Media Perspective: Sustainability is the only way forward for the ad business

No doubt Al Gore's seminar at Cannes is going to get the big green marketing coverage this week, and rightly so - he's done a huge amount to put sustainability front of mind for everyone, and his sense of grand vision and global catastrophe is an important galvanising force.

It seems clear that catastrophic climate change is only going to be averted by sustained, global, governmental activity, which can make those of us who aren't global governments feel a little impotent. But I was at another little seminar about sustainability this week and it made me aware of a couple of the more achievable things agencies might want to worry about as climate change enters the mainstream, not out of a philanthropic urge or for the sake of your children's children: these are things that will affect the short-term future of your business.

First, agencies need to put their own houses in order as a pure and naked exercise in winning new business. More and more of our clients are moving sustainability initiatives out of the CSR ghetto and into the main channel of business thinking: marketing, purchasing, innovation. This is reaching up and down the supply chain and making sustainability practices an important part of what gets you on a pitchlist. Look at what Wal-Mart's recent focus on sustainability has done to its suppliers: all around the world, businesses that have never worried about climate change before are being forced to do so because Wal-Mart says it's important. Already, one major UK advertiser is making the sustainability score worth 15 per cent of the "marks" available for a pitch. That's enough to determine the outcome.

Second, the agencies that succeed in an era of climate change-influenced marketing will be the ones that really understand the science (and there's an obvious advantage here for the big networks in that they can afford to hire scientific advisors). The first reason to understand it is defensive: you need to avoid being known as a green-washer. There is so much misleading and inaccurate information out there at the moment, some of it with the same twisted ethics as the worst cigarette advertising. If you don't want your agency tarred with that kind of brush, you need to understand what your clients are asking you to say, not just nod politely and pop it in the ad.

But there's also an upside in really understanding this stuff: you could be the first business to rigorously interrogate the science and work out how to talk about it in a persuasive, motivating way. Because it's not happened yet and that's what this industry is supposed to be good at. That'd make you heroes to your clients and potentially to the planet. Wouldn't that be nice?