Should ad agencies lead conversations on sustainability?

Should ad agencies lead conversations on sustainability?

The world pretty much agrees that businesses have to behave more ethically, with more concern for their actions’ social and cultural outcomes. And it doesn’t matter what the motivation for this improved behaviour is – a genuine concern for the planet’s fate or a cynical hunch that doing the right will drive growth and profit; if the improved behaviour is natural. Surveys show that the move to ‘doing well by doing good’ will only become mainstream when the corporate social responsibility agenda and the growth agenda become one and the same.

Despite its stature for repetitiveness and excess, the advertising business is brilliant for one thing; persuading people to change its behaviour. This comes down to driving consumers to want product B instead of product A. Let’s not forget the other records of charity, NGO, health and public sector work that has bought many benefits to a lot of people.

We’re in a spot where significant behaviour change is required; governments are inert with their vested interests in urban development. This is why businesses and people who sustain businesses have to take up the challenge.


In order to take up the challenge, the ad business needs to develop new vocabulary, processes and strategy tools to help their clients understand the unique landscape and discover a purpose beyond profit for their brands and clients.


What is the problem?


Client company procurement departments have systematically welded down agency compensation to the point where talent and resources are thin on the ground to do any research and development. Everyone would love to do more, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Urgency > important.

Since urgency is always a priority, this has created a capabilities gap. There are, of course, many reputable companies operating in the CSR space with the sole purpose of helping clients understand the issues and stumble towards solutions. But they deal with smaller operations and tend to lack consumer understanding, brand expertise and creeative firepower of the big ad agencies. Keep in mind that conversations about sustainability should be held in the offices of the CEO and CMO, not the CSR departments.


Suppose the agencies aren’t initiating the CSR conversation. In that case, clients will look elsewhere for their needs – to the world of consultancy, design (where these issues have been thought about more deeply), media & technology – and to their resources. Currently, the client community is further ahead of this than its agency partners.


How then can you get from ground zero to lighting a fire under business, forcing it to address the discrepancies and meet the needs of the business?


The awards and creative education industry D&AD has launched “break the silence” to encourage the ad and creative agencies to start the conversation on climate change with their clients.


Why the rush?


The biggest pressure is starting to come from millennials who are in business. They are often more conscious about these issues and therefore well versed. This generation understands the power of communication to be a force of good. They are born social media adepts and want at least part of their professional lives focused on a combination of purpose and business.


There’s a long way to go and a lot to be done. Unfortunately, the ad industry’s systems and processes are closer to where it first developed than where it needs to go. But, there is movement, and that’s good.