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How should agencies manage the moral disquiet of staff around fossil fuel clients?

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

September 27, 2022 | 7 min read

Each week, The Drum asks agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

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How should agencies navigate the moral disquiet of staff around their clients? / The Drum

Last week, 239 agencies were highlighted for their work with fossil fuel clients in the F-List, an annual index of marketing firms involved with polluting clients.

With a harsh spotlight on agencies that work with fossil fuel clients, more young creatives, such as Charlotte Cunningham, are speaking out about their disillusionment with the agency sector.

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But managers have only a handful of options to mollify disgruntled colleagues, short of swearing off fossil fuel clients altogether. Few agencies have enough employees on hand to allow staff to opt out of working with clients they have moral objections to, as many do for tobacco clients, for example.

So, how should agencies respond to the moral objections of staff? Is it possible to balance controversial yet lucrative clients with corporate sustainability and climate pledges? We asked hundreds of agency contacts for their take – and four were brave enough to respond.

How do you navigate staff disquiet around the client roster?

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Colin Farmer, vice-president business and talent development, ImpactBBDO

Any agency would hope to have a wide and diversified client roster. In these more expressive times, there is bound to be some moral disquiet around some client business sectors, but that can change. It was not long ago that finance houses were seen as the moral enemy of society.

The overwhelming global focus now is of course sustainability, and companies in the energy sector, for example, have a responsibility and pressure to provide that product more sustainably. And rightly so, for everyone’s sake. But what of tobacco and alcohol? These are choices that masses of people make every day. I think that for staff that personally object to a business sector or product on any grounds (moral or religious), any agency has to listen and try and accommodate their talents on other clients.

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Nick Hynes, head of brand voice, Thompson

As a group of people, we’ve always shared a similar set of values around doing work that’s good for people and good for the planet. That’s meant we’ve gravitated towards certain clients and avoided others. We talk openly about this when we recruit, so there are no great surprises about who we work with or why. In fact, our roster of purpose-driven, human-centered clients is often the reason people join us. If ever there are questions around a client’s business, we’ll do as we’ve always done – discuss it openly and together decide whether it’s work we want to do.

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Pamela Long, partner, Little Big Brands

Are there clients we wouldn’t take on as an agency? Yes. But like most things in life, it’s not black or white. Who gets to deem a brand objectionable? My values are not yours. What if it’s a traditionally ‘bad’ industry but the company is doing things in a sustainable way?

At the heart of this discussion for us is respect. Just like our no A-hole policy, if the brand will damage our culture, it’s a no-go. And if an employee has a concern working on something, for whatever reason, they can opt out. It’s as simple as that.

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Ben Scoggins, chief executive officer, Organic

It’s important to work with like-minded clients. The best agency talent has a choice about where they work, and if client and agency values aren’t aligned you eventually lose your best people.

We have qualifying criteria for all new leads and projects, which has a specific question about social and environmental impact. This fits well with our B Corp certified status, but more importantly it forces us to consciously recognize, debate and address any concerns.

Of course there are sometimes lone voices with differing beliefs, but in these instances we tend to find that our best people appreciate the chance to debate and accept a majority consensus that is aligned with our agency values.

If you work for an agency that holds a fossil fuel client’s account, we’d like to speak to you. Get in touch here.

Want to join in with our weekly discussions? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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