Marketing Brand Purpose Sustainability

​​Sutton’s law: navigating the messy politics of agencies and fossil fuel clients

By Alison Pepper | EVP, government relations & sustainability

December 7, 2022 | 5 min read

When it comes to working with fossil fuel businesses, the tide is turning in the world of advertising, writes the 4A's executive vice-president of government relations and sustainability Alison Pepper.

Building with greenery

/ Ricardo Gomez

Sutton’s Law is the medical field’s shorthand for looking to the obvious when attempting to make a diagnosis (a concept also expressed in the saying, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”). Famously named after the bank robber Willie Sutton, who supposedly replied to the question of why he robs banks with the reply: “Because that’s where the money is,” Sutton’s Law is a handy way to parse through complex issues.

Borrowing from the logic of this famous tenet, why should advertising and marketing communications agencies work with fossil fuel clients? One reason is it could be one of the greatest opportunities for emissions reductions. Some of the criticism agencies face in this space are founded on the antiquated concept that all agencies engage with their fossil fuel clients in the exact same way: to develop creative and buy media.

This notion is increasingly unrepresentative of new working relationships agencies are forging with their fossil fuel clients. Agencies are beginning to partner with clients to make decisions on renewable energy investments, teaming up with nonprofits to achieve emissions reductions, working with external and internal stakeholders to identify innovative solutions – and, increasingly, pushing back against fossil fuel clients when they don’t walk the walk.

In this case, there are agencies walking away from fossil fuel clients unwilling to make real commitment to measurable change. You don’t see press releases about those breakups, but it is happening.

Nobody is suggesting these recent developments make up for years of dubious greenwashing. And while it’s likely that the change being seen wouldn’t have come without public pressure, that’s probably true of any century-old industry used to having its way. Anyone familiar with the history of fossil fuel companies knows that they tend to be large, conservative organizations run by conservative boards, and not historically quick to embrace change.

And while the current global transition to renewable energy is impressive and will continue to accelerate, it’s worth noting the cold hard fact that fossil fuels will be with us for the foreseeable future. In a recent report titled Net Zero by 2050, the International Energy Agency noted that there is still going to be a global demand for fossil fuels in 2050, albeit at a hopefully much-reduced level. In the same report, the IEA noted areas of new opportunity for fossil fuel companies - biofuels, biomethane, carbon capture and storage, low emissions hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuel, offshore wind, etc.

When it comes to playing a critical role in a renewable energy transition, fossil fuel companies can offer a century’s worth of experience in deploying energy at scale, and a lot of engineering expertise in multiple disciplines - fossil fuel companies have a deep bench of chemical, electrical, mechanical and civil engineering talent. Experience and a deep bench of talent are both attributes that should position fossil fuel companies to play a core role in the upcoming transition.

To date, they have been moving too slowly, and this is where opportunity lies for agencies. Agencies can push their fossil fuel clients from the inside to start moving more quickly, make long-term investments, talk to the right stakeholders, ensure stakeholders understand how public sentiment about harmful climate practices hurt their brand, and more. And, agencies must be prepared to walk away if they ultimately find themselves working with a fossil fuel company that only contributes to greenwashing.

If fossil fuel companies don’t evolve, they eventually won’t be clients for agencies. Because they won’t exist. That’s a pretty strong motivation for wanting your client to evolve.

Alison Pepper is executive vice-president of government relations and sustainability at the 4A's.

Marketing Brand Purpose Sustainability

More from Marketing

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +