Earlier this year, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the UK's largest advertising agency, found itself in a pitch against a small agency it had never heard of with an office on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. The client was the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The budget was £12 million and the brief was a tantalisingly tough one: how to get people to take action on climate change. Winning would surely be a formality and polish AMV's reputation as an agency that likes to work for "good" causes.
To its great surprise, however, the advertising Goliath was beaten. Slightly less surprised was the victor, Futerra Sustainability Communications, which has been working on this type of project and with this type of client since its inception five years ago.
The agency has spent most of its existence working with governmental departments and small local businesses, giving them advice on everything from sustainable development training to producing booklets on how best to communicate climate change. But over the past year, as the need to communicate sustainability finds serious traction in the corporate world, Futerra has started to win more accounts from under the noses of the bigger advertising players.
Futerra has just started to work with a large airline, an energy company and a retailer, and now almost half of its business comes from large corporations. Its business is growing healthily as a result. Its turnover increased by 176 per cent in 2004/5 and 76 per cent in 2005/6 - particularly impressive as it will only work with companies it deems ethically sound.
December last year marked the latest stage in Futerra's development when it upped sticks from the police sirens and crack dens of Coldharbour Lane and moved to larger offices at London Bridge.
A growing army of similar agencies exists (type "sustainability", "agency" and "UK" into Google and you get more than seven million hits), many with similar-sounding names. GoodBrand & Co, Good Business, Sustain and The Forster Company are among the most prominent. But do they pose any real threat to mainstream shops?
"We cannot compete on size, but we can offer an intellectual rigour and passion for sustainability that the big boys can't match," the Futerra partner Mark McKenzie says. "We offer expert knowledge on the subject as well as in communications. And we don't rely on our clients to tell us what we need to know in order to come up with a campaign."
McCann Erickson's senior vice-president, corporate communications consulting, Mike Longhurst, believes the mainstream advertising agencies have so far failed to take ownership of advertising in the sustainability space. "It is a subject that is growing in importance," he says. "And, if we don't watch these specialist companies, they will take business from us."
Longhurst, a member of the United Nations Environment Programme's Advertising Forum, thinks agencies may end up having to buy specialist environmental communications outfits if they fail to develop their own expertise in this area - something he feels would be a waste of money. But he accepts that budgets in the sustainability advertising area are not yet sufficiently substantial to encourage mainstream ad agencies to invest in building their expertise.
"If clients are needing to shift to corporate social responsibility as part of their corporate strategy, then agencies had better take notice and help them get there or they aren't much use as suppliers," Dean Sanders, the founder of GoodBrand & Co, says. GoodBrand's work has included working with Nestle to launch its first Fairtrade-certified coffee in the UK.
Sanders takes the view that as most large clients have well-cemented relationships with their ad agencies, they are unlikely to want to add another one to the roster simply to provide CSR advertising services. "I don't think the new CSR/sustainability shops will take on the comms work," he says. "They will work on the strategy, then work with the agency."
All the same, Matt Haddon, a partner at ERM, a leading environmental management consultancy with more than 2,500 staff in 39 countries, believes agencies need to wake up to the fact that messaging must be all about business fundamentals, not spin on top of superficial CSR initiatives. Communications must be true to what the company actually does. BP, for instance, having invested heavily in its "beyond petroleum" positioning, caught a lot of media flak for its recent oil spill in Alaska.
Consequently, some argue that CSR advertising is regarded sceptically by consumers and PR is a more effective channel. "You can say you are green until you are blue in the face, but no-one will believe you until someone else comes forward and says you are green," Tom Curtin, the managing director of the specialist PR consultancy Green Issues, says.
Let Them Eat Cake, a recent WWF report, concludes there is unmet commercial potential for brands to behave more responsibly and that part of the essential function of agencies is in helping clients spot and exploit that potential. Advertising that gets it right, the report says, will make brands into a "beacon to society", drawing consumers to new possibilities.
But up until now adland has been slow to explore the area. Interestingly, the IPA Watchdog Group, headed by Publicis' chief executive, Grant Duncan, has relaunched to underline its remit to consider ethical communications and a corporate social responsibility programme for the IPA. The trade body is also undertaking online research on sustainability issues. Only a handful of leading agencies, notably St Luke's (and, as of this month, Archibald Ingall Stretton), have attained carbon-neutral status.The former made the industry's first carbon-neutral ad - for BT - and has developed a tool for assessing the carbon footprint of ad production.
St Luke's joint managing director Neil Henderson says: "All businesses should be seeing climate change as a serious concern and should be aligning their own efforts. You don't have to become a hair-shirt-wearing, tree-hugging weirdo."
The AIS managing partner, Stuart Archibald, thinks that clients rather than agencies have been leading the way on CSR and sustainability matters, and believes agencies need to catch up. He can foresee client procurement departments expecting agencies to have robust sustainability policies that are in line with the client's own - with failure to do so leading to agencies being dropped off rosters.
But even McKenzie is realistic about how much of a threat the specialists are to the established players. "We will take some business off them, but not enough to bring them down," he muses.
McKenzie believes clients turn to agencies such as Futerra to encourage people to buy less stuff, or to buy new stuff that is less damaging to the world. That remains a specialist job distinct from what mainstream ad agencies do:namely, to encourage consumers to buy as much stuff as possible.
"Long-term, however, we hope that the world will change so that sustainability becomes normality and any other way of living seems plain crazy," McKenzie says. "When that happens, there'll be no need for specialists such as Futerra. We'll have done ourselves out of a job. Which, in a perverse kind of way, is our goal."