‘I could leave or stay and make a difference’: prioritizing sustainability kept this MD in adland
The Drum speaks with Caroline Davison, managing director and sustainability lead at Elvis on how the climate conversation is reshaping her advertising career.
Davison is managing director and sustainability lead at agency Elvis
Caroline Davison never expected to end up in advertising. Her father was a golf professional. She studied geography at university, a degree which she describes as preparing you “for everything and nothing.” Unsure of what she wanted to pursue afterward, Davison says it was fate that a conversation about the future led a friend to suggest she try advertising.
The connection between creativity, business, and problem-solving sparked her interest. She got her start at an agency through an internship, later joining Elvis as a senior account director and rising to managing partner before assuming her current role.
But Davison says she began to question the role she was playing in promoting consumption through her work. “I started to become uneasy about the values that I had in my personal life and my opportunities to live those values in my professional life. I was consuming less in my personal life but not engaging in the conversation at work when I was speaking to brands.”
Davison admits she even contemplated leaving the industry altogether but felt buoyed by the conversations triggered by the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Purpose Disruptors. “I thought, I can either leave or I can stay and try to make a difference,” she says.
Realizing her position allowed her the opportunity to speak to brands and even have difficult conversations, she persevered. “I spent a long time figuring what [Elvis’] options were,” she said, eventually settling on the decision to take the agency through the B Corp accreditation process. “We didn’t want to do piecemeal initiatives on the side; we wanted the change to be more fundamental than that.”
She knew it was the right decision when she approached agency staffers to find out if the process was something they were up for. “We held an anonymous vote; people could check a box that said it was a great idea, they were interested but it wasn’t the right timing, or no they weren’t interested. Virtually everyone checked the first box, with one or two checking the second.”
Davison also took the Purpose Disruptor’s agency course where connecting with like-minded people gave her a new lease, she says. “Meeting Ben Essen from Iris and working with him to ask what the impact of our campaigns were (which became their Eco-effectiveness calculator) was important because we’re from different agencies, from different holding companies that are usually competitors but we worked together to open up the conversation.”
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She says that while she is proud of the conversations that Eco-effectiveness facilitated, she remains concerned that solutions are not coming fast enough. “The metrics are important, but I worry we’re thinking too much about problems and challenges there aren’t answers to. Everybody’s asking the questions, but nobody’s thinking about the solutions.”
Nevertheless, she says the challenge reignited her passion for her career. “It’s kept me in the industry, to be honest.”
Becoming a B Corp isn’t a silver bullet.“It doesn’t solve all the ills in the industry or the world," she says, but adds that it is an incremental building block to then ask what comes next.
It's why she stands alongside the network of B Corp agencies currently lobbying B Lab (the organization that grants accreditation) for greater clarity on advertising agencies working with fossil fuel clients. “Accountability and the standards we set can be meaningful, and we must protect them.”
“It’s a little bit of a cop-out to say not everything is black and white. Working with fossil fuels is pretty black and white for me personally – unless their investments in green energy are at least matching their other investments.”
Davison says the industry’s greatest challenge is its own reckoning with the behaviors it encourages and facilitates. “We know our ever-increasing levels of consumption are not sustainable. We’re sticking our head in the sand, thinking there will always be a role for us. But what if we don’t change? We’re languishing near the bottom as one of the least trusted industries, when we ought to be near the top.”
She posits it might be interesting to see future CEOs annual bonuses tied to their ability to hit ESG objectives and climate targets. “How do you ensure you’re incentivizing people at the very top to make the right choices? Because at some point, a company isn’t going to be valuable if you haven’t put that ESG framework in place.”