'If there's no planet, there's no profit' – Extinction Rebellion at The Drum Arms

Extinction Rebellion spoke with editor Stephen Lepitak at The Drum Arms

In the aftermath of yesterday’s Extinction Rebellion protest at Cannes Lions which saw 14 people arrested and later released without charges, The Drum met with its members and supporters to discuss the organisation’s presence at the festival and what it hoped to achieve by targeting the advertising industry.

The Drum’s editor Stephen Lepitak spoke to the former McCann London creative strategist turned Extinction Rebellion activist, Will Skeaping; a member of the French arm of the organisation, Fanny Dollberg; and Extinction Rebellion supporter Chris Gorell Barnes of the Adjust Your Set agency at The Drum Arms in Cannes, to recount the dramatic events of yesterday and talk about how the advertising industry can help tackle the current climate emergency.

Dollberg said of yesterday’s protests that, “the idea was to alert the advertising industry to what is happening right now, with the climate crisis and with biodiversity loss. When you stand in the street and give people flyers it doesn’t work, walking in the street doesn’t work either – so we need to find ways to make ourselves heard”.

Dollberg also stated that the activist group had come up against a good deal of resistance from police in the days preceding and that the police had done “everything they can” to stop Extinction Rebellion from protesting. She claimed this included running identity checks and visiting the group where they have been staying in an attempt to gain more information about their plans to disrupt the festival.

Things came to a head yesterday when 14 members of the group were arrested for sitting down on the red carpet, on the steps of the Palais during a peaceful protest.

The members of the panel maintained that these actions were only taken because they had not been given the platform they had asked for, either by the industry, or by the organisers of the Cannes Lions festival. In May, Extinction Rebellion wrote an open letter to the advertising industry that attempted to rally support and inspire corporate change. The letter, they said, had a limited response. The group had also attempted to find a platform at Cannes but had been denied by the authorities. Gorell Barnes said to the members of Extinction Rebellion: "I think it’s important that you say you’re not trying to ruin anything; you did reach out and there was a lack of response…You did write a letter, you asked for this platform and you didn’t get it."

Skeaping agreed, saying “right now this industry is in a complete state of denial…and I think that’s what we’ve seen here at Cannes”. From the chief executive of Cannes Lions, Philip Thomas, Skeaping said they had received a “very quaint response asking us not to disrupt his business.” Skeaping elaborated that Extinction Rebellion’s issue was not with Philip Thomas, the organisers of Cannes, or the local authorities, but rather they had come to Cannes in the hopes of addressing the industry at large because simply, “Cannes is not going to be here in a few years if we keep this up”.

When asked how the advertising industry can help tackle the climate emergency, Gorell Barnes responded, “advertising is the most influential industry on the planet and it needs to use its power of influence to make governments and citizens and consumers realise how urgent the crisis is”.

Right now, he continued “there’s a lot of purpose talk, but if purpose gives us a reason for being, the only reason for being is to ensure there’s a planet for us to live on. Because if there’s no planet, there’s no profit.”

Practically, he said, there are several ways that the advertising industry can help to tackle the climate emergency. The first and most obvious being the capacity of the industry for creativity, and how that creativity can be used to change people’s minds. Gorell Barnes suggested that the industry could use its talent for communication to change the ways that products are marketed, suggesting a traffic light system – such as those used on high-fat, high-sugar food and drink products – could be used to indicate a product's sustainability. Then, he said, consumers would be in a better place to make a conscious choice about the products they buy.

However, he also emphasised that these changes need to be made now before it is too late. Skeaping agreed, saying “business as usual is what got us here in the first place” and the most important thing the advertising industry can do now is act as a mediator between industries and consumers, whether that means agencies boycotting high-impact industries, or encouraging individuals to adapt personal behaviors involving those industries, such as eating less meat or restricting travel by plane.

“When you’re making decisions, start seeing it through the lens of environmental and ecological collapse and understand what that really means,” said Skeaping.

Ultimately, all three panellists agreed that the biggest thing the industry can do to assist Extinction Rebellion and combat the climate emergency is facilitate the conversation. They emphasised that when speaking to people individually at the festival, and when they had been allowed in the boardrooms of major agencies, the response they received was always emotional and passionate. “We’re asking people to open up their address books and start conversations,” said Gorell Barnes, “as an industry that creates culture, we just need to talk about it.”

This article was adapted from a panel discussion that took place at The Drum Arms in Cannes. The conversation can be heard in full here.

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