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Greenwashing Environmental Campaigns Sustainable Transformation

Holding companies react as research claims fossil fuel contracts at all-time high


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

September 19, 2023 | 8 min read

Clean Creatives’ annual ‘F-List’ report claims to have unearthed a record number of contracts between fossil fuel firms and PR or ad agencies.

New York smog

The report has launched alongside an OOH campaign at New York climate week / Unsplash

Advertising industry campaign group Clean Creatives says that its new research methods have helped it identify approximately 500 contracts between fossil fuel firms and 294 different PR or ad agencies. This record number comes despite more agencies signing up to its pledge not to work with such clients.

As in previous years, the group tapped into information in the public domain to identify the agencies across PR and advertising working with fossil fuel clients and squaring their public sustainability commitments with the clients on their books.

Despite industry progress on sustainability, the number of contracts between PR or ad agencies working with oil and gas firms has remained high since Clean Creatives launched its first F-List in 2021.

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Since that first list, over 700 agencies around the world have pledged to cease working with fossil fuel clients but the 2023 F-List singles out the 294 that maintained their relationships with oil and gas firms from 2022 to 2023.

That includes all five of the industry’s major holding companies, WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis and Dentsu, although the number of contracts differed greatly (WPP had the most fossil fuel contracts at 55, while Dentsu has five).

WPP declined to comment on the report’s publication while a spokesperson from Dentsu told The Drum that it reviews its clients on a case-by-case basis as some have greater transformational journeys than others.

Omnicom told The Drum that as of 2023 it only works with four of the nine clients the report claims it does: British Gas, BHP, Chevron and Petrol Ofisi.

IPG told The Drum that although a small number of its agencies work with carbon-intensive companies (25 contracts, according to the report), they have all been clients for some time. A spokesperson said that in 2022, the holding company began a process of reviewing the climate commitments of prospective clients operating in the oil, energy and utility sectors before taking on new work. “Since that time and as a result of that policy, we have, on multiple occasions, turned down potential new business opportunities,” they said.

Publicis had not responded to the call for comment at the time of publication.

Clean Creatives has called its 2023 report “a snapshot of an industry in transition” as it identifies more contracts than in previous years across a wider range of agencies alongside some other notable changes to its research methodologies.

Nayantara Dutta, research director at Clean Creatives, said: “We share our data publicly to encourage transparency so that creatives at agencies can learn who they are actually working for and have the tools to take action. Our research process is based on public records and we welcome corrections and updates from agencies that are no longer working with fossil fuel clients.”

Updated research methods

In its last two iterations, the F-List has included sources dating back several years. Dutta and Clean Creatives director Duncan Meisel say this helps “create a historical picture of fossil fuel campaigns.” By comparison, 2023’s list only cites public information dated to 2022 or 2023 in the hopes of providing a more up-to-date overview.

Meisel and Dutta say they expect that the increased number of agencies included in this year’s report is therefore indicative of their updated research methods: “In the past, we focused more on government disclosures and industry journals, but as time went on we realized we were only scratching the surface. This year, we’ve gone much deeper and wider to find all the places that these clients are discussed so that we’re painting as complete a picture as possible.

“We looked more widely around the world, into more kinds of sources, and were able to include searches for more fossil fuel companies.”

The pair also observe that the profile of agencies that work for fossil fuel clients seems to be changing. “It’s clear that while some agencies are making slow shifts towards better climate practices, other agencies are positioning themselves as fossil fuel specialty shops.“

In the future, Meisel and Dutta say they expect to see fewer big agencies on the list while smaller, independent agencies align themselves with oil and gas clients.

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Reaching employees

Clean creatives will take further action in 2023 than in previous years, including an out-of-home (OOH) publicity stunt alongside the launch of the report at New York Climate Week.

The campaign aims to act as an open letter to employees of some of the firms featured in the report, including Edelman, McCann, Ogilvy and Publicis, in a bid to educate them on the impact working for fossil fuels is having on the environment.

The posters feature a backdrop of the New York skyline amid the severe smog that encroached on the city this summer.

“Our goal with the OOH posters in New York is to reach employees of these agencies so they begin the conversation about how to bring these fossil fuel relationships to a close,” says Meisel. ”The extreme smoke in New York this summer made the stakes of this issue incredibly obvious. You need to be able to breathe in order to create, and fossil fuel clients are making that so much harder.”

F List 2023

Read the report in full here.

Greenwashing Environmental Campaigns Sustainable Transformation

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