Arvind Hickman
Oct 20, 2021

Dentsu’s global sustainability lead: ‘We have to address our role in driving consumption’

The holding group is nearly 80% towards its net zero target.

Dentsu International has switched to renewable sources to reduce its carbon footprint (Getty Images)
Dentsu International has switched to renewable sources to reduce its carbon footprint (Getty Images)

Dentsu International is well on track to meet its goal of being a net zero carbon emitting business by 2030.

The fifth-largest global advertising group has a net zero strategy that involves reducing its operational greenhouse gas emissions by 46%, influencing its clients' advertising and media carbon footprint and helping clients drive social and behavioural change.

The holding group, which has more than 45,000 employees worldwide, provided Campaign with an update on social impact strategy – which combines sustainability and its D&I agenda – and how it plans to influence its client and partner ecosystem.

The strategy is focused more on influencing change within its ecosystem partners rather than avoiding work for heavy emitting clients, as WPP has outlined.

In year one of its strategy, Dentsu International has reduced its internal "Science-based targets" emissions by 36%, which is 78% of its target to reduce scope 1, 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2030.

Scope 1 emissions cover those that a company makes directly, such heating and travel; scope 2 includes indirect emissions, such as the source of energy it uses; while scope 3 includes emissions an organisation is indirectly responsible for through its supply chain.

Dentsu International chief sustainability officer Anna Lungley told Campaign that the advertising group audited its material emissions sources across areas like buildings, travel and the use of global technology. It achieved rapid emissions reductions by switching over all of its energy supply to renewable sources, and reducing staff travel on heavily emitting modes of transport, such as flights. 

The group has linked its £500m untapped revolving credit facility to ESG KPIs, which are embedded in its broader strategy and its executive’s decarbonisation targets.

Among these, Dentsu plans to reduce emissions from flights by 65% by 2030.

“Everyone has to look at different and smarter ways to travel," said Lungley. "For example, one of our most travelled routes is London to Amsterdam. If you take the train rather than flying, you can reduce emissions by 90%."

Dentsu is also working with clients and technology partners, such as Salesforce, Microsoft and Facebook, to explore how it can reduce its carbon footprint, including only using renewable sources of energy.

The client ecosystem

Sitting outside Dentsu’s internal "Science-based targets" are the emissions generated by clients, whose advertising and media plans are influenced by Dentsu agency partners.

Here, a major source of emissions comes from the media supply chain, primarily through the energy used in transmission and consumption of media.

“We have developed a carbon calculator that maps out media transmission and consumption,” Lungley said. “In a mobile first world, about 83% of emissions related to media come through transmission.”

She added that tweaking media plans towards digital platforms that are powered by renewable energy sources could be one way to help clients decarbonise their media plans. The group has just “successfully” piloted the use of its carbon calculator with two major global clients. Dentsu plans to assess the calculator's use for global roll out.

“There are different ways you can apply the carbon factors and then you can lift the media plan and you can optimise it. Whether there are trade-offs between cognitive performance is something that we need to establish and learn as we go through.”

Ikea's buyback scheme is one way companies are encouraging more sustainable consumerism

Behavioural change

Another way in which Dentsu wants to influence change is to help clients reach one billion people by 2030 to make better and more sustainable choices.

“The net zero targets are 50% dependent on human and societal behavioural change. It’s not enough for [organisations like Dentsu] to focus on what we are doing internally as a business without focusing on the impact we can have on society,” Lungley added.

“If you are an automotive company, you need to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, but you need people to show up and buy them. Which is why we need to work with people like P&G, GM (General Motors) and JLR (Jaguar Land Rover) to help them with their decarbonisation strategies and how they go to market with the campaigns they run for consumers.”  

An area that many clients struggle with is how to effectively communicate their sustainability development agenda in an authentic way.

Dentsu has worked with brands including P&G, Nestlé and Target to identify nine sustainable behaviours that consumers can influence and brands can change.

These include things like reducing consumption, recycling, reusing and switching to plant-based foods.

“What we do is look at the strategy to understand where we can build that third externality of what the world needs, alongside brand equity and consumer needs, to find that sweet spot,” Lungley said.

“For example, we’ve done campaigns with [US supermarket] Kroger targeting food waste and Ikea on buyback Friday, which has tipped the consumption model on its head... It even extends to optimising the delivery service on a website to decarbonise their website.”

A challenge for Dentsu agencies, and others advising clients, is how to weed out clients that have inauthentic sustainability ambitions.

In the UK, competition and advertising authorities are sharpening their focus on greenwashing this year.

Lungley told Campaign that clients are often at different stages of their sustainability journeys and brands need to focus on how their sustainability goals and narrative ties in with their business model.

“It's a conversation we have with all of our clients about how you show up and be authentic because you're not going to connect with your consumers if you're not. Our advice is always to consider the true value that you create in society,” she said.

“There are lots of brands that in the past might have had a purpose narrative or a purpose-led agenda that is slightly disconnected from their business model. We work with brands to help them understand the true value they create in society and using that to activate around them.”

Flipping consumerism

Perhaps the greatest impact that the advertising industry can have on clients and society at large is also one of the least comfortable.

Advertising has been a catalyst for decades of unfettered consumerism, and Lungley said it will require a shift in this mindset for adand to have the greatest impact on helping the world decarbonise quickly enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels.

“We have to address our role in driving consumption and help accelerate the shift to more sustainable behaviours. We've not taken full responsibility for the end-to-end impact of the campaigns that we deliver and the influence they have on society. And we need to start considering that possible planning process,” she said.

“It's a huge creative challenge for an industry that's always been designed on selling a lot of stuff to actually think about selling the right stuff, and actually working with clients to help pivot their business models.”

Campaign UK

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