A group of creatives is pressuring agencies to give up fossil-fuel clients

It’s too big of a "reputational risk” to work for companies that pollute, says Clean Creatives.
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Francis Scialabba

5 min read

The world is on fire and ad agencies have historically played a leading role in getting us here, pitching ExxonMobil as an algae farming, futuristic energy business, not ExxonMobil, an oil company that has ravaged the planet.

Fossil-fuel companies, like ExxonMobil, know they’re no longer, um, en vogue. According to a 2019 Yale survey, 57% of Americans think fossil-fuel companies are at least partly responsible for the damages caused by global warming. In turn, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron spent a combined $223 million on digital and television advertising in 2019, according to Kantar estimates.

Many of these ads include messaging around renewable energy efforts. For example, a Chevron commercial tries to give the impression that it's “finding inspiration in nature” even though it spent only 0.2% of its annual capital expenditure budget on low-carbon energy sources, per a complaint against the corporation filed by environmental groups with the Federal Trade Commission this year.

Now, one group of activists is trying to sever the ties between the creative + communications industries and fossil-fuel companies altogether.

Clean Creatives is made up of nearly 400 creatives and 153 agencies that have each agreed to cut ties with—or at least never take on—fossil-fuel clients, like ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute. The group is funded by the nonprofit Fossil Free Media and was started in 2020 in response to a flood of advertising from fossil-fuel companies during the presidential election.

The goal: Make it a “reputational risk” to have fossil-fuel clients on your roster, Duncan Meisel, campaign director for Clean Creatives, told Marketing Brew. If oil and gas companies are going to greenwash—the practice of making a company appear environmentally conscious, despite its actions and business models—their ad agencies should also be held accountable, Meisel argued.

+1: Remember that algae ad from ExxonMobil? The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some scientists are skeptical of the company’s quest to turn algae into fuel, seeing it as “little more than a PR stunt”—aka greenwashing.

“Advertising and PR campaigns by fossil-fuel interests are one of the biggest barriers to climate action,” Meisel said. “They are used to mislead the public and to mislead decision-makers into avoiding the necessary action we need to take to stop climate change.”

Clean Creatives hasn’t been successful yet, as major holding companies, including WPP, Dentsu, Omnicom, and Interpublic Group, haven’t signed on. Meanwhile, WPP—which works with several oil companies, according to Clean Creatives—has promised to reach net-zero carbon emissions across its supply chain by 2030. WPP declined to comment to Marketing Brew about its fossil-fuel clients or Clean Creatives pledge.

Futerra, an independent creative agency with clients such as Google, REI, and Ikea, is among the biggest shops to sign on, with roughly 60 employees. Comparatively, WPP has more than 100,000 employees across its many agencies.

“If we don’t get more agencies to sign up, there won’t be enough change,” said Gosia Plewako, managing director of the North America arm of Futerra. Plewako thinks agencies will be willing to accept fossil-fuel accounts until those companies are too toxic to their bottom line. “It’s the money...It’s a pure calculation.”

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But it doesn’t have to stop at agencies. Clients are just as culpable, said Plewako. If individual brands made clear that they didn’t want to share an agency roster with a fossil fuel company, that might force agencies to consider taking those dollars in the first place.

More specifically, if Unilever wants to take sustainability seriously, why should its agency of record, WPP agency Mindshare, take money from oil companies? Unilever didn’t respond to Marketing Brew’s request for comment.

“Clients have a big role to play in terms of how they scrutinize what they expect from their agency partners. If I choose an agency, I better make sure that whatever they are doing is in line with our mission; otherwise, I’m just a hypocrite” she told Marketing Brew.

To poke the bear, the Clean Creatives site lists individual agencies and PR firms that have worked with energy companies. Some highlights:

  • Under the WPP umbrella, Ogilvy has worked for BP; Mediacom has bought media for Shell; Hill+Knowlton Strategies has pitched on behalf of Chevron.
  • Omnicom agencies including BBDO and Ketchum have worked for ExxonMobil, while creative shop GSD&M working for the American Petroleum Institute.

Luke Kingma, who’s currently a freelance brand strategist for Twitter, joined Clean Creatives last December after finding the group’s members on Twitter. He had previously worked at Vayner Media, which counts Shell as a client.

“The intent of these messages is to delay climate action,” he told Marketing Brew. “Not only is it in my industry, it’s literally in my sphere of influence and in my network.”

Though most of the group’s work has been about calling attention to itself, Clean Creatives has gone a bit on the offensive, using its network to find critical information about agencies and leak it to the press.

Last month, the group leaked a report to Gizmodo-owned climate-news site Earther that found that PR agency Edelman was secretly managing a platform for ExxonMobil. That’s after Edelman had just put out a report that nearly 60% of employees would leave or avoid a company if it was doing “fundamentally immoral” work.

Meisel told Marketing Brew that the group will continue to reveal what it knows.

“I think there is a day that every single major agency will be a clean creative agency. They will all eventually drop fossil fuels,” said Meisel. “I think the question is how quickly they do it, how much damage is done to the planet, and how much damage is done to their reputations in the course of that happening.”

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