Will this be the decade we change the world... or ruin it?
A view from Ben Essen

Will this be the decade we change the world... or ruin it?

Adland has the choice to be a change agent or use creativity to keep the public addicted to carbon.

So here we are – week one into a fresh new decade.

Not just any decade, mind you, but the decade in which we decide the future of our civilisation. Next time the calendars reset to 0, we will know whether we’ve managed to stop irreversible climate change – or not.

The last decade, which began with the release of Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, has been dominated by reminders that when it comes to advertising, nothing has really changed. The coming decade will be marked by constant reminders that not really changing is no longer an option.

So, as we resolve what brands and work we’re going to throw our time and energy into, it’s worth fast-forwarding to 2030 for a moment to reflect on where we’ll be this time in 10 years.

In one scenario, our industry has unleashed its potential to drive cultural and behavioural change at scale. CO2 emissions around the world have halved. Meat at the dinner table is a rarity. Water and air are getting steadily cleaner. People don’t own cars any more, but can access one when they need to – and because no-one owns a car, car parks have reverted back to being, simply, parks.

People spend less on stuff, but more than ever on developing themselves and their friendships. Holidaying by plane is now socially unacceptable while we await electric vehicles, but creative thinkers have capitalised on the decline in farming to drive exponential growth in rural tourism.

Advertising is celebrated as the industry that accelerated the change and a new generation of creative heroes have become household names.

In an alternative scenario, advertising has become the mouthpiece of irresponsible business. CO2-driving behaviours remain unchecked. The only industry growing faster than fast fashion is air travel. Flooding costs the UK economy £2bn a year. The number of climate migrants is growing by millions every year and large parts of the world have already become uninhabitable. Advertising remains bottom of the poll of least-respected professions and some of our leaders face lawsuits from individuals and nation states, suing them for criminal negligence.

It’s worth us keeping these two scenarios in mind as we open our laptops and crack into our next briefs. For the sad truth is, of course, that of the work being put out by our industry most of it is more in service to the latter scenario than the former.

The year has already kicked off with a £15m Kylie Minogue-fronted campaign tor Tourism Australia that hopes to lure 800,000 Brits to leave our troubles behind via an 18,000-mile round-trip holiday. If it achieves its objectives, this campaign would contribute 5.6 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere this year (equivalent to about 1.5% of the UK’s annual total).

The juxtaposition between the campaign and the fact that an area of Australia the size of Wales is currently on fire is, of course, impossible to ignore. And it’s inherent conflicts like these that more and more creative professionals will decide this decade to leave the industry in search of more meaningful work. But it’s also this conflict that will drive more of us to decide not to leave the industry – but to change it.

For this could be a very important year indeed for our industry’s role as a change agent. In November, the UK will host the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 26. Given the influence the hosts have on the agenda, the decisions made at this event will be directly impacted by the cultural conversations that take place in the UK this year. "Behind every political problem, there lies a publicity problem", 1980s climate activist Rafe Pomerance says. As an industry responsible for £20bn worth of public messages, we can have a direct influence on the success of November’s talks.

What can you do? Start an internal rebellion within your company (to help save them from extinction). Have the difficult conversations with clients and colleagues. Make courageous decisions. Change the brief. Say no to working on briefs that drive irresponsible emissions. Say yes to ideas that help normalise sustainable behaviours. Join Create and Strike in helping to make the next global climate strikes the greatest industrial strikes in history. Don’t just hope for change – have a plan.

"We must bend the curve next year," the joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research warned in December. "Next year is the year of truth. The year when we must move decisively to an economy that really starts to reduce investments in fossil fuels."

So, as you step into your next project, have your own moment of truth. Ask yourself: what will you, and the world, think of the work you’re doing now in 10 years' time? Will you have been a change agent towards a brighter future? Or will you have used creativity to keep the public addicted to carbon? Right now, the choice is still in your hands.

Ben Essen is chief strategy officer at Iris
Picture: Getty Images