How the ad industry can help Extinction Rebellion avert environmental apocalypse

How the ad industry will respond to Extinction Rebellion's rally to save the world

Dear Extinction Rebellion,

The ad industry could learn a lot from your recent uprising; it’s completely hijacked the national conversation and resulted in you achieving your short term objective: the declaration of a climate emergency in the UK, important seeing as the UN reckons we have around 12 years to change before causing irreparable damage to our world.

And now you've called for the world of advertising to get involved in a bold letter: 'We’re not on the verge of the Sixth Mass Extinction. We’re in it. If everything on the planet dies, we die,' you said.

Up until now, you've had amazing ROI, especially given that your budget was probably about £130; this demonstrates you’re starting to ‘shift mass behaviour’ without our help.

Your impact has obviously been felt in agencies too and has sparked some pretty serious debates around the foosball table. To be fair, a diet version of the measures you suggested are already afoot with agencies frantically trying to be more purposeful and sustainable looking than their rivals and persuading clients to do the same.

Either way, we have definitely evolved from the days of ‘let’s flog anything and damn the consequences for the planet’. We have now entered the ‘given climate change, how on earth are we going to polish some of these turds?’

Following are two classic responses from woke agencies that summarise where we are, as an industry right now and a suggestion of how we could do it better.

Like you, I share believe in the ability of advertising to move minds and change the world.

Look At This Everyone

In this instant, the client has developed an environmentally progressive initiative that represents a small portion of their revenue - that’s what they want pushing.

It is a ‘look over here everyone, we want the dosh and so are all too ready to be spun by clients’ move. Agencies take them on but sometimes feel a bit weird about it...

For example, a friend who runs an agency started to work with Shell on the grounds that the company is trying to improve its emissions footprint.

Yes, it is investing £1.5bn a year in renewables while still pumping around £20bn a year into fossil fuels. There’s no way Shell will get a return on that within the UN’s 12 Year deadline to limit devastating global warming. As your letter makes clear, this is far too little too late.

Client Offsetting

Another approach that you allude to in your letter is what could be called client offsetting, that is: we have an airline over here so we had better do something a bit ethical over there for some charity or another (plus get an award out of it).

You mention ‘a pro-bono (campaign) for an anti-palm oil initiative’ by which I’m assuming you mean Mother's ace 'Rang-tan' advert for Greenpeace/Iceland, which successfully highlighted the deforestation caused by palm oil production. Perhaps Mother was offsetting all the brilliantly successful work it does for KFC, which is currently the target of a campaign by SumOfUs that calls out the chicken behemoth for its links with massive deforestation.

What We Can Do

These are just two typical responses I’ve outlined to illustrate the thoughts of environmentally dubious clients.

But I’d say it’s not a surprise that, in an industry that attempts to sell the sizzle and not the steak (that’s farted out tonnes of methane), we’ll attempt to take the path of least resistance as long as it looks good. Thereby helping to usher in an environmental apocalypse.

Despite being unqualified to speak for the industry, as Don’t Panic exists on its fringes, I’d agree that we can be a massive force for good. Basically, we can help save the world. But, as you say, it’s not through pro-bono work.

An agency’s power to effect change must flow through their relationships to the people who hold the purse strings. If agencies can work with clients in a holistic way, we’ll stay in business and genuinely do good. With expert help (like sustainability consultants), we can alter the way businesses function, helping them to develop sustainable and even more profitable models.

We have found it’s already a huge concern for lots of businesses, who are already making drastic, real changes to their operations and not just asking for some spin.

We had better start getting this right. Let’s face it: in a post-apocalyptic society, the only utility of advertising people will be as crossbow targets or a Sunday spit-roast.

Joe Wade is the the founding partner of creative agency Don’t Panic and Bafta-winning co-creator of The Revolution Will Be Televised

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.