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Agencies Business Leadership Sustainability

What does it really take to embed sustainability in an agency?

By Louise Ayling | Director of Sustainability

Radley Yeldar

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March 1, 2023 | 7 min read

Louise Ayling of creative consultancy Radley Yeldar charts her agency’s own sustainability journey and looks at agencies’ responsibilities in the wider sustainability ecosystem.

A pair of hands, planting small green shoots

Agencies’ sustainability: it starts at home, says Radley Yeldar / Sandie Clarke via Unsplash

The climate clock is ticking louder than ever. We have less than 83 months to achieve the goal of halving global carbon emissions before 2030. Mounting expectations on business to play its part is spurring organizations to set ambitious targets, implement sustainability initiatives along the entire value chain, measure progress, report transparently, respond to evolving legislation, and create compelling campaigns to influence behavior.

But many businesses still aren’t prepared. Just 0.2% of board directors of the 100 largest US companies have specific climate expertise. This has driven a war for talent in the sustainability space, as organizations scramble to secure the knowledge and skills they need to credibly navigate this complicated (and for many, uncharted) territory.

Agencies’ role in the sustainability world

Many organizations have turned to their agency and consultancy partners for support. In response, many agencies are adding sustainability expertise to their repertoire. But sustainability isn’t just an add-on. Failure to get the right mix of credible skillsets can lead to accusations of ‘competence greenwashing’.

This surge in sustainability requirements is also changing the agency-client relationship, with expectations for agencies rising rapidly. An agency’s scope 1 and 2 emissions are its clients’ scope 3.

An agency team of white, middle-aged men doesn’t reflect the clients’ world. Using sustainability as a trope on a careers page, or flashed up at the back of a pitch deck, won’t cut it. It won’t attract brilliant talent either: a recent KPMG survey found that one in three young people have rejected a job offer based on the hiring organization’s ESG performance.

Agencies have always focused their investment on how to service clients. But nowadays, clients and employees want to see more from their agencies.

Truly embedded agency sustainability

At Radley Yeldar, our vision is ‘to help create a world that believes in business’. Our sustainability work directly contributes to this, through the development of robust sustainability strategies, effective behavior change campaigns and credible, compelling reporting for global businesses and NGOs. We’re laser-focused on the work we do with our clients and the impact it can generate. But what about our impact? What does it take to make sure our clients and our people believe in us?

1. Start with a strong body of expertise

Sustainability isn’t linear, tangible and clear. It’s messy, wide-ranging and nebulous (though scientific). This complexity is part of the reason it has failed to land effectively within business, government and society for so many years.

So, while increasing sustainability know-how agency-wide is crucial, to get there, start with a core team of experts who really know their stuff – on everything from emissions calculations and particular disclosure regulations, to nuanced debates on child labor and a thorough understanding of circularity.

2. Enhance sustainability know-how agency-wide

Valuable sustainability expertise shouldn’t be kept under lock and key. To progress the sustainability agenda, and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, we need to make sustainability everyone’s business.

Use experts to enhance sustainability know-how across the agency. It can be a daunting topic, so it needs to be made inviting, accessible and interesting. Everybody needs to see how it relates to their role. Through our agency-wide learning and development program, we hold monthly ‘sustainability sessions’ on pertinent topics; our ‘sustainability library’ explains the basics.

In the last two years, 8% of our staff (and counting) have completed the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) course. It’s a considerable investment, but the benefits are invaluable, boosting foundational knowledge across our offer.

3. Put your sustainability expertise to work in other areas

Whether we’re working on a client’s brand and strategy, engaging employees through internal campaigns, connecting meaningfully with customers and citizens, or creating reports, by incorporating sustainability expertise, the work has even more meaning.

4. Integrate sustainability within your own business strategy

Within business, sustainability shouldn’t be an add-on. Agencies are no exception.

For us, this was a big change. Following employee feedback that our strategic direction wasn’t clear enough, we launched a new strategy in 2022, underpinning our existing vision, to create belief the in business. Sustainability is now front and center, positioned as the ‘engine of change’.

To reinforce and drive this change, we’ve brought sustainability representation onto our board. By increasing the proportion of our work that focuses on sustainability, and integrating it into all that we do, we’ll maximize our impact and accelerate our ability to drive belief inside and out.

5. Get your own house in order

Agencies are used to working with clients to amplify their impact. But when it comes to ourselves, ‘cobblers’ shoes’ springs to mind. At Radley Yeldar, we’ve been guilty of an ad-hoc approach toward our own sustainability endeavors, making good choices by luck and fair judgment, rather than by design.

Our B Corp journey was a game-changer. Submitted in 2022, our certification is currently pending, but the changes we’ve made have been considerable – from formalizing many of our existing initiatives and approaches to setting environmental commitments. Our plans for 2023 include conducting a materiality assessment to inform our sustainability strategy, and creating a ‘belief report’.

We’ve by no means ‘cracked it’; I’m sure we’ll make many more mistakes along the way. Ironically for a communications agency, we’ve been quiet about our own sustainability efforts because, for us, this transition isn’t a marketing initiative to win more business or attract brilliant talent. It’s because it’s the right thing to do. The clock is ticking for agencies, too, and with added demands from clients, it’s time we all asked the question: what will it take to truly believe in ourselves?

Agencies Business Leadership Sustainability

Content by The Drum Network member:

Radley Yeldar

Radley Yeldar is an award-winning, independent, London and Birmingham-based creative consultancy. Our 200-strong team of specialists has been helping to create a world that believes in business for over 30 years, through a unique blend of business and strategic integrated services – including employee engagement, reporting, sustainability, brand positioning and identity, purpose and more – all brought to life through film, campaigns, experiences, print, digital content and platforms. Evidence times inspiration is the new formula for success in a changing world and everyone needs something to believe in. So let’s get started.

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