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Agencies Greenwashing New Business

Protesters gather at agency HQs to stifle Shell media review

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

June 8, 2023 | 8 min read

As Shell reviews its media account and falls foul of ASA greenwashing rules, industry activist groups are seizing the moment.

Protesters at ad HQs

Protestors gather to protest Shell partnerships / Angela Christofilou / Adfree Cities

Climate change groups staged fresh demonstrations outside the London offices of Wunderman Thompson and Havas today (June 8), highlighting the agencies’ entanglement with Shell. It comes as the fossil fuel giant embarks on a major review of its media agency relationships.

Activists from Greenpeace, AdFree Cities, Fossil Free London and Glimpse chucked confetti and handed out cake outside the offices, located in Camden, an ironic celebration of the Advertising Standards Authority’s recent ban on 2022 ads for client Shell.

wunderman

“At the moment, agencies are thinking about whether or not to pitch for the Shell brief. It seems a good moment to show that making adverts for fossil fuel companies is toxic, wrong and a reputational, legal and regulatory risk,” says Veronica Wignall, co-director of AdFree Cities. We’re going to show them that making ads for Shell won’t wash.”

It’s the second protest against agencies working with Shell in less than a week. News that the company is reviewing its large media account emerged Friday (June 2), sparking Extinction Rebellion protests outside WPP’s Sea Containers headquarters in central London, as well as the premises of Dentsu, Omnicom and Interpublic Group.

The Shell account is unusual for its size – it encompasses around $200m of annual spending on media each year (according to consultancy R3) and will likely be one of the most valuable available this year. It’s also unusual for the attention it’s already attracted from groups campaigning for ad agencies to wash their hands of fossil fuel clients.

Industry advocacy group Clean Creatives has called on agencies to refuse new contracts with fossil fuel producers. Duncan Meisel, the group’s executive director, told The Drum: “No agency that is serious about its commitments to employees or the planet should be pitching for Shell’s business. You cannot build a healthy or sustainable agency around a company that is so deeply committed to destroying the planet.

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“Shell’s leadership has announced that they are cutting renewable energy investments, and their executives just voted against bringing their company into compliance with the Paris climate treaty. Refusing to work with dangerous and unscrupulous companies such as Shell is the most powerful tool we have to address global warming. We urge all agencies, creatives and freelancers worldwide to join the 600 agencies who have already taken our pledge to refuse fossil fuel contracts.”

Each of the industry’s largest agency groups has made a variety of commitments around advertising’s impact on climate change, including carbon calculators and de-carbonization initiatives. WPP, for example, aims to reach net zero by 2030.

Havas operations could claim to be the most heavily committed in that direction. Its entire British business, including its media agency, is currently in the process of B Corp certification.

Wignall suggests B Corp status is incompatible with working for a client like Shell. “It’s already ludicrous that Havas London is a B Corp, let alone the agency that is making ads for fossil fuel companies trying to get that certification. We hope it won’t come through,” says Wignall.

EssenceMediacom, the WPP subsidiary which services that account, has not declared whether or not it will repitch for the business. Spokespeople representing the media agencies of the five other largest holding companies – Publicis Groupe, IPG, Omnicom, Dentsu and Havas – either declined to comment or did not acknowledge The Drum’s request for comment at the time of publication.

A Shell spokesperson said: “We cannot offer comment on the status of current, potential or implied commercial contracts or agreements.”

Since the protests, a Wunderman Thomson spokesperson, said: "We seek to fairly represent the commitments and actions of our clients at all times. It is essential that energy companies are able to communicate the steps they are taking to diversify their business, and to market new services, products and investments to raise consumer awareness and drive adoption."

Havas refused to comment. Separately, one staffer at Wunderman Thomson said there were around nine protesters outside the office for 15 minutes.

Update: Havas ‘on the radar’ of climate activists and clients walk following Shell account win

Additional reporting from John McCarthy. 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.

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