Will COP26 bring about any tangible change in the advertising industry?

The global climate conference has focused minds, but not all adland leaders believe the effects will last.

Clockwise from top left: Bullmore, Coombes, Rees, Norman, Kingaby, Howard
Clockwise from top left: Bullmore, Coombes, Rees, Norman, Kingaby, Howard

After two weeks of climate change talks, COP26 is drawing to a close in Glasgow. There have been some distractions along the way – see the Tory sleaze scandal – alongside moments of light relief (Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon handing US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez her first Irn Bru, for example). But, importantly, there have been significant developments in tackling global warming that have cut across political boundaries.

The US and China, two of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, have agreed to co-operate in their efforts to tackle the problems. Meanwhile, more than 40 countries have agreed to transition away from using coal. Leaders from about 100 countries have committed to stopping deforestation by 2030. Talks on a draft agreement between countries continue, as leaders thrash out the major changes that need to be made.

The advertising industry has not been a passive participant – it has been facing up to its own problems.

A global summit looking at how ad professionals can tackle climate change in their working lives took place on 3 and 4 November. The Advertising Association event marked a year since its Ad Net Zero initiative launched, under which supporters aim to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Ad chiefs taking part in the summit agreed that, aside from agencies, brands and industry partners cleaning up their own in-house operations, the “next big frontier” will be their ability to change consumer habits.

Activism has also been on the agenda. An open letter, led by the Conscious Advertising Network, drew together more than 250 signatures from advertisers to call upon tech platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Google to take action against climate misinformation.

Creatively, there has also been a flurry of ads centring on the damage being done to the environment, including the United Nations Development Programme’s "Don’t choose extinction" campaign by Activista, featuring a talking dinosaur, and the charity WaterAid’s TV campaign by Don't Panic, highlighting its work helping people live through climate change.

But as COP26 ends and environmental issues are no longer dominating the news, there is always the chance that the topic could fall off the agenda. Campaign asked advertising leaders: will COP26 bring about tangible changes in the industry?

Xavier Rees

Chief executive, Havas London and Havas CX Helia

Probably not – but neither has it been designed to. While we have a huge impact, advertising is a tiny part of the COP narrative. But we mustn’t let that be a cop out. The question we should be asking, urgently, is: how will we change ourselves?

What COP has done is pulled the subject into the mainstream news agenda for two weeks straight. Combine that with Texas’ winter storms in February, and the Pacific Northwest’s “heat dome” in June, and the wildfires in Greece and Turkey in August – and the rest – and the result is that climate change has never been higher in the public’s consciousness. Which means it has never been higher in our clients’ consciousness. And you know what that means – whether you’re ready or not.

Harriet Kingaby

Co-chair, Conscious Advertising Network

COP26 is turbocharging climate action within the advertising industry. The Conscious Advertising Network released an open letter to the COP presidency and social media platforms, signed by advertisers and agencies from SSE to Havas, urging them to adopt a definition of climate misinformation. Hate and misinformation have a funding model through advertising, and it was hugely encouraging to have many inside and outside the advertising community get behind it, including architects of climate legislation, Massive Attack member Robert Del Naja and a former COP president.

We were far from alone – the Advertising Association's Ad Net Zero event demonstrated the practical work that's already under way to transform the industry. Plus, the launch of the Purpose Disruptor's Advertising Emissions report demonstrated a vision of regenerative advertising that incorporates our client work, which further aligns us with the goals of the Paris Agreement. As a long-term climate activist, what I’ve seen in the last week makes me hopeful.

Josh Bullmore

Chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett London

Will COP26 make any tangible difference? Yes. UK chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said at COP26 this week that mass behaviour change will be key to tackling climate change. The challenge is that repeated commitments by governments and businesses to net zero, while absolutely crucial, have created a sea of sustainability sameness. They’ve become green wallpaper. What’s more, they feel distant from daily life. Alone, they won’t be enough to inspire the mass changes in behaviour needed to limit global warming. Step forward, advertising. An unlikely hero perhaps, given the criticism our industry faces on sustainability. But at our best, we normalise behaviours and move large numbers of people to act.

We’re already seeing a range of populist brands going beyond touting commitments to encourage small changes in behaviour, which, en masse, make a big difference. COP26 will focus minds and accelerate this trend. Doing what we do best will be our irreplaceable contribution to fighting climate change.

Chris Norman

Chief executive and founder, Good Agency

Tangible change can be brought about only with authentic demonstration. The advertising sector has been under the spotlight for some time – well before COP26. Major players within the sector have claimed to be committed to taking proactive action to create true environmental impact through initiatives such the Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero initiative. But these don’t go far enough. In our view, they are woefully unambitious and fail to leverage the sector’s greatest assets: access and influence on clients.

Ad agencies measure success when their work results in growth in sales for a client, or when they win applause for a creative campaign. COP26 and the subsequent spotlight on agencies and their clients should lead to change. Ad agencies need to think more deeply about who they work with. And take greater responsibility for the impact of the products and services they are shifting, as well as motivating clients to accelerate their positive environmental progress.

Jon Howard

Planning partner, Quiet Storm

COP26 will make short-term headlines but is unlikely to deliver real difference long term. Why? On the plus side, and to give our industry some credit, because many of us are already heading in the right direction. We've signed up to the Advertising Association's commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, audited our carbon footprint (in our case certified by Planet Mark) and put reduction plans in place, which is something to feel good about. We're getting our own house in order. On the flip side, COP is unlikely to resolve the much bigger, if unspoken, issue society faces: the tension (even incompatibility) between continued consumer-driven economic growth (our day job) and a low-carbon future.

Planting trees is not the answer here, unfortunately. Instead, it's about massive, widespread behaviour change (something else we're good at). It is a challenge every one of us will need to grapple with at some point, both personally and professionally.

Jo Coombes

Project director, AdGreen

Last week’s Ad Net Zero global summit, and general industry awareness, thanks to COP26, has meant AdGreen has a much larger, and more engaged audience compared with this time last year. With all the pledges and insights we’ve seen, not only as part of the global summit but the wider event, too, there is no way that the momentum won’t continue.

We at AdGreen are also very invested in the idea that norms of today (or pre-Covid) might be taboos of the future. This is particularly relevant when asking our training attendees to think about why a “typical” shoot abroad, with large teams flying long distances, might be problematic when it comes to the carbon footprint of a project – especially when the client has ambitious net-zero targets. Joining up these things is key and it feels like the gap is getting smaller. And the fact that all parties involved in a campaign can now see the emissions of a campaign in black and white in our carbon calculator means that really interesting conversations are starting to happen.

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