When Extinction Rebellion took to the stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last week, it marked four years since 14 of its protestors were arrested on the steps of the Palais.
At that time, they were demanding brands and agencies use their power of persuasion to tackle the global climate emergency. Fast-forward to 2023 and, although the message hasn't changed, the group has moved on to address a room full of people from adland.
XR climate activist and its brand strategist, William Skeaping, took to the stage at Palais II to speak alongside Jonathan Hall, practice lead for sustainable transformation practice at Kantar, and Preeti Srivastav, group sustainability director for Asahi Europe and International.
In an interview with Campaign, Skeaping recalls that the 2019 protest "wasn't designed to necessarily get change but to drive conversation and get the conversation started".
Skeaping, a former creative strategist at McCann London, has been a prominent player in XR since it was formed in 2018. Part of the original team, he has helped shift XR's strategy from nonviolent civil disobedience to "corporate activism" as of January. The new target: people who have the power to enact real change.
He says: "XR's bigger plan now as a strategy is how to bring people together to build a broader movement of movements."
As part of this strategy, XR has begun working with research group Kantar to challenge the world's marketers to become "sustainability disruptors".
Hall says he met XR last November during some filming at the House of Lords. "We were working on a parallel piece about how to effect change in the political system through the accounting process," he explains. "We realised there was an opportunity here to have a conversation about challenging the marketing establishment around practice."
During the session on stage in Cannes last Thursday (22 June), Hall shared findings from the World Federation of Advertisers' Sustainable Marketing 2030 report.
On the potential of marketing to transform the economy towards sustainable consumption, Hall insists: "Organisations and brands need to start affecting transformational change. We need to be bolder and more experimental in doing that. Businesses are recognising that. We need a coalition of the willing – everyone fighting on the same side."
And, while Skeaping admits marketing alone isn't going to fix anything, he says: "As a mediator – those that can make those necessary decisions can understand consumer demand and their audiences more generally."
While XR has entered the Palais, most other climate activity continues to be on the fringes.
Last Tuesday (20 June), The Next Level Climate Summit, produced in partnership by Clean Creatives, Creatives for Climate, Purpose Disruptors and Scope3, presented an opportunity to engage with advertising leaders thinking about bringing the industry to the forefront of the climate conversation outside of the Palais.
"It's such a shame," reflects Skeaping. "They should be on the inside. Everyone should take a day out of their busy schedules, drinking coconut water at the Meta stand, to go and see the most compelling and exciting conversations that are taking place in advertising today – with some of the youngest, most exciting creative minds. Don't get stuck in a stale conversation about AI.
XR's corporate activism reflects a shifting trend. Last year, Greenpeace staged a series of disruptive protests at the festival, including activists dressed in orange dog costumes scaling a giant ladder outside the Palais (pictured above). Adland's response to the protests sparked Edelman's chief creative officer, Emma de la Fosse (then CCO at Digitas UK), to pen an opinion piece that proclaimed the industry should be "ashamed".
This year, however, climate activists wanted to have meaningful conversations with brand and agency leaders while they did business in the Palais.
Campaign group Clean Creatives returned to Cannes Lions with its group of young activists, who disrupted the festival last year, and launched in-person activations with the overall aim of "grabbing attention, igniting conversation and inspiring action to make the issue of fossil-fuel clients unavoidable for ad professionals both online and in-person during the event".
Clean Creatives' founder, Duncan Meisel, told Campaign: "We want to have direct conversations with – and change the perspectives of – people in the industry about how climate change impacts them."
Members also targeted Edelman's chief executive, Richard Edelman, with placards as he walked along the Croisette (pictured below).
Meanwhile, members of Creatives for Climate, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages adland to make a positive impact on the planet, took to the boulevard to distribute a greenwashing toolkit.
Dressed in green suits, Lucy von Sturmer, Zoe Red and Josh Akapo, along with a film crew, captured conversations with executives about greenwashing.
"We started seeding a story ahead of arrival, telling people our agents are coming and they're watching," von Sturmer says. "By providing this tangible tool, we hoped to give individuals, but also agencies, a way to be part of this movement and to be agents of change. During the week they might have had a lightbulb moment.
"We embodied the 'greenwash agents', who pestered people on the Croisette. We wanted to engage leaders directly, whether they're engaging in brainwashing or not."
Rob McFaul, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors, says: "The past few years of climate protests have created a space for more people to step into a response that goes beyond the business-as-usual incrementalism to explore the deeper climate transition that science tells us is required at every level of society, including the ad industry."
For McFaul, given the continued fringe climate activity, the question is whether enough people at Cannes wanted to respond meaningfully to the connection between adland's creative output and the climate crisis.
"Just like in wider society, there is still an important role for activists to play to bring our climate emergency to society's attention and allow organisations like ours to step in and help transition the ad industry to be in service of a thriving future," he reflects.
On the state of climate protests this year, James Kirkham, founder of Iconic, adds: "I really hope this is simply a sign that things have moved from guerrilla beach takeovers and clifftop protests into the work, via the minds and laptops of the brightest brains we have.
"Right now, there is surely not an agency or brand around that does not have a solid answer when it comes to combating climate emergencies and doing your bit. And rightly so. This is the time, and these are the people. We're in the last-chance saloon and we need the greatest minds in technology and creativity to help in times of adversity."
He adds; "A younger generation is accepting nothing less as they look to pioneer and produce work and ideas to assist in the emergency that is enveloping us. We need events like Cannes Lions to be a shining light to the rest of the world.
"This is less about peripheral disruption and flag waving. It needs to be something more deep and intrinsic running through the conversations, work and output of the festival."