11 coming signs advertising is ready for its reckoning with fossil fuels

There is a gulf between the way agencies talk about working with fossil fuel clients and the story told by the money spent by those companies.

Over the past three decades, just five major oil companies have spent at least $3.6bn (£2.5bn) on ads specifically to rebrand themselves as part of the solution to the climate crisis.

You rarely see the agencies that created this work owning up to it, though – much less celebrating it. Today, Shell is running its #MakeTheFuture multiplatform campaign with what must be a handsome budget. But, according to the agency execs quoted in last week’s Campaign feature, no reputable agency would be taking that type of work from oil, coal and gas clients any more – would they?

I call bullshit. The Clean Creatives group of industry insiders is outing agencies that keep their work with fossil fuel clients under wraps. They’ve revealed that the same agencies touting their climate conscience are currently raking in cash from the most destructive of industries.  

This isn’t news to those actually working in the industry. We’ve all heard the excuses for accepting the fossil fuel brief: "But it’s a campaign about going green"; "Fossil fuels should be part of the solution"; "Most of our clients are committed to net zero"; "We offset the creative". Blah blah blah. Few are fooled about the real motivation – we wanted the money.

What will it actually take for business-model change to sweep through our industry? After two decades of working with multiple industries on their sometimes painful sustainability transitions, I know it’s going to take pressure – lots of it. Thankfully, for all our futures, that pressure is building almost as fast as carbon in the atmosphere.

In the coming months I expect to see:

  1. A wave of cities banning fossil fuel ads

The city of Amsterdam recently banned fossil fuel advertising –including of fossil-fuelled vehicles like cars and flights – from its city centre and underground stations. A wave of cities will likely follow, and perhaps networks of green cities will announce blanket bans at the COP26 conference this year.

  1. Big clients will demand "climate conflict" disclosures from agencies

The juiciest FMCG clients will soon demand that creative agencies reveal the proportion of their income that comes from fossil fuel companies. The standard is Creative Climate Disclosure, which holds signatories accountable to disclosing the percentage of their turnover that comes from high-carbon clients. 

  1. Activists will get ever more direct

Groups like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future will make sure that protest signs line the glass-walled entrances to agencies who continue to work for the oil and gas sector. The WhatsApp planning has started.

  1. Legislation will tackle greenwashing

Continued outrage at fossil fuel companies’ advertising will prompt President Joe Biden and EU leaders to set out transparency standards for advertising and PR that will make greenwashing riskier and more costly for oil and gas companies. Lawyers are already calling for tobacco-style health warnings on fossil-fuel company ads.

  1. The first big ad agency will say no to big oil…

Taking its lead from specialist companies and responding to pressure from their talent, a large ad agency will publicly commit to refusing any fossil-fuel industry briefs. 

  1. …and others will quickly follow suit

It will be a scurry, with the laggards becoming industry scapegoats. 

  1. Awards will require honesty

As a judge for this year’s Cannes Lions I’m already pushing for more honesty on applicants' gender pay gaps (for awards on gender equality) and climate conflicts (for awards on climate action). The most responsible awards bodies will likely soon only accept entries/submissions from agencies that disclose their full client lists –fossil fuels and all.

  1. The first major market will ban fossil fuel ads

After banning oil and gas ads across individual cities, one country –most likely in the EU – will be the first to impose a nationwide ban. I’m betting on France, where a ban has already been proposed

  1. Agencies will be taken to court – and lose

If Publicis can be sued for fuelling the opioid crisis, then your agency can be sued for fuelling climate change. 

Young activists are already preparing civil cases against ad agencies, which will be found guilty for their role in promoting fossil fuels. As ad firms have spent years competing to prove their "effectiveness" to clients and claim credit for increased sales, it’s going to be amusing to watch the very same businesses attempt to dismiss their own efficacy.

  1. Insurance costs for agencies working for fossil fuel companies will sour

Seeing the increased legal risks, insurance companies will raise indemnity insurance costs for agencies who continue to work on briefs from oil and gas companies. Why? See previous point.

  1. The tipping point will come when there is more money to be made from selling solutions than selling destruction

Let’s be blunt, for too many agency heads reading this, points 1 to 10 above will sound more like a threat than a promise. But I promise you point 11 is the only business plan worth pursuing (and the only one your kids will thank you for). 

Solitaire Townsend is co-founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications and a judge for Cannes Lions 2021

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