Extinction Rebellion, the environmental campaign movement that has brought parts of central London to a standstill in recent months, did not pull its punches in an open letter to the advertising industry published last Friday.
Addressing the founders, chief executives, chief marketing officers, chief creative officers, chief financial officers, managing directors and creative directors of UK adland – though, perhaps inadvertently, letting chief strategy officers, perhaps one of the best-placed roles to influence behaviour of their clients, off the hook – the letter declared: "We’re not on the verge of the Sixth Mass Extinction. We’re in it."
The movement, founded in the UK but now operating in multiple countries, is named in reference to the mass extinction events that have taken place during Earth’s history, each time eradicating most species alive at the time.
The letter was dismissive of the efforts made by agencies and marketers to advance sustainability, stating that "making a small campaign to give up drinking from plastic straws is not going to cut it. Neither is doing some pro-bono for an anti-palm oil initiative."
But does advertising currently have the ideas to make a significant difference to our economy’s impact on the environment? Campaign asked industry leaders for their thoughts.
Founder, Uncommon Creative Studio
You cannot start, or lead, a creative company now without seeing the world as it is. For all of us, this cannot just be about making the best ad any longer, but more it is partnering with brands that see the world in the same way and have the same ambitions to make fundamental differences to how the world consumes, whether that’s the environment, politics or representation.
The ad industry doesn’t like being told what to do, but while we work out where we stand on it all, we should remember that not making a choice is a choice. Whether or not the letter from the Extinction Rebellion lands well, we are already accountable, already involved and only a part of the answer if we choose to be.
We must stop asking permission to make a difference. When the brands we work with won’t play the part they could, it is on us to start our own.
Chief executive, Havas London
To credibly convince our clients to change their environmental ways, we need to get our own house in order first. We are a massive global industry, so reducing our own environmental footprint would have significant and rapid impact.
Agencies need to look hard at themselves and realise that their own businesses can be a force for good. Becoming a B-Corp took Havas London two years, during which we had to acknowledge and address the impact we ourselves have on the planet.
And we are part of a growing movement. Right now, we’re working with several clients and suppliers to help them achieve B-Corp status and later this year we will enable all our clients to neutralise the carbon footprint of each campaign we create for them.
If the agency industry can get its environmental act together, we can have a more credible influence on our clients and their customers.
Chief executive and founding partner, 23red
A drive to keep products cheap has come at huge environmental cost over many years, but as our industry is reminded daily through surveys ad nauseum, price is not necessarily the key differentiator in consumer purchase decision. The nation has developed a collective conscience; factors from ethical sourcing to brand purpose are increasingly swaying consumer decisions.
As such, consumers are not just willing but seeking to change their ways. Behavioural change of this sort shouldn’t take 50 years; that’s a given. But the last couple of years are testament to the power of communications. We have witnessed not just a change in behaviour, but a total reversal of opinion within a large chunk of society.
Through our experience running smoking cessation campaigns, we learned that legislation and taxation alone are only the starting point. Changing the minds of those hardest to reach – the more intransigent, with deeply entrenched behaviours – is the biggest roadblock to an environmentally friendly future. However, that is where the opportunity for our industry lies. We believe that people identify with brands as a reflection of their own beliefs and values. Now, brands need to use advertisers to spread the right message, change behaviours and give people what they want. In the end, it will benefit the consumer, the brands who act and ultimately the world around us.
Head of marketing and new business, MullenLowe Group UK
Extinction Rebellion’s intentions are right: advertising, at its best, has the power to engage people, shape opinion and change behaviour. And they are right to be demanding action now to address climate change. Businesses (our clients) have the power to be a positive agent for change in the world.
We believe that when businesses are managed (and advised) in the right way, they can balance purpose and profit. MullenLowe Salt, our strategic communications specialists within the MullenLowe Group, have been a B Corporation since 2015 and strive to drive change with the world’s biggest companies and most iconic brands. They are legally required and independently accredited to balance the impact of our decisions on, amongst other things, the environment.
We are not perfect, but we know and acknowledge that and we are on a journey. So, yes, we absolutely believe the advertising industry has a responsibility to do more. And yes, the time for action is now. And yes, businesses and their agencies that see sustainability and purpose as merely questions of positioning deserve everything coming their way.
Founder and executive creative director, Accept & Proceed
The fact I’ve got so much support for – and want to celebrate the activities of – a group called Extinction Rebellion is so dystopian, it’s unreal.
But I’m a big fan of Extinction Rebellion. They not only have a name that makes them sound like a punk band, their ethos has a lot in common with the punk community. Like punk, these activists take a do-it-yourself attitude, refuse to accept the status quo and have the ability to get a generation of people to unite and stand up for what they believe in.
Previous climate-change campaigns got it wrong because they just painted a scary picture. Extinction Rebellion are very honest and frank about the situation: it is scary, but we are going into this together – and, come on people, we’ve got this.
As humans, we're just a tiny part of a system that is so much bigger and more complex than us. But we're unable to see our place in the world for what it really is. When we try to comprehend climate change and the dire environmental situation we find ourselves in, we do so in the abstract because the problem is just too huge to fully grasp. That’s how we arrive at the conclusion that this is impossible to overcome.
But anybody who runs a creative business knows that the seemingly impossible is achievable. In fact, you have to do the impossible on a pretty regular basis. An entrepreneurial spirit and positive, creative thinking can get you a hell of a long way.
Business leaders are naturally competitive, but Extinction Rebellion can succeed in uniting us around a shared goal. They’re breaking down boundaries and, as we go forward into the challenges of the coming years, communication will be crucial.
So, I will add my voice to Extinction Rebellion’s rallying cry to the industry. I ask all leaders of business in the creative sector to join forces to tackle the climate crisis. There’s no need to divide and conquer. We should unite, take action and amplify the message.