Boycott or not to boycott: how agencies should work with high-carbon clients

As COP26 gets underway, 'subvertising' activist groups have been targeting ad agencies, condemning them for escaping scrutiny for their role in destroying the environment. The problem isn't black or white, so how should agencies work with their polluting clients?

Boycott or not to boycott
Boycott or not to boycott

Shell, BP, Jaguar Land Rover and British Airways. You might have seen these brand names plastered across the UK in recent weeks, though it’s unlikely it made you want to buy a 4x4 Landy or book flights to New York.

If you did spot the UK-wide subvertising campaign, you’ll know they weren’t the only names blackmarked on Brandalism and Free Cities hit list. Named and shamed alongside their polluting clients were some of London’s biggest ad and media agencies, including Ogilvy, VCCP and MediaCom.

What do we want? Agencies to boycott their high-carbon clients. When do we want it? Now!

Underscoring her belief that the advertising industry had escaped scrutiny for its role in the climate crisis and is complicit in the destruction of the environment, Tona Merriman from Brandalism insists that: “Greenwash is the second wave of climate denial, in which polluters use false claims about carbon offsetting and ‘net zero’ to delay meaningful climate action.

"Even when they’re not actively deceiving the public, advertisers’ constant manufacturing of new desires for never-ending cycles of consumerism is trashing the planet. We need a paradigm shift.”

However, in the run-up to COP26, the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted, the ad industry has been cleaning up its act, with hundreds joining Ad Net Zero – an initiative from the Advertising Association, ISBA and the IPA, which has the ultimate goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by the end of 2030.

While Merriman and Brandalism have a point, how should agencies work with high-carbon clients and, given all this progress, is it fair to accuse agencies of "promoting" climate change for their work for high-carbon clients?

Boycotting boycott?

Think local, urged the people of Bristol’s Stokes Croft, boycott Tesco. #StopHateForProfit cried the civil rights groups that organised the advertising boycott of Facebook last summer. Boycott GB News, rallied Stop Funding Hate. When people aren’t happy with something, "Boycotting" is a timeless arsenal in their armoury. But is it always the most effective form of combat?

“Boycott is such a strong and finite term, but not a particularly progressive one,” Kathleen Enright, managing director of Salterbaxter, a sustainability consultancy, insists. “It leaves no room for progress, for helping someone to take on board a different perspective, or to push for change. All boycott and no change would be a sad state of affairs.”

Phil Smith, director-general at ISBA, agrees with Enright, arguing that the problem with bans and boycotts is they do not take us where we need to go – a sustainable future with a growing economy and greener products.

“Many of our members, including in those sectors which historically have had a high-carbon impact, are on this journey – transforming their operations, reusing existing creatives, and decarbonising their business and value chains. In many instances, agencies themselves are helping their clients with this work.”

And the reality, according to Chris Norman, founder of the Good Agency, is that it is unlikely that boycotting by agencies alone will have a massive impact on the operations of most of the high-carbon businesses, because they are not consumer brands or, if they are, the consumer side of their business is not significant.

“Commercial and regulatory pressures are driving change, but a boycott by agencies would add to the pressure to change and through a combination of activities and actions they will have to change,” he says.

Keep it brief

Rather than refuse to work with high-carbon clients, Enright says her sustainability consultancy does boycott briefs. “More agencies should be doing the same,” she insists.

According to a recent Campaign survey, four in five ad agencies are prepared to turn down work with brands and other industry partners if they are not working in an environmentally sustainable way.

A further 60% of agencies said that in future they will walk away from new business if a client, media partner or production company is not doing enough to work in an environmentally friendly way, according to the survey, produced exclusively for Campaign’s The Knowledge subscribers.

“We turn down the briefs that are disingenuous, the briefs where the walking doesn’t support the talking, the briefs where it’s all about the reward without the commitment,” Enright insists. “We turn down the briefs where the ambition isn’t where it needs to be for a 1.5-degree future.”

Proximity to the problem isn’t a bad place to be

Perhaps the biggest coup of the year, last week British Airways (BA) handed its advertising and CRM account to Uncommon, after a shoot-out against the incumbent Ogilvy.

An unusual client win for an indy agency that prides itself for working with eco-conscious brands, the shock appointment actually fits into Iris’ overall philosophy – that it’s OK to be close to the problem, as long as you are working to tackle it, as chief strategy officer Ben Essen explains.

“Net-zero is a numbers game, so the greatest opportunities for decarbonisation are with high carbon clients,” he says.

When deciding whether to take on a new client, he lays out Iris’ "traffic light" system which focuses on three questions. First, who are they (are they a high-carbon client, are they serious about decarbonisation, do they have a clear, funded net-zero strategy)? Second, what is the work (will our remit allow us to help them reduce their impact or are they engaging us to help them greenwash their image)? Third, how will the relationship work (will we be able to challenge them, are they looking for our help in solving the climate problem)?

“While there are many clients who wouldn’t pass our ‘traffic light’ test, we have currently decided against an out and out boycott approach,” he says. “The problem is too complex and our range of services too diverse.”

“We would prefer transparency. Where organisations are open about their work for high-carbon clients and its problematic nature, where difficult questions are asked and how they plan to transition from where they are now towards net zero.”

Green Claims Code

Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) laid out plans to crack down on environmental and sustainability claims, giving brands until the new year to ensure their claims comply with the law.

The "Green Claims Code" followed research that found 40% of green claims made online could be misleading. Given the knowledge that businesses that make false or misleading claims will now be investigated, is the code enough to clean up the industry?

“The CMA’s Green Claims Code, along with a new review from the Advertising Standards Authority, has helped raise awareness of ads that could be perceived as ‘greenwashing’,” Advertising Association chief executive Stephen Woodford, says.

“Accuracy and honesty in all advertising is paramount and it is an area carefully regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which expects advertisers to be able to show evidence for any claims they make on the environmental impact of the products and services they feature.”

However, for Enright the code doesn’t go far enough. “I don’t believe the Green Claims Code is even close to enough and I don’t believe it is driving change in the right places,” she insists.

Enright explains that the basic premise of the code is to avoid misleading customers. “That’s ground zero, circa 1995 – it’s just not enough, not today,” she says. “I do not believe it will help brands or agencies clean up their act. We need to be taking a Scope 3 perspective where the onus is on communications content driving sustainable business transformation and consumer behaviour change towards low impact lifestyles.”

A total ban on fossil fuel ads?

Back in May, Amsterdam became the first city in the world to ban ads from fossil fuel and aviation companies, in a bid to reduce the "excesses" of fossil fuel advertising. While it's a significant step, it’s hard to tell the impact this move will have.

“Our view is we should collectively focus on the real change of helping companies accelerate to a more sustainable future, not fiddle around the edges,” Enright argues. “Banning advertising feels like a noisy tactic rather than a progressive strategy. Fossil fuel and aviation companies need to lean into the sustainability agenda and start an honest conversation with consumers on which issues they are tackling, where they are making progress and what’s holding them up.”

In terms of the UK market, Paul Bainsfair, director general of the IPA says it’s worth noting that fossil fuel and aviation companies are mature and largely stable in terms of size, with little growth, so advertising will be largely about brand share.

“A ban on the advertising of these products would therefore achieve next to nothing in terms of an effective solution to addressing the climate crisis, but would cause significant consequences to our business, including job losses,” he says. “I would be astonished if such a ban, as per Amsterdam, occurred in the UK.”

For Woodford, advertising promotes innovation and competition, which allows a business in any market to showcase why its product or service is better than another.

“It is the lever to pull, whether you want to see people move from petrol cars to electric vehicles or from fossil fuel to renewables, as people seek more sustainable alternatives for the planet,” he argues.

“We need to see innovation in every industry as sustainability will be a key driver of competition this decade. To prevent the advertising of certain categories of products goes against this. While it may generate a day’s worth of positive headlines for political figures, it may not necessarily result in the desired outcome of change through innovation within an industry. A ban though will damage the media and advertising industry, reducing funding for content and journalists.”

With COP26 now under way until 12 November, the next few weeks will significantly lay out how the ad industry can help combat climate change.

“Tackling climate change is the great challenge of our generation. It’s one that calls to every individual, every community, every business, and every nation – and it cannot and must not be avoided,” Smith warns.

“Advertising, like every other sector of our economy, has to play its part in ensuring that we meet this challenge and leave a more sustainable world for the generations who will come after us.”

This article first appeared in Campaign.

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