On Friday at 10am, members of the ad industry put on their out of office and met on the steps of Tate Britain before heading, placards in hand, to the strikes around Parliament square as part of ‘Create and Strike’ – a coalition of 150 agencies in support of the climate protest.
The mission of the day? To stand shoulder to shoulder with the youth-led climate strikes that mobilised an estimated 4 million people on Friday, demanding tougher action from governments to combat global warming.
As the dust settles and ad land gets back to work, it is pertinent to ask what did ‘Create and Strike’ really achieve? While the march was an unprecedented show of solidarity for the global climate emergency by the ad industry, how will it keep the momentum going?
And what does the ad industry have to do to lead the world towards a carbon-neutral future?
Create and Strike @ Climate Strike
After Greta Thunberg began boycotting school in favour of protesting outside Sweden’s parliament, one year later she's spreading the same message, only this time she has the support of 4 million at Friday's ‘Global Climate Strike’. The largest climate protest in history, 4,700 climate strikes took place across 185 countries. It was clear her message was heard - particularly by the advertising industry, with many jumping at the chance to put words into action.
The strike took place just days before crucial UN climate change talks, called upon by UN secretary-general António Guterres, who sees it as a hopeful “turning point” in the struggle to tackle the climate crisis. It is designed to sharply prod countries to do more to meet the commitments of the Paris climate accords where governments agreed to limit the average global temperature rise to 2C above the pre-industrial era.
Exercising the belief that creativity can create culture, the ‘Create and Strike’ movement asked for those in the creative industries to join the climate strikes and create something that amplified the climate emergency message.
"A phrase I heard from one of our clients, the WWF, that summed it up for me was 'there will be no jobs on a dead planet,'" explained Dentsu Aegis Network's social impact manager, Scott Sallee on his decision to take part. "It's important that people create the opportunity for their voices to be heard."
Armed with placards, ‘Create and Strike’ met on the steps of the Tate Britain on Friday, to march together behind the sign: ’Advertising industry strikes for the environment (yes, that’s how much the climate’s changing).’
Essen, who is leading cross-agency effort Create and Strike, said it was the first time that the world's biggest holding companies not only took seriously the idea that averting climate change is as important as making money but made tangible shifts in corporate policy to reflect that.
Signing up to strike wasn’t an easy decision for a lot of advertising agencies, even if it was for a good cause. Although 'Create and Strike' managed to get 150 signatories, a lot joined after intense discussions about the risks concerning client relationships and about opportunity cost for business.
But Essen says to tackle the crisis “we have to get use to having these tough conversations".
On whether it's okay for agencies to not take part, St Luke's chief exec Neil Henderson said "it's down to them. The truth is, there are clients for whom this is a much more difficult issue and it becomes much more difficult for them to go out publicly and protest against what the client is doing."
As a nod to the climate strike, St Luke's - who's logo is a bull - has changed it's name to 'St Leek's' and 50 of “St. Leek’s” staff have agreed to eat a meat-free diet for the next seven days.
What did it achieve?
“I really believe that we will go back into work on Monday and find that things aren’t quite the same as they were before,” hopes Essen.
The momentum started back in May, when Extinction Rebellion – the activist group whose membership includes many former-advertising employees – issued an open letter to advertisers and their agencies urging them to use their powers of persuasion to tackle the global climate and ecological emergency – one month after it brought swathes of London to a standstill.
The letter wanted to mobilise like-minded marketers, creatures and comms staff to act on behalf of brands to drive sustainable efforts and cut down on waste that is destroying the natural world.
The group then crashed Cannes Lions, demonstrating at Facebook’s beach. An opportunity for the marketing elite (who kept discussing brand purpose) to help the world significantly. But no one William Skeaping – an ex-McCann member of Extinction Rebellion – met was reportedly interested. He tweeted: "Came hoping we could get the advertising industry to help tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency but now have a sinking feeling that we're totally fucked."
A lot has changed since Cannes however, as 'Create and Strike' goes to show.
Jake Dubbins, Conscious Advertising Network's co-founder, hopes the strike will achieve fundamental system change. "Government, business and civil society must come together and act based on the science. Brexit is a massive distraction. A willy-waving competition. Climate change is the only issue. It affects us all,” he contends.
Martin Woolley, chief exec of The Specialist Works (TSW), says that the impact of the strike is hard to predict. He believes you can’t go into something like this with a clear idea of what you want to happen. “It’s an act of faith and a personal commitment to change what you can. It will always be difficult for a single piece of activity such as this to drive unprecedented change.”
Will it fall on deaf ears?
While protesting and striking can undoubtedly generate support for a common issue, there is always the fear that while progress may have been felt on the day, the message will fall on deaf ears, and progress becomes stagnant.
While Essen doesn’t have much faith that the strikes will create the necessary levels of action from leadership, strikes aren’t about sending a message to them, but to let the wider public know that there are enough people who can act together to bring about change.
“Before the strikes, I knew about 10 people in the industry, who I knew for sure were worried about the climate,” he explains. “Yet, in the run up to the strikes, nearly 7,000 individuals within our industry visited the Create and Strike’ website. Many of them were on the streets, meeting each other, talking to young people, learning from each other’s commitment. We need to embrace the idea that we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
What can the ad industry do better?
“One thing today has done is make us realise we have a responsibility to create our own change,” TSW’s Woolley, who wants to see companies commit to examining all their practices to make sure they are driving positive change wherever they can.
On the need to turn down clients that are counterproductive to the climate crisis fight, Dubbins says: “We all have an active choice. Money too often gets in the way. I would rather reduce revenue and profit than compromise our values.”
He believes that if the advertising industry refused to work with fossil fuel companies, then it would be a start. Part of Dubbins' Conscious Advertising Network’s work targets the part that advertising plays on funding fake news and hate speech.
In a similar vein, he says there is a massive amount of climate change denial that the advertising industry funds. “Advertisers and media agencies need to decide if they are going to continue to fund media that denies the science.”
Pete Grant, senior planner at The Good Agency, believes that until now, the ad industry has missed a trick when it thinks green is a sacrifice, not an opportunity. “Lots of brands are nailing their colours to the green mast – but few are actually following it through with real action.”
The issue of brands ‘greenwashing’ is also felt by Samantha Lind, Flux's customer operations lead. “I do think the ad industry has some responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t push a cause to sell a product. It’s too easy to piggyback onto a movement these days.”
Now that ‘Create and Strike’ has galvanised the ad industry to take a stance, how will those who protested ensure the momentum doesn’t get lost as the dust starts to settle.?
Dubbins says he is calling on agencies that came together for ‘Create and Strike’ to go further and look at their client lists. He challenges leaders to start having difficult conversations and start putting the planet before profit.
For Woolley, ‘Create and Strike’ was largely led by the younger half of his business, so he say leaders at TSW “will be trying to get out of their way, let them lead and give them the agency’s support however they can”.
For Essen, he says that after each of the climate summits organised by Purpose Disruptors, he and a growing group of creative industry heads have been coming together in their spare time to drive real tangible action.
“As the first initiative to come out of it, Create and Strike has set a high bar, but it has also shown us what can be achieved through meaningful collective action,” he argues, which tells us that when it comes to the climate crisis, the usual rules don’t apply. “The task is to harness this generosity of spirit, energy and collective thinking and use it to fuel ongoing momentum,” he contends.