James Cannings

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The agency sustainability sprint: Stop pledging and start measuring

MSQ's James Cannings on unleashing the power of measurement, reporting, and context to spearhead agency action against climate change

By James Cannings

It’s really easy for me to sit here as the chief sustainability officer of a global network and exclaim that, when it comes to carbon reduction, agencies aren’t doing enough.

Because it’s hard, right? There are enough daily challenges to overcome without having to think about how your actions are affecting the planet too. And where do you even start? The majority of businesses in our industry are SMEs, and they simply can’t employ Sustainability Leads to make complicated spreadsheets and invest major chunks of budgets in sustainability initiatives.

But of course, it’s important. I’m going to assume you don’t need convincing of that. And I do naturally think there’s a lot more that can be done. There are some areas in particular that I would urge agencies to consider before they go about making empty pledges or start pushing random sustainability comms.


It all starts with measurement. I chair BIMA’s Sustainability Council and speak to many agencies who are only really beginning to measure their carbon emissions now. That should be the start of the journey – way before any pledges are made.

If you’re not measuring your Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions (and have an understanding as to what each equates to) then you can’t best identify the strategies needed to reduce them. How extreme do you need to go to get back on track and reach your goal? What areas of the business are affecting you the most?

Having the data in place can help justify decisions to your teams and your clients. For instance, travel. Such a big lever for professional service businesses when it comes to their carbon footprint is travel.

Now, you can’t tell everyone to stop commuting, because we’re an industry that thrives on people and collaboration. You saw how badly Covid affected mental health.

But if you can understand how much carbon you need to cut, you can work out what travel is necessary, what is nice to have and what can be cut back on. You can also start considering the way we travel. Do you have a cycle to work scheme, or EV lease hires? Do you have EV charging points or encourage lift sharing? Do you factor in time for teams to take trains instead of flying when covering cross-UK or European meetings?

Changing behaviours

Being able to showcase the data and share knowledge with your teams is important for behavioural change, too. Behavioural change is hard. But if you can show your workings, chip away at the issues, then there’s a chance to bring everyone on board (and within an agency environment, it really takes everyone).

I wrote last year about how at MSQ, despite us being one of the world’s first carbon negative marketing groups and making big strides as a business in the space, our London-based staff still flew to Cannes Lions. Not because they didn’t believe in our cause, but because, simply, It hadn’t crossed their mind to get the train. They recognised and applauded our group-wide efforts, but hadn’t thought about the individual changes they could make.

Once we presented them the data, they started to make broader considerations. There was a renewed understanding of collective responsibility and what needs to be done to really shift the needle. This year, I’m delighted to say that a large chunk of those who attended Cannes and could take the train, did so.


How we showcase our data varies. We have regular group-wide sessions and leadership conferences in which I stand up and wave my arms around and point to some numbers. But if we as comms businesses want to lead the way, then we need more than that.

Which brings me neatly to Sustainability Reports. We’ve produced Sustainability Reports for the past two years – as low carbon websites, of course – and the aim is to be transparent about our progress, our findings and to establish how we believe we need to best apply those learnings going forward.

Our 2023 Sustainability Report contains all the details behind our 2022 carbon footprint and contextualises our reduction progress against our 2019 base year. It’s really important for us to hold ourselves accountable and drive engagement around our Science Based Targets, and to inspire others to do the same.

I urge all agencies to start producing their own Sustainability Reports as matter of protocol. It’s a requirement, for example, if you want to implement Science Based Targets – and it’s particularly useful if you want to apply for B Corp certification, which MSQ secured recently. I can certainly attest here that, having gone through an 18-month process answering multiple rigorous questions and sharing reams of data, those considering the process cannot take any of this lightly!

The future

But back to that original conundrum. Will wildly busy businesses find the time and impetus needed to make it all happen? For those in the really early stages, MSQ and BIMA have created a course on how to measure, reduce and offset your carbon footprint – it’s a relatively short course that already 3,000 organisations have signed up to – and there are lots of other platforms emerging to help kick start your momentum, platforms like Ecologi Zero, which is great for small businesses in particular.

I also look to clients to ask for proof points as part of their pitch process. And seriously look for them. Some procurement teams may ask about basic Net Zero plans, but it’s too easy to waffle your way around them. If clients aren’t challenging their agencies, then sustainability will still be seen as a ‘value add’. Do you really believe you’re going to be selected or miss out on a pitch because of it? For as long as that answer is no, the problem is pushed down the list.

That’s frustrating because what we’re doing is not a line item. It’s quite literally a battle against the end of the world as we know it. So please, no more empty pledges. Measure. Report. Contextualise. The tools are there – it’s imperative you use them.

James Cannings is the chief sustainability officer of MSQ


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