Greenwashing Agency Models Sustainability

Havas ‘on the radar’ of climate activists and clients walk following Shell account win


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

September 20, 2023 | 9 min read

Campaigners had urged agencies not to take part in the lucrative media review, warning that it would damage their reputations and implicate them in delaying climate action.


Havas will take over the account in January 2024 / Shell

Yesterday, Havas Media was appointed media agency for Shell. The oil firm confirmed with The Drum it will take over the account effective January 2024, overseeing the oil company’s global B2C strategic media buying.

A spokesperson from Shell said of the announcement: “We routinely review our advertising contracts to ensure they align with Shell’s business strategy.” They declined to comment on its reasoning for selecting the French ad agency.

The incumbent, WPP’s GroupM, had held the account – worth an estimated $27m. According to COMvergence, the oil giant spent around $240m on media in 2022.

News of the win has prompted backlash from industry climate campaigners who say the move is a step backward in the industry’s transition towards sustainability due to Shell’s backtracking on its net zero goals and greenwashing tactics.

Clients walk

The account win has also resulted in at least one client retreating from its relationship with Havas.

Earlier this month, Red Havas, a subsidiary of the global agency, had begun a short-term contract with the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative to support communications efforts around the UN General Assembly in NYC and had been pitching to begin a major, global, multi-year communications contract.

As soon as the information of the new Shell media contract came to the team’s knowledge earlier today, its current work with Red Havas was immediately terminated and the initiative will no longer engage with any Havas entities.

Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Treaty Initiative, said of the decision: “We do not have and will not have any ties with Havas in the future. It made a choice today: instead of helping the world move away from deadly oil, gas and coal, as called for by millions of people in every corner of the globe, it chose the wrong side of history by deciding to support the worst of the worst industry in the world. The fossil fuel industry is burning our climate, our communities and our lives. Havas decided to not only burn a client but also to help burn the planet.”

News of Havas’s appointment broke on the same day that Clean Creatives, the campaign group that helps advertising and PR agencies cut ties with fossil fuel clients, released its annual ‘F-List’ identifying the 294 agencies around the world with fossil fuel contracts.

Five contracts were previously connected with the Havas group, including one between Havas Creative and Shell. At least one Havas-owned agency, Triptk, has signed the Clean Creatives pledge to end fossil fuel relations.

Clean Creatives director Duncan Meisel stands with the Fossil Fuel Treaty Initiative on its decision, saying: “Prior to this contract, it looked like Havas was on track to reduce its involvement with fossil fuel polluters. Taking on Shell’s media contract is a huge step backward and does real damage to Havas’s work to distinguish itself as a sustainability and purpose leader in the ad industry.

“I commend the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative for its leadership and for clearly articulating how Havas’s work for Shell represents a core conflict of interest for any organization committed to a livable future on this planet.”

Campaigners react

After the account review was revealed back in June, climate action groups including Extinction Rebellion and Badvertising also took action outside the office of agencies connected with the pitch.

Veronica Wignall, a campaigner with Badvertising, told The Drum it sees Havas’s decision as “a depressing step in the wrong direction for a creative industry that is just beginning to grapple with its own role in fuelling the climate crisis.”

She added: “After Shell was found guilty of greenwashing by the ASA and the oil giant’s stated intention to roll back investment into clean energy, Havas cannot claim to be aiding the fossil fuel giant through its transition. Instead, it will find itself justifying more fossil fuels, more climate damage and a more uncertain future for all of us. Our campaign will continue to work tirelessly to empower creatives to recognize their role in tackling climate breakdown and help them become part of the solution.

“Havas is firmly on our radar for future actions.”

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Questions over B Corp status

Campaigners are also calling for the B Corp certification of certain Havas agencies to be revoked. Foud Havas offices, London, New York, Lemz and Immerse are currently part of the network that boasts the highest standards of ESG.

B Lab, which administers B Corp certification, had previously told The Drum that while fossil fuel clients were not necessarily prohibited for agencies granted or seeking accreditation, if a company did have clients in the fossil fuel industries then its eligibility for certification would be reviewed.

The Drum understands that Havas had been in the process of certifying as B Corp across the UK; whether this is plausible in light of its affiliation with Shell remains to be seen as B Lab did not respond to The Drum’s call for comment.

However, a network of global B Corp agencies has been lobbying B Lab for greater rigor on accredited agencies working with fossil fuel clients. Led by UK-based Good Agency, 19 agencies signed an open letter to B Lab’s executive director Chris Turner about the matter and are due to meet this month to discuss the issue, The Drum understands.

Speaking about the Havas appointment, Good Agency’s chief executive and founder Chris Norman said: “This is the clearest indication that B Lab’s position on accrediting agencies that directly work for, or are part of a group that directly works for, the worst climate polluters on the planet is deeply flawed.

“It should not be the case that one agency in a group makes that commitment while another facilitates the greatest human-created damage the planet has ever experienced. They are both ultimately run by the same group of executives. By not having a clear position on agencies and their parent company working with fossil fuel companies, B Lab is being dragged into a very dangerous position that is undermining the value of being accredited as a B Corp.”

Update: Havas B Corp status at risk following Shell appointment

Havas has previously touted its sustainability credentials, as a spokesperson told The Drum: “Our mission is to make a meaningful difference to brands, businesses and people. We believe the ability to enact change comes most effectively from within. This is why we are invested in supporting all companies in their communications provided that they are actively engaged in a transformation journey.

“Our goal is to involve our clients, talents and suppliers in a responsible communications approach and to raise the standards of the profession. We launched a mandatory training program for all our employees on ways to detect and avoid greenwashing, prioritize low-carbon impact campaigns and understand the impact of their work on consumer behavior. We also measure the GHG emissions linked to the production and distribution of campaigns and raise awareness of their impact among our clients and promote eco-designed solutions.”

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