Can agencies make clients more eco-friendly?

A UK org called Purpose Disruptors wants to bring sustainability practices into advertising.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Images: Purpose Disruptors

· 5 min read

When it comes to tackling climate change, Rob McFaul hopes that by knowing better, the ad industry will do better.

That’s the idea he, Lisa Merrick-Lawless, and Jonathan Wise came up with three years ago in a London pub. They loved their jobs in advertising. They were motivated to excel in their careers, but they couldn’t help but feel that doing so could come at the expense of the planet.

McFaul told Marketing Brew that “we all had a heightened awareness of the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. We also made a connection that in our day jobs, driving growth drives consumption, and consumption drives emissions.”

So they sought to change the industry from the inside. When word got out, McFaul said the movement grew to hundreds of marketers, from entry-level to senior executives. Now it’s a full-blown organization called Purpose Disruptors, with more than 1,500 members. The goal, according to its website, is to “reshape the advertising and marketing communications industry to only promote attitudes, lifestyles, behaviors, and brands aligned with a net-zero world by 2030.”

Class is in session

Since July 2021, Purpose Disruptors has been running #ChangeTheBrief, an alliance for agencies to learn how to embed sustainable practices in campaigns, particularly when pitching to clients, McFaul said.

“It’s just one more question in the briefing stage or as part of the insight-generation stage,” McFaul said.

Agency networks in the UK, like Omnicom, Havas, and WPP—which includes Mindshare, where McFaul currently works—have joined the #ChangeTheBrief Alliance. A variety of other UK agencies have also gotten on board. McFaul said there is interest from other European countries, which has put international expansion on the table.

#ChangeTheBrief’s goals are to “change the image,” “change behavior,” and “change the business.” For the first two, McFaul gave the example of encouraging clients that use cars in their ads to put four people inside, reflecting more sustainable behaviors that could potentially encourage people to carpool.

But only showing eco-friendly behaviors could be perceived as a cop-out or greenwashing, especially if the company behind the ads has engaged in non-eco-friendly business practices. Unlike groups like Clean Creatives, Purpose Disruptors said it does “not have a view on whether agencies should drop certain clients” for contributing to the climate crisis. As of now, McFaul confirmed that Purpose Disruptors does not measure KPIs or set minimums on how many sustainable briefs they do each year.

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The hope, rather, is to promote a mindset shift in the industry and make eco-friendly decisions more normalized. That’s where the third goal of changing the business comes into play, McFaul explained.

“There’s still obviously a desire to sort of drive growth and drive commercial sales. So the question is, how can you be commercially successful but also with planetary and social boundaries?” McFaul said. “So if you’re a car brand, how could you accelerate the shift to EVs, for example?”

Do not greenwash, do not pass go

But how effective can agencies be in getting companies to change profit-driven practices, especially when shareholders aren’t necessarily on board? “What advertising agencies have always been good at is being cultural advisors and trendspotters,” McFaul said, adding that sustainability will impact a brand’s future relevance.

In the last couple years, he said he’s seen more brands making net-zero commitments that they need to live up to. Purpose Disruptors encourages these brands to think about how they'll meet those goals.

But pledges can sometimes be seen as another type of cop-out: Last year, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority found that 40% of companies’ “green claims” online could be considered misleading, including “hiding or omitting certain information, such as a product’s pollution levels, to appear more eco-friendly.”

McFaul said there needs to be more focus on how products’ consumption impacts carbon emissions—not just production. “[Companies] can reduce the operational footprint, but how that product is then used and disposed of and how they influence consumer behavior—that’s kind of the biggest impact they have,” he said.

Cost of emission

Last year, Purpose Disruptors released a report measuring the emissions generated by sales uplifts that were linked back to advertising, finding that it added “an extra 28% to the yearly carbon footprint of every single person in the UK.” The group also released a short documentary on the environmental impacts of advertising.

McFaul said calling out the industry he’s spent most of his career in “can be quite lonely [and] certainly was a few years ago.” But said that while he could have “left the industry and gone off [to] live in a mountain or rural part of the UK,” he believes “this industry can make such a massive difference” and expects to see exponential change over the next decade.

The alternative, he said, “is too frightening to consider.”

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