Peter Souter: solving the climate crisis is advertising's toughest brief yet

Katie Burrell portrait by Alfie Souter

The picture above shows Katie Burrell. She is the reason why you don’t have to worry too much about what you do for a living. At least for now.

I’ll come back to Katie in a few hundred words if I may. First let’s turn to another fantastic copywriter. (Anonymous this time, I’m afraid.)

'Don’t throw anything away. There is no away.'

To my shame, I can’t exactly remember where I read that excellent piece of copywriting. Or even if it was actually written by a copywriter for that matter, though it feels that way to me.

A copywriter, as readers may know, is what advertising types call the person who scribbles the words. It’s a weirdly specific job. A journalist gets paid by the word (or at least they used to), and Copywriters get paid by how few letters we use. Maximum meaning, minimum characters. That’s not a green thing. It’s because nobody particularly wants to read what we write. We are trying to sell you something. But sometimes we are trying to sell you an idea, encourage a change of behaviour.

'There is no away' is what first sold me on the urgent need for sustainability. I know it should have been an emaciated Polar Bear or a dusty ice core. But for me it was brilliant, persuasive writing. Salesmanship, in fact.

The question is… should we still be allowed to be salesmen and women? Aren’t sales, the invitation to purchase, behind the consumeristic corruption of the only place we all have to live on? One thing that everyone but the most dedicated Trump-loving-climate-change-denying-crackpot agrees on is this: We all need to buy less. We need to use less stuff which means, surely, that we must buy less stuff. And, therefore, the advertising business must close immediately. Right?

Certainly, the excellent folk at Extinction Rebellion think so.

I got a call from them a few weeks ago: “Would you come for a chat?” The vain part of me (quite a substantial part, my kids will tell you) thought I was being summoned to help them with their campaign messaging. I’ve been involved in some big social justice campaigns in the past, like Make Poverty History, and the current drive to promote The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Obviously the XR people wanted help with a bit of the aforementioned copywriting.

Turns out I was about as wrong as you can be. I met two brilliant and charming young people (an ex-actress and an ex-strategist from an ad agency as it happened) who had no interest in me joining them. They did, however, want me to talk to all my friends in the advertising business and persuade them to give up. Immediately. Not do less. Not be more discerning about who they worked with. But simply down tools. Find another profession. And right now.

These charismatic Extinction Rebels weren’t just picking on us. They were fresh from a visit to London Fashion Week where their message was also “stop what you are doing, it’s bad for the planet”. But we were right up there on their to-undo list, along with the folk who use 6000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans and then encourage us to wear different ones next season.

Now. It isn’t often that a meeting takes a completely different path from the one I expect. And I must say it was rather refreshing. I am hugely sympathetic to XR. I think they are very clever and extremely necessary. Their name is a great bit of communication for a start. ‘Extinction’ certainly raises the stakes. This is not about some distant tribe on an Atoll. This is about you and me and everyone we love. And ‘Rebellion’ says it’s still not too late. We can still change things if we take dramatic action to save ourselves.

So. Am I giving up work? I’m pretty old now, so I could just quietly slip away without being much missed. But I’d like to make two arguments for why the skills my friends and I have are still necessary in a world that’s properly awake to climate change. (Still can’t quite make myself say ‘woke’. Are we really that short of time and A’s?)

I think there’s an important job waiting for Katie Burrell when she graduates from SCA in a few short months. I’ll get to her properly in a minute, I promise.

Buy less, buy better

Here goes. We won’t get saved without business. Still reading? I hope so. The world’s money is roughly divided into three pots: Governments control a third, business controls a third and ordinary people have what’s left. Governments are slow and hamstrung by perpetually lurching from left to right.

Governments talk a lot and act a little. We the people are, generally speaking, brilliant in our intentions. But we need help with taking action. It’s really hard to avoid single-use plastic if everything you need to stay alive is still sold in the stuff. That leaves business. I am not, of course, saying that business and brands are falling over themselves to put the world first and profit second. At least not currently. I’m just saying that they can. Both voluntarily and because of pressure from consumers.

Coco Channel, back in the ’30s, had the answer: 'buy less, buy better'. We need to buy less things of higher, more lasting quality. We need to seek out that which is innovative and less resource hungry.

Business is restlessly inventive. It has to be to survive. Business will invent the technology that will suck the carbon from the air and lock it away from harm. Business will invent more and more efficient renewables. Cars that not only drive themselves but power themselves from the sun. (Enough natural energy strikes the earth every two minutes than all 7 billion of us can use in a year. We just need to get better at catching it.) Business is already turning used plastic bags into cheap bricks to build sustainable housing in the developing world. All that’s required is more consumer-driven market pressure.

And that’s the second reason I’m not hanging up my pen just yet. 'Don’t throw anything away, there is no away', Katie’s brilliantly simple 'use less paper'.

We desperately need to make the sustainability message stick. And that takes creative talent.

Making the message stick

Words, pictures, and insight, deployed to change minds. The proliferation of paper straws in London is not a sign that the message is fully received and accepted. It’s literally a drop in the ocean. We need a massive mobilization of message. Driven by business (because they have the money to spend of message) and an enlightened public. The government will just have to join in later at their own, snail’s pace.

I used to have a little speech. Always ready to go when I wanted to make my agency feel good about itself or recruit young people to the noble art of salesmanship. It went a bit like this: ‘If you want to live in a free society, you need mass employment. People get grumpy when they don’t have jobs and start breaking stuff. If you want mass employment you need mass manufacture and service. If you want those things… you must have mass selling.’

I still believe that, actually.

Extreme climate rebels have little concern for jobs. That other kind of sustainability. A sustainable working life where you get to feed and shelter your kids. It is an undeniable truth that we must all buy less. All I’d argue is that we need to buy better while we are buying less.

We need to support and encourage the brands that are innovating for greater sustainability. We need to keep each other in work while still working to clean our air and water, respecting the other creatures who live here too. We can do both. If we are radical. And creative.

That’s why young Katie Burrell, who is currently in her first few weeks of Marc Lewis’ peerless School of Communication Arts is one of the most vital people on the planet right now. Her first project was to make a sign for the Student Climate strike. And she made the above. How fucking clever is she?

Go save us from ourselves Katie.

Peter Souter and seven other creative and advertising leaders recently debated the industry’s response to the climate crisis at D&AD’s ‘Our toughest brief yet’ event. It was part of D&AD Impact, which elevates purposeful products, initiatives and campaigns with the intention to drive meaningful change.

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