Adland: you have the world's biggest problem on your hands
Advertising helps sell stuff, but selling stuff is an environmental catastrophe. So how on earth can the marketing industry play a part in tackling climate change? By Michaela Jefferson
For any sane person, it doesn't need to be explained in any other terms: the climate is changing at an unnatural rate, and human activity is to blame.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change said holding climate change to the necessary 1.5°C limit will require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" - and that opens up a number of important questions for the advertising industry.
Like it or not, adland has greased the wheel of consumerism and promoted unsustainable consumer habits on behalf of its clients.
And now, according to a new report from C40, urban consumption-based emissions - ranging from food to electronics - need to be cut by at least 50% by 2030 if the IPCC's target is to be met.
Advertising, as a service industry, is just one part of the machine, and every part of the supply chain must take action to reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
But if adland is to play its part, it first needs to understand exactly what that entails.
An open letter published last month by purpose disruptors group The Comms Lab called upon the industry to acknowledge the role it has had in exacerbating the climate crisis, and to use its skills to shift society towards sustainable ways of living.
Far from burying their heads in the sand, the letter was signed by over 50 agency leaders, while tickets to the following Climate Crisis Summit sold out.
The response from the industry so far has been encouraging, says Jonathan Wise, a member of the group.
Yes, serious questions have been raised for advertisers and agencies, with some quite radical solutions discussed during the summit - "but unprecedented change means radical ideas need to be considered".
However, some of these questions pose an existential conundrum for advertising agencies.
What do you do, for example, if one of your clients is a fossil fuel company? Are you responsible as a business for the negative impact your client has on the environment, particularly as you're driving sales? Should you refuse to help advertise services which are directly harmful to the future of our planet?
Then there are those more insidiously harmful clients, whose high environmental cost is less immediately obvious. The fast fashion industry has heavy implications for the future of marine biodiversity, agriculture and textile waste, yet Britons are expected to buy more than 50 million 'throwaway outfits' this summer.
Advertising has shown how effective it can be. Perhaps too effectively.
Speaking more broadly on the subject of taking responsibility, Wise adds: "It's very difficult, I think, for people to consider that part of their job has been producing these negative consequences, and to be willing to consider that they can use their position of power to make the necessary changes."
But he is pleased that the industry is finally at a point where these conversations can take place, and believes that this challenge will present an opportunity for adlanders to step up and find a way to balance the needs of a business with the needs of the planet.
"It's a very difficult conversation, but the consequences of not acting are incredibly dire."
However, the real question is how committed adland's agencies actually are to taking urgent action against climate change - and whilst step changes are underway, any radical shifts still seem a way off.
Speaking with a range of agency bosses, there is a near-unanimous agreement that adland has a responsibility towards tackling climate change, and that advertising - with its skills in persuasion and human insight - is one of the best placed industries to drive positive action.
Recently, OOH specialist agency Kinetic's outgoing CEO, Stuart Taylor, called for adland bosses to do more.
"If you could apply just five percent of the creative and persuasive skills that the industry has, let alone the vast array of media capability via the available inventory, I think the industry would be capable of incredible and radical influence," he said.
In agreement, Lindsay Turner, UK CEO of Blue 449 and Spark Foundry, adds that with consumers currently feeling overwhelmed and guilty about climate change, the advertising industry has the opportunity to tell inspiring stories and raise awareness of the problems, while MediaCom's EMEA CEO Josh Krichefski says that agencies have an opportunity to "direct" clients towards incorporating sustainable practices into their operations.
"There's a strong business case for sustainability," Krichefski adds, noting a shift in what is important to contemporary consumers.
In the latest addition to MediaCom's annual brand purpose tracker, 67% of consumers said they'd pay more for environmentally-friendly products - and while the accuracy of self-reported data is questionable, the survey suggests that environmental concerns are increasingly at the forefront of consumer decision making.
And if future advertising can be used to promote better alternatives to unsustainable and harmful products, then there may be no need to reduce consumption levels.
According to futurist Tracey Follows, advertising can continue to maintain or even increase consumption levels of the right things, as sustainability products and services explode.
"Whether products like fashion apparel, consumer tech, or food and drink, the role of advertising will be to shine a light on the most sustainable, personalised options. It will make consumers aware of brand new materials and their properties, and promote how to use new tech-enabled services to live in more sustainable ways."
There's a tension, however, between the responsibility agencies feel towards the planet and the responsibility they feel towards their clients' business needs, with clients' interests ultimately coming first.
You can't "pressure" a client, says Leo Rayman, former CEO of Grey London and current CEO of Grey Consulting.
"It's about opening their eyes - a bit like with digital and technology back in the day."
When asked whether they would consider ditching heavy-carbon emitting clients from their agencies - one of the more "radical" suggestions from the climate summit - answers were tentative all-around.
"You can't just ask one cog in the engine to change behaviour - the whole engine needs to change," Rayman says.
"If we're trying to make good, sustainable decisions [which] have a cost impact, it's one that must be borne by every aspect of the value chain. Everyone must be involved in solving that problem, or you can't do it."
Indeed, everyone Mediatel spoke to agreed that commitments of that level would require industry-wide agreements.
And although MediaCom's managing partner, Pauline Robson - who helped to support the Climate Crisis Summit last month - admits that adland is "great at talking and not that great at doing" when it comes to industry wide problems, "a year ago people weren't sitting in a room from different agencies talking about climate change - so that's a really positive step."
“But we need to keep the momentum going and that’s making sure that something changes as a result, because we can’t afford for change not to happen.”
To cynics, however, signing a letter and sacrificing an afternoon for an event might be interpreted as an easy bit of PR from an industry that has a history of indulging in virtue signalling, unless genuine decision-making takes place soon.
Plus, according to some agency leaders, achieving cross-industry consensus for any large-scale initiatives could take too much time.
So for Blue 449's Turner, agencies have to start at home with their own clients first.
"If you wait until everyone is in the same room at the same time pulling in the same direction then you could be waiting another 20 years."
Think about what you can do now, and copy what you can from elsewhere, she says. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel."
"If all the elements of the supply chain do what they can tomorrow, that's going to be better than waiting six months before everyone can get in a room together. The sooner we can do things, even if it's small steps, they can add up to a big difference."
Radical ideas for change may remain off the table for now, particularly until adland can come to some tough, collective decisions, but small step changes are taking place across the industry.
At this year's Cannes Lions Festival, WPP CEO Mark Read pledged that all WPP agencies would be plastic-free and carbon-neutral by the end of the year (though this does not account for the carbon output of their clients or their media plans).
WPP agencies Mindshare and MediaCom both take a strong position on this, with both agencies in the UK claiming to already be plastic-free and carbon-neutral, while MediaCom claims to have already reached carbon-negativity.
"We as our own offices and agencies need to make sure we're not contributing to climate change," Helen McRae, CEO of Mindshare UK says. She adds that this is a top priority for her, as climate change is "probably the most important thing we have on the global agenda today as human beings".
Meanwhile, Kinetic X, a division of out-of-home specialist agency Kinetic and a start-up incubator focused on emerging tech in the OOH space, has partnered with environmental media start-up Pluvo to offer brands an opportunity to help tackle the problem of air quality in cities through advertising.
The start-up builds air-purifying outdoor ad inventory which cleans the air as it sells. The plan is to place the technology at valuable, high foot-fall locations across cities, and a number of UK city councils are expected to launch the solution by the end of 2019.
Another example of a company taking an existing and high-performing business model and making it green is Ecosia, the eco-friendly search engine offering internet users and advertisers an alternative to Google.
Ecosia uses its ad revenues to plant trees - over 62 million so far - where they're needed most, benefiting people, the environment and local economies. The company claims that its servers run on 100% renewable energy, and that every search request removes 1kg of CO2 from the atmosphere.
And elsewhere, indy agency Bountiful Cow announced earlier this month that it is launching a TV carbon offset scheme.
The voluntary levy uses industry-wide carbon footprint data covering all the major UK broadcasters to approximate the carbon output of a client's TV campaign, and asks the client to pay to offset the damage.
"Of all the clients we've spoken to, they're generally positive and up for doing it. We're not talking huge amounts of money, but as I say, it's a step in the right direction," says Henry Daglish, CEO, adding that he would like to see carbon-offset schemes become the norm.
Tellingly, Daglish says he has publicly offered to share Bountiful Cow's method with other agencies to help get it running across the whole industry, but has yet to receive any replies.
"There's a really weird thing where people have either a cynicism or a lethargy to actually do anything about this," he says.
"The industry isn't that good at getting together to get around these types of issues. It's been caught up in other issues over the last few years - hopefully this will be the next one - but I'd love it if someone said, 'actually, let's see how we can do something similar in the outdoor space'.
"Call me a cynic, but I do sometimes think the industry is jumping on top of [climate change] because it's a massive topic given all the events that have happened over the first six months of this year. It's being more reactive than proactive."