The ad industry isn't built to tackle the climate crisis – we need a different approach

Extinction Rebellion

There’s a deadly heatwave in Europe happening right now. Maybe you’ve heard about it, or maybe you’ve felt it. Maybe you’ve said this doesn’t feel normal.

Experts agree. Scientists say that globally, monthly heat records are occurring five times more often today than they would in a stable climate. There’s a word for this situation: climate crisis.

The problem is that humanity is doing nowhere near enough to tackle that crisis. That includes industries – the ones best equipped to help.

And that especially includes our industry – the one best equipped to direct attention to the problem. Why?

The answer comes from the 20th-century author Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

In other words: it’s not in the advertising industry’s financial interest to help address climate change. It is, in fact, the business model of big holding companies not to understand the implications of climate change.

When Exxon or BP shows up with a big check, what’s a large enterprise beholden to the financial interests of its owners going to say? They’re going to say yes.

For now, it’s still true that the industry itself doesn’t care. But, as Ogilvy's recently leaked troubles show, the people who work in the industry do. They care deeply.

Unfortunately, there are few structures and mechanisms to help those good people put their minds to do the work that needs to be done. The only one that comes to mind is Extinction Rebellion (XR).

They’ve called on the advertising industry to help foment change, betting that the talented folks who solve messaging problems are exactly the type to convince citizens of the magnitude of the crisis and urge them to action.

I support XR. But there’s a problem – agencies are geared to respond to briefs. They’re not built for this work. We won’t combat this crisis with one-off pro-bono work for anti-palm oil initiatives.

A company like IPG isn’t going to change its business model until creatives stop working for ad agencies that have fossil fuel clients such as Shell on their books - and that's not happening at all.

We need to try a different approach.

Based on my work with non-profit causes, I recommend two courses of action:

– We need to work outside the traditional agency structures.

– We need to create partnerships and share talent.

Our response to the first point has been to set up a separate, non-profit version of Article Group.

Why? Because of my earlier point about agencies. They’re set up to do campaign work. They’re not set up to invest in long term, intractable problems. ArticleGroup.org is designed soup to nuts to help solve some of the world’s humanitarian and ecological problems.

On the second point, we’ve just partnered with Robert Downey Jr on a project called Footprint Coalition. Still in its infancy, it will be an earth-saving initiative that will use advanced technology to help remediate climate change.

We believe if agencies want to put money where their mouths are, they need to give money to partnerships that are creating change – even if that’s just paid placements with charities.

And we need to create more bridges between communities and skills. Instead of simply working on a single project for a community, we need to transfer skills to the communities in need: for example, help politicians who support green initiatives by giving their staff the info and materials they need to be more effective communicators.

In other words, invest in communities in need. Don’t just pander to them.

By working with organizations like XR, we can find more options for people in the industry to put their skills to use – not just to make a living, but to save the planet while doing so.

After all, it will be impossible to make a living selling stuff to folk when the planet has overheated to the extent that the human race ceases to exist.

We need to see the current heat heatwaves, ice melts, and extreme weather as a warning. It’s just a taste of the hell in store for humanity if our industry doesn’t get its act together - and fast.

Andrew Kessler is the co-founder and creative director of Article Group

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