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Sustainability Agency Leadership B Corp

B Lab hit with official complaint as calls mount to strip some agencies of B Corp status

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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

October 20, 2023 | 12 min read

As a collective of B Corp-certified ad agencies demands Havas, MSQ and Tam-Tam\TBWA are stripped of their sustainability accreditation on account of their client rosters, B Lab tells The Drum how it will respond.

Fossil fuels

B Corp agencies share why they have signed the complaint letter / Adobe Stock

Some 26 communications and advertising agencies, including Good, Enviral, Manifest, and Marlin Communications, are calling for the B Corp status of six fellow agencies to be removed by B Lab, the company behind the certification.

Four Havas agencies, along with Canadian agency Tam-Tam\TBWA and UK network MSQ, have held their B Corp status while maintaining ties with the fossil fuel industry. The 26 agencies backing the complaint, as well as industry campaign group Clean Creatives, have submitted an official complaint to B Lab asking it to remove that status from the companies and clarify whether or not B-Corp firms (or their parent companies) should be allowed to supply marketing services to the petrochemical sector.

B Lab has also been asked to declare and apply the same criteria to B Corp advertising and PR agencies with fossil fuel and high polluter clients as are applied to fossil fuel and high polluting companies themselves. The complaint also requests that it declares and applies the same criteria to parent companies of B Corps. [You can read the full letter to B Lab below.]

B Lab is responsible for giving companies a ‘B Corp’ certification, which shows a business has met “high standards of verified performance, accountability and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.”

A spokesperson for B Lab Global told The Drum that the complaint would spark an initial review to decide whether or not it should investigate each of the six companies’ fossil fuel ties. That stage could take up to 90 days.

They said: “B Lab has received complaints regarding Havas, MSQ and Tam-Tam\TBWA as part of our Public Complaint Process. Havas (which has certified B Corp subsidiaries New York, London, Lemz, and Immerse) is already under initial review, the first stage of our Complaints Process. We will also conduct an initial review of MSQ and Tam-Tam\TBWA. We consider all complaints we receive as part of our review process.”

A spokesperson for Havas told The Drum: “At Havas, our mission is to make a meaningful difference to brands, businesses, and people. We believe the ability to enact change comes most effectively from within. This is why we are invested in supporting all companies in their communications, provided that they are engaged in a transformation journey.

“Our level of commitment towards sustainability at a group level remains unchanged. Our goal is to involve our clients, talents, and suppliers in a responsible communications approach, and to raise the standards of the profession.

“We greatly value and respect B Lab and the rigorous B Corp process. Havas’ creative agencies – including Havas New York, Havas London, Havas Lemz and Havas Immerse, which currently hold B Corp certification – remain committed to their sustainability goals, alongside all our other agencies around the world. They welcome the opportunity to dialogue with B Lab or any certification agency and will share any requested details/information through any review processes.”

A spokesperson for MSQ added: “MSQ worked with B Corp submitting responses to all their requirements, we have been transparent in sharing our position on, and relationship with, all of our clients, including businesses in controversial industries, and we have been evaluated by B Corp to their high standards.“

Tam Tam\TBWA did not respond to a request for comment before the time of publication.

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Mounting pressure

B Corp has been under pressure from its own community to act on agencies that work with fossil fuel clients after comments made to The Drum in June when asked if accredited agencies should pitch for Shell’s media account amid industry protests.

At the time, B Lab’s UK executive director, Chris Turner, said it had never explicitly stated which clients agencies could not work with if they wished to obtain B Corp status.

The contention resulted in 19 B Corp agencies and industry networks Creatives for Climate and Clean Creatives signing an open letter to Turner demanding greater clarity over B Lab’s stance.

Chris Norman, chief executive and founder of Good Agency (the UK’s highest-scoring B Corp agency, which penned the letter) said B Lab should be demanding more of B Corp agencies: “B Corp status used to be aspirational. It should not be easy to get. There are certain lines that should not be crossed and we feel B Corp has muddied the waters.”

Norman told The Drum that B Lab subsequently invited the Good team to its headquarters in London to discuss the matter but said the meeting proved disappointing.

“The disappointment was [B Lab] sticking to the party line, telling us to trust the process which could take up to a year or a year and a half to come to a conclusion on this matter because it’s complicated. We are saying it’s not complicated. We need clarification on B Corp agencies working with fossil fuel companies.”

B Lab’s delay is reportedly due to an internal review of its policies and standards, which will be concluded within the next 18 months.

“We are 100% behind what B Lab stands for and what accreditation stands for – it’s ironic that it’s the B Corps reminding B Lab to stand by what we signed up for,” Norman tells The Drum.

Duncan Meisel, director of Clean Creatives, said the subsequent appointment of Havas Media to Shell’s media buying account has exacerbated the need for clarity from B Lab. Havas currently has four subsidiaries that are certified B Corps – London, New York, Lemz and Immerse – meaning they meet the highest verifiable standard of ESG. However, the agency has been in the process of certifying across the UK.

“The reaction has been very cynical. It’s a sense that some B Corp agencies are really taking advantage of the certification to greenwash,” said Meisel.

Following the announcement Havas had won the account, Meisel says Clean Creatives reached out to the B Corps in its network for a response. “They were very worried it would spill over and impact their ability to position their agencies and the work they had put into certification as a real asset. There was a recognition that it was very profoundly out of sync with the core values of the institution.”

B Lab peviously told The Drum that it would be reviewing the implications of Havas’ deal with Shell on the eligibility of its B Corp agencies following complaints.

The complaint in full

Havas, as a parent company of a network that includes B Corp agencies, has agreed to become the main media agency for Shell. This contract will require work from certain B Corp subsidiaries in their network. Additionally, both the agency MSQ has been providing marketing services to Shell since 2022, and the agency Tam-Tam\TBWA represented PetroCanada from 2016-2022, while also maintaining B Corp status.

We believe that by allowing advertising and PR agencies with B Corp status to work with fossil fuel polluters undermines all of the listed core values of the Declaration of Interdependence.

B Lab has clear criteria for fossil fuel and energy companies that they “are eligible for B Corp certification if they are not engaged in specific prohibited practices regarding extraction, lobbying, and financial incentives; have successfully transitioned their energy portfolio to be at least 50% carbon-free; and have committed to make progress towards transitioning to a fully carbon-free portfolio within specified timeframes.”

We are asking B Lab to:

  • Declare & apply the same criteria to B Corp agencies with fossil fuel & high polluter clients

  • Declare & apply the same criteria to parent companies of B Corps

  • Action this immediately

Havas taking on Shell’s media account means that a select number of their B Corp subsidiaries will play a vital role in the business of one of the world’s worst polluters. MSQ already provides these services. We believe certifying these agencies that directly support Shell devalues the principles and public image of B Corp agencies worldwide.

In 2023, Shell announced that it will be increasing fossil fuel production(1) despite its 2020 net zero pledge, and the warnings of the IPCC and UN Secretary General António Guterres, who insisted that we must “hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account.”

Since the mid-1970s, Shell has known about the extreme harms of their products’ contribution to climate change, even going so far as to forecast that “civilization could prove a fragile thing” should carbon pollution continue to increase. Despite this warning, Shell continues to produce more and more of the fossil fuel products that they know threaten all life on our planet.

Marketing and PR agencies have played a vital role in Shell’s dangerous business plan, and working in this capacity is inappropriate for any B Corp-certified agency. Providing these services would harm the planet, the communities affected by climate change, and be an act of irresponsibility towards each other and future generations.

Shell’s advertising and marketing campaigns have consistently misled the public. Shell agencies have developed marketing campaigns that gaslight the public, from their #PoweringProgress campaign which was banned for greenwashing by the Advertising Standards Authority to their recent influencer collaborations which represent them as a leader in clean energy. It is likely the case that actual spending on renewables is 1.5% a year, much lower than they represent in ads and elsewhere. A recently recovered document from a US Congressional investigation included the statement “Shell has no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years.” This behavior is a longstanding historical pattern that shows no sign of ending.

Any B Corp agency that works for Shell has a significant conflict of interest. We ask you to reevaluate their status in light of this information.

Respectfully,

17 Communications

A Little Better Co

Climbing Trees

Compose[d]

Conspiracy of Love

Creative Chi

Done!

Empower Agency

Enviral

Fernweh Studio

GOOD

Good Stuff Partners

Greenhouse Communications

Grounded World

Growth Animals

GRRR

Hooton

Manifest

Marlin Communications

RALLY

ThinkShift Communications

Unity Web Agency

Grosomono (Argentina)

Profile (Brazil)

Actif Studio (Colombia)

GrowBetter agency (Chile)

Additional reporting by Sam Bradley

Sustainability Agency Leadership B Corp

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