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Brand Strategy Agency Models Sustainable Transformation

The green pitch: why ESG is key to the agency matchmaking process


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

May 17, 2023 | 7 min read

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials are already moving the dial on agency pitches. And it’s only going to get more critical.

green pitch process

Agencies with strong ESG credentials are reporting great success in pitches as a result / Adobe Stock

Clients have always welcomed sustainability credentials but until recently it was a “tick-box exercise” in the agency-selection process, says Lucinda Peniston-Baines, founder and managing partner of global management consultancy, The Observatory.

Now, that’s changing, “not least due to the fact that sustainability, which has been high on corporate agendas for some time, is now appearing on marketers’ personal performance targets (and creeping into their job titles) meaning an inevitable flow through to supplier/agency relationships” she adds. But not all relationships are created equal.

Peter Sayburn, chief exec of marketing agency matchmaker Studiospace says correctly aligning where the client has sustainability at the core of its business, or deeply held values (such as in the renewable energy or ethical FMCG categories) is crucial. Even more so where the work has an environmental theme or requires specialised experience within the sustainability market.

However, he also notes it’s increasingly popular for clients with specific objectives to diversify or level up their agency rosters to include some more ‘progressive’ agencies in this arena. “Many big brands are doing this – including Aviva, HSBC and Diageo,” he says.

It follows that clients are asking for sustainability credentials from agencies upfront during the RFI stage, or during a pitch or tender process says a spokesperson from global independent marketing consultancy, R3. It adds that clients are specifically requesting details of CO2 emission reduction programs, confirmation that any reduction programs are being ratified by Science Based Targets as well as information about net zero strategies and the agency’s participation in any compensation or offsetting programs.

“Agencies’ ability to tangibly demonstrate how they will reduce the environmental impact of the communications development, production, and activation process, and how they will support clients to achieve the same, will become a much more significant part of the selection criteria and provide differentiation between agencies,” concludes Peniston-Baines.

“Agencies that can not only create brilliant ideas but also execute these in a highly sustainable manner will win both the hearts and minds of the client team.”

But as Ben Essen, global chief strategy officer at Iris Worldwide tells The Drum, it’s not enough for agencies just to understand sustainability at the top-line level, because “Sustainability isn’t really one topic – it’s many interrelated and nuanced topics – waste, circularity, efficiency, transformation, innovation, equity. Agencies must understand how it manifests within specific sector contexts: investment, real estate, energy, retail, healthcare.”

Essen explains that in the past year, Iris has had around five wins “that have come to us because of prior experience of how sustainability works in these sectors. If you’re talking to an investment manager about sustainable investment funds, you really need to understand not just the topic but what the topic means to them.”

While Caroline Davison, managing director and sustainability lead at Elvis says it has seen the most success with its BCorp certification, which has allowed it to “clearly and confidently demonstrate our sustainability credentials.” She adds that this has doubtless contributed to a 100% pitch-win rate last year.

She adds that Elvis’ own sustainability awareness is now so mature that brands entering the conversation without it are left behind.

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“The way we run our business is a good indicator of how we'd approach our partnership with theirs. To us, working with clients whose values align with our own is just as important as having shared creative ambition.”

Essen agrees that agencies need to be wise to clients resistant to the sustainability journey, “some clients are just nowhere on this.”

Often, he says, this is because their sector may not be facing much scrutiny or it’s not a board-level issue. But “equally, some are really stuck. They are working in a high-carbon industry with little credible short-term plan for decarbonization. They’re desperate to reassure customers, but in honesty, there’s not much they can say that isn’t greenwash.”

For agencies that have built expertise in sustainability into their own core remit – working with greenwashing clients is the fastest route to destroying credibility. Davison concludes, “It’s important to remember that pitches are a two-way process; they’re as much about agencies finding clients that are the right fit for them as they are about clients finding brilliant agencies.”

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

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