Agency Culture Agency Models Sustainable Transformation

Over 500 agencies have now pledged to cut ties with world’s biggest polluters

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By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

April 12, 2023 | 11 min read

Campaign group Clean Creatives has shared its latest milestone after 500 agencies signed its pledge. We catch up with some of those agencies to hear more about why they’re washing their hands of fossil fuel clients.

Fossil fuels

Clean Creatives say pledging not to work for fossil fuels polluters is the best way towards a sustainable future / Adobe Stock

Clean Creatives launched two and a half years ago, calling for an industry-wide commitment from adland to refuse to work with fossil fuel clients.

In that time, the campaign has gone on to increase awareness of the harmfulness of the greenwashing deployed by fossil fuel companies in concealing their true impact on the environment through initiatives like its annual F-list report and disruptive targeting of industry bodies such as Ad Net Zero.

Now, the group has revealed it has amassed over 500 pledges to the campaign, with director Duncan Meisel telling us: ”The advertising industry is changing and these agencies are at the forefront of a historic shift away from polluting clients.

”Every agency still working with fossil fuel clients is putting their reputations on the line. Fossil fuel companies are walking away from their renewable energy investments and the net zero goals that ad and PR agencies have helped promote.

”The question for executives at other agencies is simple: do you want to be a leader in this transition or will you be left behind by it? Our industry’s brightest minds are ready to come together to address the climate crisis and we hope these pledges inspire others to join us in this effort.”

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Don’t suffer fuels gladly

For some agencies, taking the pledge was plain sailing having never worked with fossil fuel clients in the past. Tim Frick of Chicago-based Mightbytes, which was the first agency to join Clean Creatives, explains: “We had multiple opportunities to do business in the fossil fuel industry since opening our doors in 1998. We turned down all of them. Interestingly enough, the more we shared a ’green’ message about our agency’s priorities, the more they wanted to work with us. This was especially true as climate change awareness grew in the 2000s and early 2010s.”

For others, interaction with fossil fuels clients was limited or involved degrees of separation, with Dean Connelly of Latte Recruiting telling The Drum: “Blindly, we did recruit for a couple of agencies that had fossil fuel clients. It surprises me that we just went about our daily work not even thinking about the impact we were having in doing so. It’s funny because if BP approached us directly, we would have said ’no’ to working with it. But because it was our clients that were working with it, we felt disconnected from the problem.“

For some signees, however, fossil fuel clients represented a much larger percentage of their portfolio. Marian Ventura, the founder and chief executive of Buenos Aires-based Done, tells us: “Before 2021, when we signed the Clean Creatives pledge, we worked for plenty of fossil fuels clients, including Shell, Exxon Mobile, Total Energies and local oil groups. We worked for their CSR departments in CSR strategic communications.”

It was when the agency attempted to certify as a B-Corp that Ventura realized the work it was doing was at odds with its overall vision for the business. “If I wanted to be part of the solution, I couldn’t be working to promote the problem,” she says, adding that she hopes the move will send a message to clients that the agency is more future-focused than it once was.

Some agencies have actually had more interest from high-carbon clients since signing the pledge than before, such as The Friday Street Club, with founder and managing director Emma King explaining: “Weirdly enough, having never worked with fossil fuel client as an agency, since we signed the pledge we have been approached by two to work on their businesses. Both times, having signed the pledge actually made it easier to turn the work down in a non-emotional way. Both times, the feedback was that our decision was respected.”

Brian Griffin, chief exec at south-east Asian brand consultancy Vero, says his agency had the same experience. “After we signed the Clean Creative pledge, we received numerous inquiries from fossil fuel brands seeking PR and crisis support. But never for a moment did we regret our decision to take the pledge. One of our priorities is to tell stories of progress for our clients. This progress can come in many forms, whether innovations in products and services, new processes, new forms of management, or other innovative and new aspects of business. In our view, fossil fuel brands do not represent the types of progress we wish to communicate, therefore it was very easy to commit to being a Clean Creative agency.”

Better for people and the planet

Agencies tell The Drum that positive reaction from staff has unanimously affirmed their decisions to end relationships with fossil fuel clients. While many within the industry would personally prefer to cut ties with Big Oil (a survey last year found that three out of five creatives under the age of 30 would feel uncomfortable working on briefs for high-carbon clients), many find the process of speaking up about their views within an agency setting complex.

Griffin says that Vero made the decision to take the pledge after realizing suggestions of pitching for fossil fuel clients always landed poorly with staff – although he points out that its exposure to fossil fuel projects ahead of taking the pledge was very limited – “no more than two projects group-wide in the past 15 years”.

He adds: “Agency professionals do not want to put their energy into creating campaigns for fossil fuel brands. By signing the Clean Creative pledge, in my opinion, PR consultancies are going to be much better aligned with the wishes of their teams. And given that we are a people-focused business, this kind of alignment is vital.”

Toby Southgate, the global CEO at Forsman and Bodenfors, meanwhile says: “We always set out to do the right thing by our people, our work and our clients. Clean Creatives is one of a handful of commitments that we take very seriously and that is strategically aligned with our direction. We’re the only agency to be globally certified by the 3% Movement. We’re the only agency to have global certification from Fair Pay Workplace. We see our commitment to Clean Creatives as a similarly important emblem of what we stand for.”

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Agencies that have pledged tell us that now being known for their sustainability commitments has also been a win for them in terms of recruitment. Mightbytes’ Frick says: “Our agency is 25 years old. Over the past five to 10 years, we have noticed a significant rise in the number of potential employees wanting to work here because we’re actively making a difference. That didn’t happen 20 years ago. If you can find colleagues who share your mission and vision when they show up on the first day, so many other important things just fall into place. That’s invaluable.”

Raphael Lachkar, chief operations officer at Vero, also says he has seen how the organization’s position on climate change has become a key consideration for employees ahead of taking a job. ”We trust that taking the pledge clarified which side of the court we stand on and that it strengthened our employer offer,” he says.

He admits, however, that others have yet to be convinced of the attractiveness of the proposition. “On prospective clients, we think there is still a lot of work to be done. For brands today, a consultancy’s engagement in fighting climate change is rarely a consideration when selecting communications partners; even when climate is part of the brief. Our opinion is that if brands forbid their consultancies from advising a competitor at the same time, they should do the same for engagements pushing conflicting values and goals. A consultancy helping an organization enhance its impact in fighting climate change should not be allowed to also help a fossil fuel company survive – it’s a direct conflict of interest, yet remains very common today.”

Across the board, agencies that have taken the pledge tell The Drum that refusing to work with fossil fuel clients has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for them and their businesses. “We’re not doing this to send a message to anyone,” says Forsman and Bodenfors’ Southgate. “We’re doing it for us – for our people, our work and our clients. If they have a point of view that’s supportive, then great. We’re not preaching to anyone nor judging those who make different choices.”

Meisel concludes that, going forward, the campaign simply hopes to continue to hold agencies accountable. “We believe that as the pledge number grows, we can continue to create a community for those ready to do honest and clean work as we look to create a more sustainable future.“

Want to learn more about the most important issue of our time? Senior reporter Ellen Ormesher will explore the role advertising and marketing play in facilitating the climate crisis. Case studies, tips, interviews and more. Register your interest here.

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