'The best time to plant a tree? Yesterday' Inside adland's rapid efforts to turn sustainable

While the UK prepares to host a UN summit on climate change (COP26) in November, agencies and brands are accelerating efforts to reduce their carbon footprint as the climate crisis becomes business-critical.

The view from inside adland's rapid efforts to turn sustainable

Sixty years ago, Humble, now ExxonMobil, ran an ad in Life magazine boasting that it “supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier”. Today, with evidence of the climate emergency irrefutable (the rate of ice melt is in line with the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), this kind of message is inconceivable. The spotlight is firmly on carbon reduction in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), due to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November, to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“The reality is, you can’t have a healthy business on an unhealthy planet,” Sebastian Munden, Unilever UK and Ireland general manager and executive vice-president and Ad Net Zero chair, says. “There is a clear business imperative to ensure that global warming is halted, and we know that our consumers expect it too.”

A driver of change is the need for companies to report on their carbon footprint by 2025 as a business but also from their supply chains. HM Treasury has outlined the road map towards carbon reporting, a corporate change that is going to become part of a company’s audit requirements. And the marketing community is aiming for a more sustainable future, with initiatives such as Ad Net Zero from the AA, IPA and ISBA, and the World Federation of Advertisers’ Planet Pledge. But while there is acceptance of the gravity of the situation, the scale of the challenge can seem daunting. “Everyone needs to set a target, aligned with science, and then put the road map in place to achieve it. To win the race to zero, we all need to be in. We win or lose together,” Munden says.

Brands and agencies must not only work to record and reduce their operational carbon footprints but also produce campaigns that measurably generate less carbon, devise ways to communicate sustainability initiatives without greenwashing, and harness the power of advertising to change consumer behaviour.

WPP, which manages media spend of more than $60bn on behalf of clients, set a target in April to reach net zero carbon in its own operations by 2025 and across its supply chain by 2030, including emissions from the placement of advertising. The network says two-thirds of its top clients have already committed to their own science-based reduction targets. “I’m surprised I haven’t seen more pressure from clients to ask us what we can do with them in media and production, but I do expect that to increase in the future,” Mark Read, WPP’s chief executive, says.

And for clients that lag behind in this area, past the targeted zero-carbon dates, there is a possibility that some ad agencies may choose to limit their work for brands that have not reached net zero commitments. “We want to work with clients who share our values,” Read says. “We set out to use creativity to build a better future for our people, planet, clients and communities. But what’s most important is that in our work, we fairly and accurately represent what clients are doing. I’m 100% against greenwashing.”

WPP’s biggest client, Ford of Europe, is on its own drive to net zero carbon, with marketing director Peter Zillig having dedicated 70% of the firm’s passenger sector “marketing dollars” for 2021 to electrified vehicles. It’s an approach that is already showing change: so far, 46% of Ford’s new passenger car sales in Q1 of 2021 have been electrified.

“Grappling with environmental issues is not a choice any more, it’s fundamental to our business,” Zillig says. “Clearly, WPP recognises it needs to be in keeping with the same momentum and progress that its clients are targeting. Its commitment to include media within its net zero target is hugely important for us as a client. By the end of the decade, we will hopefully be looking at media plans from WPP where the work produced against those plans is net zero.”

Sustainability: a brand priority

Unilever, another WPP client, is not only one of the architects of Ad Net Zero, it has also joined Planet Pledge, launched in April. WFA research, Marketing and Sustainability: Closing the Gaps, shows that although marketers believe they can be a force for change, only 10% said their function is advanced in sustainability progress, compared with 29% who said that their organisation as a whole was advanced. Unilever has already championed sustainability initiatives for brands, including Persil (pictured above), which has leveraged its new low-carbon, low-plastic production process through its “Dirt is good” campaign.

“Over time, in aggregate, the Unilever brands which are seen as more purposeful have delivered over two times faster sales growth than the rest of the portfolio,” Munden says. “Industry data shows that brands that are seen as playing a positive role in society are more powerful, and that brands that are more powerful deliver greater volume market share.”

No surprise, then, that brands are seeking agencies that can go with them on this journey. ISBA partner and pitch consultant Ingenuity says it is increasingly working with brands that shortlist only agencies with “sophisticated sustainability credentials”. Of the pitches it has run this year, 8% have included specific questions about the agency’s environmental policy. For the previous year, this was less than 1%.

“When is the best time to plant a tree? Yesterday,” Dario Pagani, director of brand services at Ingenuity, says. “Bedding sustainability into your business is a bit like planting and managing a forest – it takes time, attention and care. Some brands in our network have been thinking about this stuff for a long time. They understand the intersection of their brand, customer, and the broader impact they can have as a business. It’s a brand priority. And in a competitive pitch landscape, this could be the difference between sink or swim for agencies.”

This is borne out by several agency leaders, including Laura Fenton, chief executive of OMD UK (an Ad Net Zero member), who says: “Our clients are turning to us not just to understand how their plans can be delivered more sustainably, but how to guide their business to a more sustainable future.”

Anthony Falco, chief production officer at Adam & Eve/DDB, a founding Ad Net Zero member, agrees: “The demands on us as an agency, and our environmental credentials, are being tested far more in the past year than they were in the year before. We are now having clients coming to us very much as part of the pitch process, wanting to know what our principles are.”

Architects of desire

With six months to go until COP26, momentum is accelerating: in April, UK prime minister Boris Johnson accepted the latest recommendations of the UK’s Climate Change Committee to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, and by 68% by 2030. Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the AA, says: “In the next 10 or 20 years, every part of the economy is going to be innovating with more sustainable choices. The role of advertising is going to be part of driving down the carbon footprint.”

There has never been a riper opportunity for the ad industry to not only promote the sustainability credentials of clients’ brands but also to accelerate change in wider consumer behaviour, Jonathan Wise, co-founder of ad industry sustainability networking group Purpose Disruptors, says: “We’re the architects of desire; we help shape attitudes, values and behaviours. As an industry, we can help consumers shift to make more positive choices, we can act as a positive force. And if advertising is going to get off the moral fence and go about branding for purpose, it’s only right to consider the things that we can do that are positive. And consequently, what are the things that we should stop doing that are negative?”

What is required, he argues, is a deeper understanding of the consequences of the creative work. “If the industry is going to celebrate and congratulate itself for driving growth, as it should, because that’s its primary objective, then it also obviously needs to take responsibility for the emissions that are associated with that growth.”

This could lead to double counting of emissions, which might be measured by the brand during manufacturing and then also counted as a carbon cost of an advertising-driven uplift in sales. However, Wise says the goal is an econometric figure that uses the data available to calculate a figure of the carbon emissions due to the increase in sales, as a direct result of advertising.

Ford: on a drive to net zero carbon emissions

Wise points to Ecoeffectiveness, the metric launched in October 2020 by Ben Essen, chief strategy officer at Iris Worldwide, and Caroline Davison, managing director and sustainability lead at Elvis, which aims to produce a measure of the business impact of a campaign, much like financial ROI but relative to environmental impact. To calculate “return on CO2e”, the method uses life cycle assessments (LCAs) that account for the total carbon impact of a product, combined with effectiveness data, which shows the incremental sales delivered by advertising. Based on data from IPA Effectiveness Award winners, Ecoeffectiveness focused on Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s “Beauty and brains” 2015-2017 campaign for Audi and found that it generated 1.7 million tonnes of carbon per year, or 5.1 million tonnes in total, about the same as the annual emissions of Uganda, Essen says.

By contrast, the approximate carbon footprint of the ad industry is estimated by Ad Net Zero at one million tonnes of carbon per year, including travel and production of ads, Davison explains.

“The sales impact of one campaign drove more emissions than the business workings of the ad industry,” Davison says. She and Essen believe this kind of measurement is “fundamental” and are urging agencies to start having conversations with clients. In April, Iris launched a global initiative, Carbon Kickback, to incentivise clients to take positive action against climate change, such as decreasing international travel. Other Cheil Worldwide agencies, including Cheil and BMB, have also joined the initiative, with Starbucks becoming the first client to sign up.

“Brands have been worrying about the bits of their supply chain that show up in red at the top of the list, but over the next 12 months we will suddenly have the sights pointed in our direction,” Essen says.

At some point, Davison warns, if agencies do not have measurement statistics, and an understanding of how the advertising they produce contributes to the bigger number in terms of sales uplift and carbon impact, they will “find it increasingly hard to get on rosters and involved in pitches”. This is a tipping point, she believes. “It is going to accelerate, because brands want to show leadership and want their agencies to also show leadership in this space. It’s about behavioural change.”

A transition to greener practices

The drive to lead on climate initiatives is vital for NatWest, a founding member of Ad Net Zero. Through fintech CoGo, it has given selected customers access to a trial of a real-time carbon footprint tracker based on their spending habits, with options on how to offset that impact. Margaret Jobling, chief marketing officer of NatWest Group, says: “Often it’s about supporting people to make incremental changes, rather than overhauling their lives – because we know that kind of approach would be a huge barrier for most.”

Climate, she says, is a progressively urgent issue for NatWest. And given banks’ role in supporting the economy, it has “the responsibility to lead the way in how we think and talk about climate”. Despite the intensity of the Covid crisis, in both health and economic terms, climate has remained high up the ranking of people’s concerns. “Brands need to be reflecting that in an authentic, meaningful way or risk becoming irrelevant,” Jobling says.

Pressure will continue to mount as marketers become increasingly accountable to their boards in this area. And, as COP26 becomes more conspicuous in everyone’s fields of vision, marketers will feel more empowered to take bold action in the fight against climate change: to use advertising to promote more sustainable choices and to persuade society to adopt behaviours that reduce carbon emissions. Because, in the words of the world’s favourite planetary guardian, Sir David Attenborough: “Saving our planet is now a communications challenge.”

It's not easy being green

Shooting on a virtual set and reducing international travel are among the ways the ad industry is aiming to reduce carbon emissions

One international shoot alone can generate 100 tonnes of CO2 – or 40 times as much as making the same ad in the UK, according to Know to Grow Greener, a report by production and sourcing specialist Tag. Air travel has become a universal challenge for the industry, with the pandemic teaching lessons about the amount consumed. In 2020, WPP reduced emissions as a company by 37% and from air travel by 80%, Read says. The agency group is starting to use virtual sets to the extent that “the days of flying 20 people to South Africa for a shoot are probably over; there is so much we can do remotely”, he says.

Credos, the adland think tank, estimates total UK agency operational CO2e emissions exceed 84,000 tonnes a year, with 42% from energy usage and 58% from business travel. The single biggest contribution comes from flights. And on that basis, the industry as a whole is thought to have an annual carbon footprint of nearer a million tonnes.

Falco says Adam & Eve/DDB’s production is moving in the right direction, with a focus on reducing plastic waste and increasing recycling during shoots, along with the use of greener energy, meat-free days on set, and the rehoming of props and wardrobe to social projects and charities.

Adam & Eve/DDB has run more than 200 campaigns in 20 countries through Green Screen, an initiative from environmental production specialist Greenshoot. The social enterprise, which has been running for a decade and worked with more than 13,000 crew, trains production teams and places “green stewards” on sets to monitor environmental sustainability action, such as its zero-waste-to-landfill policy. In December 2020, it launched a pre-production app linked to its carbon calculator, which has been used on ads for Samsung, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, and TV dramas including The Crown. Paul Evans, a former BBH creative and Greenshoot co-founder, says demand for the Green Screen service has ramped up: “Change takes time, and for it to be effective you need a societal driver. Over the past five years there has been a shift, and suddenly, with Australia on fire, we realise that there is something amiss.”

AdGreen, part of the AA, in partnership with Bafta, is set to launch its own calculator in September. It is designed to enable ad agencies, production companies and service companies to collaboratively input information about activities undertaken to create an ad campaign, allowing teams to measure the carbon footprint of their production. The tool is a key feature of Ad Net Zero, backed by adland heavy hitters including Adam & Eve/DDB, Havas, MullenLowe, Sky, Unilever and WPP, which calls on the industry to reduce its carbon impact to net zero by 2030.

Free at the point of use, the tool will carry a voluntary levy for advertisers of 0.25% of the cost to produce an asset, to contribute to the cost of resources, tools and training. Jo Coombes, AdGreen’s project director, says: “It will show how much carbon is attributed to what type of activity, which supplier has generated the most carbon in terms of the footprint for that campaign, and it will give brands and holding companies visibility of carbon footprints.”