Nicola Merrifield
Oct 29, 2021

Four in five ad agencies prepared to reject work with clients that lack sustainability ambition

Just over 20% of agencies taking part in a survey said they are already turning down work.

Assessing industry partners: green credentials are becoming increasingly important. (Getty Images)
Assessing industry partners: green credentials are becoming increasingly important. (Getty Images)

One in five ad agencies is turning down work with brands and other industry partners if they are not working in an environmentally sustainable way, a new Campaign survey has revealed.

A further 60% of agencies said that in future they will walk away from new business if a client, media partner or production company is not doing enough to work in an environmentally friendly way, according to the survey, produced exclusively for Campaign’s The Knowledge subscribers.

The full analysis (available only to Campaign UK subscribers) explores how advertising agencies are changing their own business operations – as well as influencing clients – against a backdrop of criticism, including in relation to "greenwashing", and concerns around staffing.

The vast majority (77%) of the 31 agencies taking part in the survey, which between them employ more than 18,500 staff, said they have a goal to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

The goal aligns to the Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero initiative, launched last year, which involves curbing emissions both from the ad production process and media planning, buying and distribution, plus using an agency’s influence to include more environmentally sustainable messages in ads to change consumer behaviour.

Agencies that are turning down work say they are reviewing partners on a case-by-case basis, including by assessing whether they have plans in place to reduce or offset their carbon emissions.

Among the three agencies that said they had no plans to refuse work based on a company’s environmental practice, one noted it preferred to work alongside clients to help them cut emissions, rather than “punishing” them by not partnering them.

The agency, which asked to remain anonymous, said: “Our approach is to work with our clients and partners to help them decarbonise, as opposed to punishing either party by not partnering with them.”

Iris, which has set itself a target of reaching net zero emissions by 2025, uses a “traffic light” system to help it decide whether to turn down partners. The three-stage system looks at a client’s goals for reducing net emissions, whether the brief has a message that aids sustainability, while not overstating the client’s progress, and how far the agency can influence the brand.

Iris global chief strategy officer Ben Essen said: “We’re confident that with all our clients, we can have honest conversations with them – and we’re doing work with them to drive positive change.”

MediaMonks, which said it also turns down work with partners that are not environmentally sustainable enough, said this was because it wants to work with companies that “amplify" the agency's impact.

Martin Verdult, UK managing director of MediaMonks, said: “We aim to work with partners, from clients to suppliers, who move towards the same sustainability goals as we do, in 2030 or earlier. This way we amplify each others’ efforts and impact.”

He added: “Moreover, our process to become a B Corp company is an important driver for realising our sustainability goals and this also attracts like-minded partners.”

The Advertising Association said the survey results showing most agencies are aiming for net carbon emissions to be at zero by 2030 is “a very good reflection of the wider industry’s determination to address the climate emergency”.

Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association, said: “We’re seeing that same ambition from production companies, tech platforms and media owners, all aligning to tackle this issue, working with advertisers to tackle the climate emergency.”

However, he added “there is much to do” to ensure change happens.

“A big focus for Ad Net Zero’s action plan is to equip all advertising and marketing services professionals with the knowledge and tools to change the way they work and to change the work they make,” Woodford said.

The AA is launching an “Ad Net Zero Essentials” certificate on 1 November to “help drive this system change in our industry”, he added.

The survey findings form part of a wider look at the pitfalls the ad sector is navigating as it shifts its business model to become more environmentally-friendly.

The full analysis, which comes ahead of the United Nations’ climate change conference, COP26, is available to readers signed up to Campaign UK’s The Knowledge premium subscription package, providing a deeper insight into the advertising industry.

Campaign UK

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