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Sustainability is no false Messiah

16 Jan 2020  |  Ollie Joyce 
Sustainability is no false Messiah

Despite voices of agreement, Dominic Mills ruffled feathers this month when he argued any impact adland can make in tackling climate change would only be at the margins. However, Mindshare's Ollie Joyce argues sustainability will be the 'megatrend' to shape markets over the next 20 years

The case for advertising having a role, let alone a positive impact, on sustainability doesn’t start in a promising place.

Numerous CSR efforts and purpose positionings have been exposed as skin deep virtue signalling or outright hypocrisy. Advertising's self-indulgence in awarding fashionable ideas that make no lasting impact continues largely unabated.

And then there’s the strange irony of an industry created to sell, considering the opposite – like an architect going into demolition to improve the view.

But things are about to change for commercial rather than ethical reasons.

The success of sustainable business is key to a carbon neutral world

Greta Thunberg and XR are playing a vital role in driving awareness and urgency. Amazing job, please carry on. But whilst their message is striking, making their solutions work would require a reversal in all historical precedent, as innately selfish humans have never supported a government that promotes economic decline or a perceived drop in living standards.

As billionaire businessman Mark Benioff said at CES, the choice between doing good and growth is a completely false one.

Things change radically when there is high buyer demand and providers can also profit. To date with sustainability neither has been broadly true. However, whether it’s Thunberg or the death of a billion animals in Australian fires, the game is changing.

On the demand side quant surveys across the globe are showing consumer concern around environmental issues is growing at an unprecedented rate.

On the profit side businesses as big as Unilever are already seeing their sustainable living brands growing fastest. Kara Swisher on the Pivot podcast decried the lack, to date, of tech investment in sustainability but still predicted that the first Trillionaire would emerge in this space.

Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, who control $7 trillion in investments, announced in his annual letter this week that environmental risk was financial risk, and that a significant re-allocation of capital will happen.

China, often vilified for its environmental record, has installed around 70% of the worlds electric charging points as it plans to reduce its reliance on oil.

Put simply, sustainable businesses will replace those that aren’t.

Delivering a mass behavioural shift

It will sometimes be about consuming less. But has anyone mourned the 95% decline in plastic bag usage? If consumers reduce power consumption by 30%, but bills are only reduced by 15% because energy sources cost more & suppliers need to fund eco R&D AND grow profit margins, is there a loser in that scenario?

However, marketing disciplines at their best are about making markets. Changing attitudes, lifestyles and behaviour is what advertising does. Now it needs to be deployed not to reverse the massive benefits that economic progress has brought (reduced poverty, infant mortality, deaths in conflict & illiteracy), but to radically change usage in a way that’s consistent with a zero-carbon world.

I am not renowned for my lack of cynicism, but I feel differently about this. I’ve never seen such a significant upswing in consumer data on a similarly broad topic."

To suggest ads alone can solve this is wrong, but the abject failure of governments globally to implement any meaningful public policy change across the last decade indicates that relying on those institutions is over optimistic. In the same way that advertising has played a pivotal role alongside government policy in changing attitudes & behaviour on public health issues, the same can and must be done here.

On the subject of public health none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested last week that the focus on long term catastrophe was wrong, and that messaging should be about the immediate impact on our health – and he should know as he’s been to the future.

This is exactly the sort of messaging challenge that advertising is great at, and its best talent can be deployed to accelerate public demand into mass lifestyle changes.

Beyond the immediate imperative of getting our own houses in order, what specifically should agencies do? A starter for ten:

  • Understand and relentlessly articulate the growth potential for companies who lead in the shift to a carbon zero world

  • Be more provocative with clients and ourselves about the veracity of claims. Remind everyone that the benefit of social outrage is that virtue signalling is more a threat than an opportunity

  • Deploy the best talent on the biggest growth opportunity. Constantly trialling and testing ideas that will harness public and political populism for good

  • Challenge the economics of volume growth. Is the winning strategy selling fewer but better at a higher margin?

  • Negotiate sustainability clauses with media owners to sit alongside those guaranteeing brand safety and viewability

  • Communicate lifestyle change at every single opportunity: from a recycling bin in every kitchen TV scene, to the new generation of social media influencers

  • Get the super brains at the IPA to help all agencies build the business case that supports the thesis that sustainability is the biggest growth opportunity

  • Be patient and resilient. There is urgency, and things to do now. But this is a 10–20 year project in which we will do something great one week, and then need to empty the warehouses on Black Friday. That’s life, just make sure we are making major strides every year

  • Challenge and change the brief. Eat better. Buy better. Waste Less. Travel Better. Protect nature.

Success will mean there won’t be a need for carbon neutral marketing awards, because brands delivering best against this growing consumer demand will dominate all awards.

A lack of optimism is not an option - It must end well

I am not renowned for my lack of cynicism, especially in the depths of January. But I feel differently about this. I’ve never seen such a significant upswing in consumer data on a similarly broad topic.

I’m seeing car brands with unequivocal environmental goals like Volvo dramatically outperform the market. I’ve heard for the first time a CMO refusing to run marketing activity until the company changes its own behaviour.

I’m amazed by the upswing of veganism after 30+ years of it being a punchline. I’m quietly hopeful about the small shift to practical tech at CES. I’m inspired by my 5-year old neighbour Weezie Peterson who saw the plight of Australia’s Koala’s and 3 hours later had raised $250 from the residents of Brooklyn. I want my pension invested with companies that will dominate battery innovation or successfully replace plastic.

Emotion and idealism aside, I believe the economics will increasingly work and that advertising can accelerate the current groundswell into a mass behavioural shift. As articulated by global chief development officer at Mindshare, Marco Rimini, sustainability can be the megatrend of the next 20-years in the same way that Digitalisation has been of the last 20.

Do well by doing good has largely been a catch phrase, but over the next decade it can become a reality. Because unlike the majority of our ‘issues of the moment’, it’s here to stay because we can’t afford to ignore it or to let it fail.

Ollie Joyce is Head of Worldwide, Mindshare

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26 Feb 2020 

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