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Agency Culture ESG Sustainability

Agencies canned crypto clients and survived, so they can be choosy when it comes to Shell

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

June 23, 2023 | 11 min read

Disregarding sustainability or ethical considerations will put ad agencies in bad company. The Shell media review offers a chance to act responsibly.

Oil rig off the coast of Mexico

A Shell oil rig. The company is reviewing its currently media agency suppliers / Shell

Shell’s media review has reignited debates within advertising about which clients agencies should volunteer to work for.

A year on from Greenpeace’s Cannes Lions gatecrash, the battle lines are clear. Critics say that working with fossil fuel producers and polluters contradicts the sustainability and ethical commitments made by agencies while exposing them to reputational and legal risk. Defenders suggest that agencies can play a crucial role in diverting consumer demand towards sustainable solutions, and indirectly push Big Oil firms towards renewables.

With big media agencies under pressure to meet growth targets, that might be where the argument ends. But the industry’s efforts to distance itself from the cryptocurrency sector suggest that it is possible for agencies to move away from polluting clients without endangering the rest of their business model.

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Clean commitments

Back in 2022, activists stormed the Palais to demand that agencies reject fossil fuel clients. This year, protestors targeted Richard Edelman along the Croisette, walking behind the comms agency founder with signs reading ’This person works with fossil fuels.’ Weeks earlier in the UK, protesters from AdFreeCities gathered outside the offices of each of London’s big media houses to make that same demand about Shell. “Making adverts for fossil fuel companies is toxic, wrong and a reputational, legal and regulatory risk,” Veronica Wignall, co-director of AdFree Cities, told us.

That’s not an isolated view and it’s not one limited to younger staffers. Though they avoid speaking on the record, at Cannes this week ad execs tell The Drum of their shock that media agencies would even consider pitching for Shell.

AdNetZero, the climate group established by the Advertising Association, declined to provide a statement for this story. But in the past, it’s shied away from making recommendations about whether agencies can work with fossil fuel companies and still respond effectively to the climate crisis.

Mark Read, the global chief exec of Shell incumbent WPP, said last year that the company had a responsibility to continue to work with fossil fuel companies. “If we can talk about what they’re doing in a fair and accurate way, why wouldn’t we want to do that? If you’re an energy company and nobody knows which [energy companies] are doing more than others, how will consumers choose where to get their energy?”

But a lot can change in 12 months – including Shell’s own commitment to a clean energy transition, which it dented the other week when it abandoned targets to cut investment in oil production over the coming decade. There’s also been a tightening of advertising regulation with the ASA closing in on ‘greenwashing’ practices in the UK and outlining a new, stricter set of rules preventing companies from bigging up sustainable products if the rest of their business model isn’t green.

​​Clean Creatives, a group made up of working agency staffers, has campaigned for over two years for agencies to drop such clients. Executive director Duncan Meisel says that “working with Shell is incompatible with any meaningful commitment to sustainability.

“Holding companies have adopted climate commitments because it contributes to staff recruitment, retention, and success with purpose-driven clients. In the past several months, Shell has abandoned all of their climate targets, and taking on work with them now would signal that agencies are abandoning their climate goals as well. That is obviously bad for business.”

Over 600 agency businesses have signed the group’s pledge not to work with polluters. But until this week, there were only a handful of network agency names among them. Stagwell subsidiary Gale this week became the first media agency to cross that line, following its stablemate, creative agency Forsman & Bodenfors.

Client choices

Agencies can afford to be “choosy” when business is booming, one media agency chief executive told The Drum earlier this week. They detailed the kinds of frameworks agencies typically apply when deciding to work with clients, from margins to resources. Although staff opinions are sometimes taken into account hard stances regarding the sustainability credentials, or the ethical implications of a client’s business model, would risk spooking the horses, they added. “The minute you start applying [sustainability concerns] to everyone, you very quickly turn into George Monbiot.”

The industry’s hands are tied, they suggest, because a blanket ban on fossil fuel clients could quickly turn into a wide-ranging anti-consumerist stance – which would of course be incompatible with advertising itself.

That logic can lead agencies into some unusual alliances. One example might be McCann London’s work for Neom, the outlandish planned city being constructed amid the sands of the Saudi Arabian desert.

The development is the brainchild of crown prince and Saudi prime minister Mohammed bin Salman and is bankrolled by the same sovereign wealth fund which controls Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer and the greatest single contributor to carbon emissions since 1965. Construction of the city itself could produce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to four years’ worth of the UK’s entire emissions.

None of that got in the way of McCann’s Enterprise unit creating the ‘Made to Change’ platform in 2021. That’s the campaign that plagued Twitter users’ timelines last autumn, imploring them to consider investment opportunities and promises of a desert utopia. Publicis Sapient handled media while CSM, production firm Joy Films and audio production company Klashboombang also pitched in; digital network Media.Monks also counts Neom as a client.

Environmental black marks against Neom aside, there are also ethical issues to consider. Members of the communities cleared for the city’s construction have been reportedly shot by security forces, and their family members sentenced to death. Bin Salman, the project’s biggest backer, is suspected to have ordered the brutal 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Concerns about the human and environmental cost of Neom have triggered a debate in the architecture community (several big firms have been contracted to help design the city), leading one Dezeen writer to argue “if you accept money to work on any aspect of the Neom project, you need to know that you are complicit in these acts of violence.”

None of that got in the way of McCann’s work, or stopped it from entering into awards schemes; in fact, it won Effies and Clios for the campaign in 2022.

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Crypto retreat

Treating environmental and ethical considerations in new business as fait accompli will lead agencies to end with clients like Neom. But executives likely have a lot more leeway than they realize.

”There are countless companies and services that agencies can promote that do not carry the reputational or legal risks of fossil fuel polluters,” says Meisel. In fact, you only have to go back six months or so to find an entire industry that pretty much every agency in the sector decided, with only a little noise, to divest from.

During the ‘crypto-bowl’, ad agencies helped bring trading platforms FTX, Crypto.com and Coinbase to the American public. And in the eighteen months that followed, as currencies cooled and the technology’s environmental and financial downsides became more apparent, they progressively distanced themselves from their former clients.

Now, former Dentsu Creative customer FTX is bankrupt, and both former Accenture Song client Coinbase and Binance are being investigated by the SEC for alleged securities fraud (though a spokesperson for Saatchi & Saatchi confirmed it still works with Binance on a project basis). Even smaller agencies, such as US indie Invisible North, managed to extricate themselves after building up a crypto and NFT-dominated client roster.

“Web3 clients and large tech companies propelled our growth,” Invisible North co-founder Geoff Renaud told The Drum. The agency had worked with Algorand, FTX, Coinbase and Kraken, but pivoted fast over winter towards more “recession-proof” (and SEC-proof) clients.

The parallels are clear. Crypto companies carry a huge environmental impact and expose agencies to reputational and legal risk (especially with the regulation being constructed around the sector, such as the UK Financial Conduct Authority’s new rules about risk warnings in crypto ads).

And when agencies stepped away, the sky didn’t fall in.

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