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Brand Purpose Greenwashing Work & Wellbeing

Why one promising young creative is leaving adland

By Charlotte Cunningham, Member

September 1, 2022 | 8 min read

After protesting outside WPP and Edelman’s London offices this week, Charlotte Cunningham tells us how adland’s love affair with fossil fuels has left her disillusioned.

Wreck the brief

‘You have the right to reject the briefs that you don’t morally agree with’ / Glimpse

I graduated during the pandemic with a first-class degree in Creative Advertising, a promising portfolio, and a D&AD pencil. Yet, I chose to remove myself from the industry because I could never feel truly proud of my work.

I was using my talent in a tiny box of creativity with the purpose of making multimillionaires more millions. I knew that there was a reason why I was awarded twice for my work at the age of 21. I had talent and a brain that was slightly off-kilter, which made for unique ideas.

Fast forward to 2022 and we’ve all seen and felt climate change’s extremes. From 40°C English summers to flooding in Pakistan, 60 years of topsoil left, dresses being sold for 6p, the rainforest cut down in the face of a crying orangutan...

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Yet the scariest part to me is how the brands responsible for climate change portray themselves as preventing, not causing, the crisis.

You may have heard the term greenwashing... hell, you may have even greenwashed yourself. It is a term that explains the process of a brand painting themselves to be eco-conscious/sustainable/ethical/green, but in reality, if you scratch the surface, they’re doing the opposite. Much like how big corporations wave the pride flag, but when it comes down to supporting their queer staff, they’re nowhere to be seen.

A case in point: Shell’s ‘The UK is ready for cleaner energy’ ad, complete with regional accents, friendly faces and illustrated windmills to make you trust them like you’d trust someone from Gogglebox. We are made to believe that Shell really is the saving grace, gifting us with electric car charge points before ending the ad with #poweringprogress.

In reality, oil companies such as Shell spend about 5% of their capital investment on renewables. This is a perfect example of greenwashing. Yes, I see deception, but I also see a lot of creative talent behind the ad that has made us view Shell in this green light.

Most graduates work hard to get these hotshot ad jobs. You’re looking for an opportunity to better yourself and earn a wage, buy expensive pints, and become a self-proclaimed yuppie. You’re told no job is perfect and you are lucky to have one. Challenging those above you is a one-way ticket to living at home with mum again. You take these junior roles and work on soul-destroying briefs that you know are wrecking the earth, but it’s all cool because there’s a ping pong table in the break room.

The activist in you lives in your reusable water bottle, oat flat whites and cycle-to-work scheme, while you sit at your fancy desk, doodling ideas for how to make this oil-drenched monster win a beauty pageant. And you do it, you do it brilliantly, so brilliantly that you fool them all and maybe you’ve even fooled yourself. But it’s not too late to listen to that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ad grad, with hopes to help this dried-up earth.

What you have forgotten is that you are the talent and you have a voice. However lucky they made you feel for getting this job, they forgot to tell you how lucky they are to have your brain on their briefs. Gone are the days when we can straddle both sides of the fence. It’s time to reject those briefs that make you want to sink a bottle of wine.

Following my degree, I dipped my toes momentarily into the advertising world. I saw a future of working with big-time agencies and bragging about sizable budgets in east London pubs. But it didn’t feel right using my creativity to fuel the beast I was slagging off around the dinner table. Perhaps the hippy-dippy Woodstock-wannabe kid in me sings a little too loud for this capitalist world, but for me, I’d rather not share my bright ideas with those who are actively destroying our future. So I decided to hang up my hat and follow a career that I could be proud of and work with people who reflect my views, not embarrass them.

In the search for a way to use my creativity for good, I was introduced to Glimpse. I started freelancing for them, initially working on an Amnesty International brief and more recently joining the bunch of young creatives working with Glimpse and If Not Now on ’The Brief Sabotage Handbook.’ We created a guide that will help and support you to wreck briefs from fossil fuel clients such as Shell and BP. Imagine if the same creative thinking that was applied to winning these clients was used to sabotage them.

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You have the right to reject the briefs that you don’t morally agree with, and this guide will show you how – from blowing the budget to confusing the planners. This is just the start of the campaign. Over the next two years we aim to build a community of young creatives to take part in mass, participatory creative actions, to use our talent to tackle the environmental emergency.

To me it always felt black and white – you either leave your morals at the door or reject the industry entirely – but Glimpse and If Not Now have created a solution to this. A supported space where you can reject the briefs that make you uncomfortable while developing your career in advertising.

You have the power to reshape the industry and be proud of what you do.

Charlotte Cunningham is a member of the Glimpse Collective.

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