Can advertising find its place in the regenerative age?

The ad industry's open letter in support of Extinction Rebellion was met with a certain dose of cynicism, with some pointing out that advertising's promotion of voracious consumerism has played a big part in driving the climate crisis. However, there is a clear will among agencies to redress the balance and they are well placed to do so.

Can advertising find its place in the regenerative age?

One Friday in late September, a top London ad agency shut its doors and went on strike. Wieden & Kennedy closed down to enable as many people as possible to participate in the Global Climate Strike, the international movement fronted by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. It explained its unusual move in a letter: "The planet is on fire. Right now. And the consequences are beyond catastrophic. Yet most of us continue to act like it’s business as usual… We wish we hadn’t stayed ‘mostly on the sidelines’, but the truth is we have."

About three-quarters of the agency’s staff turned up to the protest on 20 September, according to Iain Tait, executive creative director of Wieden & Kennedy London. They were joined by creative and media professionals from more than 80 UK shops who marched with millions of people worldwide. 

Ahead of the event, Create and Strike, a competition held by ad industry network Purpose Disruptors, urged creatives to make "a sign, a blimp, anything" that could amplify the message of the climate emergency, and chief executives and founders from 160 agencies signed an open letter in support of the movement. Notable signatories included Michael Frohlich, chief executive of Ogilvy UK, which has BP as a client. 

But as adland took to the streets, brandishing signs with messages such as "Hot air is killing us. And we work in advertising", there were cynics who questioned their motives. Ben Essen, chief strategy officer at Iris, recalls his sister saying to him: "Oh, climate change is fashionable now." This industry prides itself on having its finger on the pulse of culture, so it’s worth asking: was its action at the Global Climate Strike merely about keeping up with trends, or will it lead to meaningful change?

Advertising will have to change if it is to take this crisis seriously. For decades it has been part of the problem, fuelling a culture of overconsumption that has contributed to the climate emergency. "We know that we need to fundamentally rethink everything we do. We’re working on it, it’s complicated," W&K London’s letter concluded. The Global Climate Strike exposed a major rift between ad professionals conducting business as usual and those challenging the very foundations on which the industry exists.  

"This is an existential crisis," Jonathan Wise, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors and consultancy Comms Lab, says. "The only way we’re going to get to a better, more thriving society is if enough people in the industry go through the awakening process of accepting and understanding the climate emergency we’re in, and then choosing to do things differently." 

Picture credit: Southpaw

Advertising’s role in the climate crisis has long been an elephant in the room, but environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion, which launched in London last year, has helped bring it out into the open. In May, Extinction Rebellion targeted the ad industry with a letter that said: "One of the reasons we’ve got here is because you’ve been selling things to people that they don’t need. You are the manipulators and architects of that consumerist frenzy." 

That "consumerist frenzy" dates back to the post-war era, which brought economic prosperity, the rise of the Baby Boom generation and the advent of broadcast television. 

"The gravitational pull of having more people under the age of 30 than over 30 affected social values. Suddenly the dominant values in society were teenage values and the immediate gratification of want," Dylan Williams, chief strategy officer at Droga5 London, says. "At a time when technology enabled us to talk to more people than ever before, we had those values bubbling away. So we created brands that acted a bit teenage."

For nearly a century, advertising has also been ruled by the principles of industry pioneers such as Claude Hopkins. As outlined in his seminal 923 book Scientific Advertising, Hopkins believed advertising existed only to sell something and should be measured by that outcome. 

Following that gospel of effectiveness has had unexpected and far-reaching results. "We’ve created what we now call overconsumption," Williams says. "The cumulative effect of all those campaigns has been to encourage a consumer culture that’s so voracious and so irrational that we are now mortgaging the futures of our children and grandchildren, because we created a society that makes decisions based on want versus need, and on emotional whim and fancy, rather than due deliberation."

He adds: "I don’t think the vast majority of those in advertising are bad people who wanted the situation we find ourselves in. We just didn’t question the paradigm we work within."

Now people are questioning it. The recent groundswell of climate activism has forced a debate about the purpose of advertising, how agencies operate and which clients they should serve. 

"If we as a race are going to head off the climate crisis, clearly consumerism has got to change. So, by definition advertising has to change, because our role isn’t going to be to flog more units of just about anything," Steven Bennett-Day, founder of Few & Far and a former Havas creative, says. "We were taught that our role was to come up with more good ideas to sell things. We’re at the other end of that stick now, and the rules have to change."

Those rules are still being written, and the issues at hand are complex. Let’s start with the clients that keep agencies in business. Some in adland believe that companies with high carbon emissions or those with destructive environmental track records should be ditched from agency rosters altogether. 

There is a precedent for such collective action. Not long ago, it was considered acceptable for agencies to work for tobacco companies. In the 1970s, amid a crackdown on tobacco advertising, Collett Dickenson Pearce made surreal work for cigarette brand Benson & Hedges that is still lauded as being among the most creative ads of the past half century. Now, facing social stigma or the moral objections of their own employees, many agencies wouldn’t go near a tobacco company. 

It is easy to imagine a similar fate for environmental polluters, but this is where it gets messy. Where does an agency draw a line on which accounts to work on? The likes of Shell or BP are obvious culprits, but what about a company such as Coca-Cola, a business that has been built on using single-use plastics, or a brand in the fashion industry, which has had its own disastrous impact on the environment? 

Even "sexy" clients, such as Nike or Apple, which creatives vie to work on, have faced ethical issues. "As soon as you scratch the surface, everybody’s got skeletons in the closet," Tait says. Because of this murkiness, Williams believes "every single client on our roster needs to be viewed as a company that isn’t necessarily doing good for the world". 

"If you frame it genuinely responsibly, we can no longer default to a liberal elite position where we cherry-pick what we deem to be good and bad," he says. "That’s a lazy moral convention that helps us sleep at night but doesn’t actually address what – until Extinction Rebellion emerged – was an elephant in the room that nobody looked at."

Instead, he continues, adland’s approach should be to say: "We’ve all done bad. I want to help you course correct and do better." 

Taking that approach would mean that agencies shift from being "neutral hired guns that just do what they’re told on behalf of clients" to influencing business ethics, "defining and embodying the positive contribution they want to make in the world", Wise says. 

As Tait sees it, advertising professionals confronting the climate emergency have two choices: "I can become a martyr and walk out into the streets and set myself on fire, but it will be forgotten by about four o’clock. Or I can use my influence and the role this agency plays in the world to try and change those companies. This needs agencies with influence and connections to those bigger companies to keep pushing them to take this seriously. That’s the path I’ve chosen to go down."

Taking the path that Tait and others describe would give advertising a bigger purpose than just selling more stuff. The industry has already begun to shift in this direction, as seen in the recent craze around cause-driven marketing. But as with those types of campaigns, which at their worst merely serve as window-dressing for brands, there is a danger that ad agencies will address the climate crisis as a box-ticking exercise, without undertaking the systemic change that it calls for. 

"There are too many things that feel like CEOs signing bits of paper that don’t result in anything," Tait cautions. 

To begin with, agencies "need to get our own house in order", he adds. Adland has some notoriously unsustainable practices, from frequent air travel to generating waste on film shoots. Organisations such as AdGreen, which advocates for environmentally sustainable production methods, are trying to lead a transition to a greener industry. 

Implementing such measures might mean agencies have more of a leg to stand on when encouraging their clients to develop environmentally sustainable strategies. Green activities, long confined to the fringes of business, should be "put front and centre in the way a brand expresses itself", Tait says. 

Williams suggests that agencies should help clients shape their marketing goals "through the prism of the Extinction agenda, and sign it off at board level". 

"If every Fortune 500 or S&P 500 company followed suit, you would then start to cultivate a second age of consumer culture, where companies recognise that ethical consumerism isn’t a niche constituency of consumers. It’s actually a driver of mass demand," he says. 

Many people who are rethinking advertising’s purpose speak of fostering this new age of consumerism. "Consumers are becoming more conscious of what they purchase," Natalie Graeme, co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, says. "We have reached peak stuff in the West." 

In this new era, advertising would have an opportunity to change its value proposition, Essen says: "We can imagine a world where all of us are gainfully employed by designing new ways of living that don’t drive overconsumption and unsustainable growth. How do you get from year 159 of advertising being in service to the industrial age to year one of advertising being in service to the regenerative age?" 

The so-called regenerative age could also see the rise of more brands like outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which has anchored its business strategy in environmental activism. 

"Patagonia is one of the beacons of hope. It will make a move to actively lose out on sales for an environmental purpose, but, counterintuitively, that will help it sell products," David Johnston, founder and executive creative director of Accept & Proceed, says. "That’s an interesting area to explore because you start to be able to make a case for doing positive things to the money man in the room."

On that point, businesses might soon be compelled to broaden their measure of success beyond financial targets. "There’s a real sea change in people starting to look at businesses as more than just about driving growth," Lisa Merrick-Lawless, strategy director at Nice and Serious and a member of Purpose Disruptors, says. Shareholders and consumers alike are demanding greater corporate responsibility, particularly around environmental impact.

"Clients are going to be really feeling the pressure on this from many different directions," Ella Saltmarshe, an anthropologist and co-founder of the Comms Lab, says. "A lot of different parts of society are trying to understand this question at speed, which is: what does this regenerative, zero-carbon world look like? Because we need to get there in a decade if possible. And if we’re asking a question about what it looks like, then what better industry is there to answer that?"

Solving problems with creativity, building brands and shaping opinion: this is where advertising wields its true power. "We can choose who to make famous and how. We have a chance to make environmentally friendly companies more socially embraced and desirable and aspirational," Graeme says. "We have a huge number of creative minds, but we just need to apply them in the right way. We have a choice as to how to apply our talents and we sometimes forget that."

If advertising doesn’t make that choice carefully, it risks missing out on an entire generation of talent. To many of the young people taking to the streets to demand climate action, this industry and its materialistic values already appear as obsolete as some of the brands it serves. Williams points to his 25-year-old daughter, who refuses to consider a job at an ad agency for this reason: "This generation – the grads and kids trying to get in now – they won’t work for us unless we adjust our position. They’re like: ‘No fucking way, I’m not playing that game.’"

Graeme adds: "If we want to make this an industry people want to work in and be proud of, we need to make sure people aren’t questioning whether they have made a pact with the devil to work in it."

For people just starting their careers, or entrepreneurs free of corporate shackles, the choice of who to work for and how may be simpler. But here’s the rub: what if you’re an employee in a large agency network with entrenched practices, and those ways of working are at odds with your personal values? What if you were given the day off to march in the Global Climate Strike, but on Monday morning you had to turn up and answer a brief from an oil and gas company? 

"One of the biggest challenges for anyone who starts to engage with [the climate crisis] is how you differentiate your point of view as an individual with what you might be doing as a person who works at a company," Tait says.

That’s a dilemma that Ruth Wright, editor-in-chief at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, knows all too well. She joined AMV in June, in a year when she also started volunteering with Extinction Rebellion. "I decided from the minute I got here that I was going to challenge ‘business as usual’," she says. 

A month into her new job, she gave a talk called "Heading off extinction (and what to do about it)" to a room of about 100 people at the agency. The response to that talk led to AMV permitting employees to join the Global Climate Strike. Since then, chief executive Sarah Douglas has asked Wright and a group of colleagues to come up with four or five practical actions that the agency can take to improve its climate footprint. It started with one voice, but now management is listening. 

"We can talk about ad agencies as huge structures or inanimate objects, but really they’re still just people. For me it’s about believing in the power of what one person can do," Wright says. "We all have a choice about what we do with our lives in this critical moment, and when you think about it like that, you don’t want to spend your life making something that just wins a Cannes Lion."

Ultimately, however, "it still needs to come from leadership if we’re going to create change", she adds. The industry has gone through massive transitions before – globalisation, the digital age – and with every upheaval, there were leaders who stepped up to pave a new way. 

"Something’s going on here. Why did 160 CEOs want to sign that letter?" Wise asks. "There’s a yearning that’s happening in the industry and in culture to want to help heal the world."

But as conventional wisdom goes, before you get to healing, you must acknowledge the break. In the ad industry, that rupture can no longer be ignored.

"When there is any tension or conflict, we tend to try to shift away from it because it’s uncomfortable. We either go, ‘I’m not going to go anywhere near that’, or we go, ‘I’m going to leave my gut instincts at the door’," Essen says. "There is a third way, which is you go near the problem, but you bring that conflict and tension and discomfort with you. 

"In advertising, the first question we ask when we have to come up with a creative idea is what’s the tension or conflict we need to resolve? We need to take a taste of our own medicine. It’s only by really going into that problem, exploring and living with it, that we can find the answer to it."

Pictures: Bridget, Edgar Wright, Frances and Rankin