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‘I have to put up with it’: adland reveals the cost of working with fossil fuel clients

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By Ellen Ormesher | Reporter

October 6, 2022 | 11 min read

The Drum speaks to workers across the industry and around the world on how they feel about working on fossil fuel clients – and its personal toll.

Fossil fuel protest

Over 200 agencies across the industry currently work with fossil fuel clients / Image via Unsplash

There has never been more pressure on advertising and PR agencies to cease their relationships with fossil fuel clients. Last month, the United Nations secretary-general António Guterres called for stronger scrutiny on the advertising fossil fuel companies pump out. Guterres called the sector a “massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry,” and compared it to the tobacco industry’s lobbyists and spin doctors who successfully blocked regulation of its deadly product for decades.

Just weeks earlier, the publication of the F-list – an independently-researched report by the climate activist advertising network Clean Creatives and the non-partisan group Comms Declare – highlighted the 200+ agencies around the world that have recently worked with fossil fuel clients.

The decision on which clients an agency works for often has little input from those workers who will ultimately service the account. And those ad agency staffers have told The Drum that working for fossil fuel clients has come at the cost of their mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, being vocal about their views has cost them their jobs.

Connie* is new to the industry, currently in a junior role within an agency. When she first began pursuing a career in advertising, it was because she genuinely believed in the power of the industry to effect change. “When I studied advertising at university, every single one of us on my course had strong views about sustainability and wanted to make the world a better place,” she says.

She is not the only one – a recent survey by the young creatives network Glimpse found that out of 100 UK creatives aged 18 to 30, 63% said they were uncomfortable working on high-carbon clients – but only two in five (40%) said they would feel comfortable refusing to work on them in an agency setting.

Connie explains her hesitancy to work with clients whose values do not align with her own because it makes her feel complicit in the damage they are doing to the planet and to workers around the world. “These companies take advantage of so many people and I feel like, by default, I am helping them promote what they do,” she says.

But like her peers, Connie adds that the pressure to work on fossil fuel clients so as not to set back her career progression has been a major concern. “My end goal would be to work with clients who I agree with, but right now I feel like I’m stuck in a loop where I need the experience, so I have to put up with it.”

Beth* works in research at a major agency. She has now become known internally for pushing back on her agency’s work with fossil fuel clients.

“In my agency, there is an unspoken rule that you can decline to work on certain accounts.” For example, some people can refuse to work on other accounts such as alcohol or tobacco for religious or personal reasons. But doing so, she believes, has long-term career consequences. “There’s never really a conversation about the power and privilege involved in declining work and how that intersects with diversity and inclusion,” she explains.

“Maybe a person who wants to say no doesn’t have the option, because they don’t want to make waves or can’t afford a black mark against their name.”

The cost of fighting back

It’s taken Beth a long time to “get comfortable saying no and being known for it,” but it hasn’t always been easy.

“I personally have dealt with a lot of anxiety and stress around it,” she explains. Especially in one instance where she was in the process of applying for a visa. “It was always there in the back of my mind. If I rock the boat too much, I could get fired and then I’d have been deported.”

Her concerns are not unfounded. Michael* believes the reason he was fired from a previous senior role at a major agency was “probably because I refused to work on fossil fuel clients – but since it was within the probation period, they will neither confirm nor deny that.”

Michael says he was clear during the recruitment process about his environmental interest, and that “these clients were red lines that I would not cross.”

Once hired, he said he repeatedly contacted the human resources team, reiterating multiple times that having to compromise his environmental beliefs was exacerbating his existing and medically-diagnosed anxiety.

“For people who either through religion or just having grown up with it have a deep sense of connection to the natural world, it’s actually a constant fear that an agency I work for might ask me to work on one of these clients,” he says.

“I deeply enjoy the variety of clients and challenges the agency world provides, but it can’t come at the cost of living in fear of being asked to compromise who I am as a person.”

Michael says in his experience working at one independent and three high-profile networked agencies in London, “the culture inside agencies is not well-suited for people with environmental concerns around clients.”

“Most don’t have any way for people to give feedback before the agency decides to pursue a pitch, and all of them really make the person feel like they have to go out on a limb to stand up for their beliefs. For all of the talk of inclusion, if you give a shit about the planet, your concerns are almost always sidelined at the larger agencies that are beholden to parent companies and often shareholders and public companies,” he concludes.

Adland’s dirty secret

Many of the workers who spoke to us said that the culture of silence around employee views on working with fossil fuels doesn’t just end at the management level – it’s built into the agencies’ own transparency around the work that they do.

When compiling its F-list, Clean Creatives claims it found that most agencies have erased references to fossil fuel clients from their websites – it took its research teams using web archives to uncover the links.

Connie says when she first joined her agency she was shocked to discover an energy company was one of its biggest clients, “as they are very secretive about it. We’re not even allowed to PR it ourselves, which can be difficult because it means I can’t even publish the work in my portfolio.”

Similarly, when Beth first joined her current agency, she said she didn’t know that one of their biggest clients was an oil firm until a colleague told her. “It’s never shown in town hall meetings or any of the best-in-class case study sessions we do. The only time you ever hear about it is if you’re anywhere near a team working with them.”

Michael says he feels deeply uncomfortable with how often agencies hide their affiliation with these clients, “or they try to keep it under wraps.”

He says his former employers hid their work with one of Big Oil’s biggest polluters. “You can only find the work they’ve done through a deep Google search,” and adds it was especially frustrating as they had just launched a sub-agency with an entirely sustainable focus.

Beth feels that it’s moves like these that undermine the good work being done by agencies in other areas. “If you look at the awards being won across the industry, it’s predominantly for brand purpose and social impact work. It’s like that’s the only work that they can be transparent about.”

Michael feels that “there’s no way to create believable, compelling work for a brand that’s actually trying to make positive change while overlooking the clear greenwashing that every single major fossil fuel company is doing. If you are in any way supporting the brand of those fossil fuel companies, you are helping make the greenwashing more effective.”

All eight of the major holding companies, and numerous other independent agencies, have proudly made net zero and sustainability commitments over the last few years. But few have made the decision to stop work altogether with fossil fuels clients.

In fact, WPP chief exec Mark Read recently told The Drum it had no plans to sever ties with Big Oil, stating: ”In my view, there’s no one solution to this. Yes, energy companies are selling oil. But as consumers, we’re all driving cars and flying in places. It requires a collective solution. Our industry should play a role in doing that – not to misrepresent what they are doing, but if we can talk about what they’re doing in a fair and accurate way, why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

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