability capability, integrate it into strategy and creative to unlock the competitive opportunities it offers, and challenge clients who are misrepresenting their companies’ strategy by excluding it from briefs.

Suzanne Barker, Strategy Partner at AMV and AMVxGreen Lead

About 18-24 months ago, we noticed more brands coming looking for sustainability strategies. We helped them through it, but also pushed them to make it actionable. And it’s fair to say that many brands in the industry pressed pause after writing their strategies, either because they realised they had to step back and review some of their own practices or because they didn’t feel it was the right moment. And in some cases, it almost feels like they’ve checked a box they need to tik, rather than moving to embed sustainability across the organisation. And to be fair, brand managers have a lot on their plates - sustainability is one thing, not the thing on their long to-do list.

But it’s not a budget or a skills gap, it’s a leadership thing. And it starts at the top of the chain. The brands who have C-level management advocating for the cause are the brands that are truly committed and inspire their employees to extend it everywhere in the organisation. On those types of brands, we see sustainability embedded end-to-end…from their strategy to the briefs they write, to their latest innovation, to the back end of using virtual production to making creative campaigns. We applaud our clients like Bupa, who integrate their commitment across everything they do; stemming from a bold leader like Inaki Ereno; and giving us the trust to really pilot new techniques in sustainable production (for example). Have also been impressed by some of Unilever’s leadership such as Paul Polman and Hanneke Faber - who are constantly speaking out to advocate for change. Or brands like Ben and Jerry’s that use every piece in their ecosystem to extend their point of view. So simply put, the missing gap in sustainability isn’t a lack of tools or resources, it’s about having the loud and passionate voice at the top to push and inspire marketers to ensure sustainability is absolutely at the heart of everything.


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