Close-Up: Are agencies taking CSR seriously?

Ignoring corporate social responsibility could become costly for agencies, John Tylee writes.

Last week, accompanied by a marching band called the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist/anarchist group, staged a rally about what they believe to be the unfair treatment of 50 staff laid off from MPG's offices in New York, Boston and Chicago.

However, instead of picketing the agency, they turned their attention to the department store chain Kmart, whose £100 million US media planning and buying account is handled by MPG, singing: "Shame on Kmart. Drop MPG."

Although this sort of well-organised protest has yet to take place in the UK, corporate social responsibility is undoubtedly growing in importance and many believe it is only a matter of time before an agency finds itself in hot water for not taking the issue seriously enough.

It is already questionable whether agencies have been quick enough to embrace CSR. Last year, when the European Association of Communication Agencies produced a "green guide", not one IPA member agency was represented at its UK launch.

"My unprompted awareness of CSR in agencies is zero. I don't see it going on," Mike Hughes, ISBA's director-general, says.

Maybe it's partly due to the myriad definitions of what CSR actually is. In essence, it's about how companies manage their business processes to produce an overall positive impact on society.

Nevertheless, agencies, and some clients, claim they are now coming to terms with CSR. "I think agencies have become good at recognising the importance of CSR," Peter Buchanan, COI's deputy chief executive, says. "The situation is a lot better than 20 years ago."

However, cynics would argue that they have had little choice when COI, the UK's biggest advertiser, puts sustainable procurement at the heart of its activities. Undoubtedly, some agencies have evolved their CSR credentials more quickly because of eager clients such as Sir Stuart Rose. Not only is he the executive chairman of Marks & Spencer, whose account is handled by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, but also the chairman of Business In The Community, a movement of member companies committed to mobilising business for good.

As a result, RKCR/Y&R's staff have been running reading groups in schools around their Camden base and have set up a "pop-up" agency to give free advertising and marketing advice to local businesses. Richard Exon, the RKCR/Y&R group chief executive, says: "Although our business model is predicated on selling our time to clients, there's no doubt that CSR continues to move up the commercial agenda at a pace."

The low average age of the workforce in adland is also leading to quicker take-up because young people are naturally more aware of, and generally more passionate about, the issues surrounding CSR and often instigate and lead their own projects. And as Dominic Proctor, the global chief executive of Mindshare, points out, it is these people who will one day become the management that drives the agency's business model.

However, while there is still no requirement for agencies to adhere to CSR, there is a growing belief that they may well suffer if they are not prepared to embrace it. The notion that protestors may picket a client and force it to sack its agency is probably slightly far-fetched in the UK, but many believe that in the near future, if not already, CSR could be the difference between winning and losing a pitch.

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TRADE BODY HEAD - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"We've been trying to get agencies engaged with CSR for some time but without much success. The issue seems to concern company chief executives and communications directors more than marketers.

"Chief executives take CSR seriously because they see it as a means by which the public can get at them. So do corporate communication directors, who look after their company's relations with employees and the City. However, marketers can't get their minds around doing less. That's to say recycling and reusing.

"Nevertheless, we want our members involving themselves with CSR. They complain about not being at the client's top table. Yet CSR is a top-table issue."

AGENCY HEAD - Richard Exon, group chief executive, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"It isn't that we wouldn't have got involved with CSR had it not been for our Marks & Spencer client, but there's no doubt that we're more ahead with it because of them.

"The fact is that a large proportion of our workforce is under 35. And young people are increasingly asking their employers what their CSR policies are and how they can get involved in CSR initiatives.

"At pitches, we're often asked to show that our business practices meet certain standards. It has not yet been a differentiator in a pitch result - but maybe one day it will be."

MEDIA NETWORK HEAD - Dominic Proctor, global chief executive, Mindshare

"I don't think clients have shown any greater interest in CSR during the 18 months since the Lehman Brothers collapse. Nevertheless, it's something we've always taken seriously both at an agency and holding company level.

"Today, CSR seems to be driven as much by our own staff as it is by clients. Young recruits expect it and the movement is being fuelled by the social networks that have made it so easy for all the interested parties to inter-connect.

"What's more, CSR is going to grow in importance in our business as our young staff turn into the managers of the future.

"It certainly isn't an issue that's going to recede."

CLIENT - Phil Rumbol, marketing director, Cadbury

"In the past, CSR hasn't been an active part of our agency selection criteria, but it will play an increasingly important role in the future as clients look for agencies that share their business values.

"We have a long history of socially responsible behaviour and if we want an agency to communicate that, they need to become part of it. You must have strong values if you're promoting the benefits of Fair Trade in a Dairy Milk campaign.

"Would I ever fire an agency over a CSR issue? Perhaps if I found it was exploiting local labour while shooting a commercial on location. But that's an extreme example."