Rahul Sachitanand
Mar 16, 2022

Uneven implementation of sustainability efforts across APAC agencies in 2021

AGENCY REPORT CARD ANALYSIS: Industry leaders across the 41 agencies we reviewed agreed the topic was atop their agenda, but their implantation of practices and solutions varied.

Uneven implementation of sustainability efforts across APAC agencies in 2021

For at least the last couple of years, agencies across APAC have been touting their plans to invest in and scale up their sustainability measures. Their investments have been aimed at both improving their own internal scorecards and advising clients on how best to be environmentally conscious and meet increasingly stringent green norms.

While some of these measures have become table stakes (using renewable power and reusable products at work), agencies have adopted a variety of means to boost their sustainability grades.

For the first time, Campaign Asia-Pacific's recently published Agency Report Cards for 2021 added sustainability as a metric used to measure the performance of agencies across APAC. Specifically, DEI and sustainability were combined to form one of five areas we used to mark agencies (along with business performance, innovation, management, and creativity and effectiveness). Sustainability accounted for three out of the 10 possible points in the DEI and sustainability grade, while DEI counted for seven. See more details on the Agency Report Card methodology.

Among the 41 agencies graded, most of which provided detailed submission forms, DEI and sustainability proved to be one of the toughest categories in which to earn a grade upgrade. Only seven agencies earned an improvement in this area, while there were nearly double the number of downgrades. Most of the agencies that were marked higher earned their higher mark for their DEI performance, rather than standout sustainability performance. 

However, it was hard to exactly quantify how agencies progressed with sustainability, since this was the first time we graded them on this subject, and we didn’t have a benchmark to mark them against. This analysis therefore relies more on a qualitative look at the measures these agencies have implemented. While some of them have made significant steps forward, several made conservative commitments to the subject without giving us many details about their in-house sustainability initiatives or divulging much about how their external-facing practices had fared.

Networks and agencies pushed to shore up their in-house sustainability initiatives and sensed an opportunity to build practices and appoint leaders to advise their clients on this subject. Some agencies, such as WPP’s Essence and Publicis created carbon calculators to assess the impact of their campaigns on the environment. However, the impact of these calculators, and indeed the overall commitment to sustainability, can be reasonably questioned given that many agencies still have oil companies in their client rosters (see "Why do so many agencies continue to work with fossil-fuel companies?").  

As we considered the performance of the 41 agency networks, it became apparent that most of them leant on global mandates to drive home their sustainability agenda. Networks including Dentsu, WPP and Omnicom laid down aggressive sustainability targets, which were followed by their agencies in APAC, while Publicis and Havas’ accomplishments in this field seemed less ambitious.

Anna Lungley, Dentsu

Dentsu emerged as one of the leaders on the sustainability. The Japan-based network appointed Anna Lungley as its global sustainability head and rolled out a series of measures to back up this appointment. Overall, Dentsu told us it has a Social Impact Steering Committee (SISC) established in 2019 to deliver on strategy and goals, which is chaired by Dentsu International CEO Wendy Clark and includes Lungley and other senior regional representatives.

Chiefly, the goals are focused on net zero emissions by 2040, reaching a billion people with campaigns that challenge perceptions and stereotypes by 2030, and supporting 100,000 young people to become better digital citizens by 2030. According to the Science Based Targets Initiative, Dentsu was only one of seven companies to have its net-zero targets validated.

However, for all this intent, Dentsu had relatively few details on how agencies were going about meeting these goals, or unique initiatives at the market level. Some agencies did give us a glimpse of their work on this front. The network’s oldest media agency, Carat, submitted a Carat for Change initiative, a series of group exercise outings, where participants measured their kilometres via an app, with the initiative linked to both health and raising funds for the World Wide Fund for Nature, with a focus on cleaning up plastic from the oceans.

WPP’s agencies across creative and media, meanwhile, anchored their sustainability initiatives in worldwide commitments, under which the network aims to reach net zero emissions by 2025 (from its own operations) and 2030 (from its supply chain). Creative agency Ogilvy, for example, created a task force that includes group and business leads from across the network in Asia to drive the agenda, operations and solutions. Meanwhile, Ogilvy Consulting launched a sustainability practice, bringing in former BBDO executive Andy Wilson as Asia head of sustainability.

Accenture Interactive’s sustainability push similarly came from parent Accenture. The company has committed to reach net zero emissions by 2025 and is working on carbon removal projects around the world to reforest land with native species, rebuild biodiversity and make agriculture more sustainable, among other areas. A Sustainability Squad was created to allow teams across Accenture to collaborate on sustainability projects, campaigns and challenges.

Omnicom’s TBWA, which earned the highest overall grade in 2021, was one of the agencies to give us granular details on the sustainability front in APAC, besides working on global commitments. In the region, each agency has a KPI to contribute hours equivalent to 1.5% of its 2022 revenue towards sustainability initiatives.

The Philippines operation moved into three smaller offices in 2021, reducing employee travel time, and across Oceania, fossil fuels are no longer an energy source. Fellow Omnicom-group creative shop DDB launched the fourth edition of its Lamppost Project in Singapore to drive upcycling and launched DDB for Good in India.

Elsewhere, Interpublic Group’s CEO Bill Kolb committed to being a net-zero emissions company by 2040. And in APAC, McCann noted this meant a full carbon footprint audit for the region in 2021. On the media side, meanwhile, Initiative’s focus on sustainability wasn’t limited just to climate actions, but also incorporated other elements including workforce diversity, equity and data ethics.

As mentioned above, a chunk of the sustainability investments from networks and agencies were external facing, as they sought to capitalise on burgeoning interest in this subject. Accenture Interactive developed two sustainability products for clients in 2021, which are confidential, and The Monkeys released new work for NRMA Insurance’s animal conservation campaign ‘Every home is worth protecting’.

Meanwhile, Ogilvy said its practice aims to address issues including the fight against poverty, the environmental impact of a growing middle class and urbanisation, the pressure for companies to achieve net zero emissions, the move to alternative energy, and DEI efforts, according to the company. Already the agency helps clients in the field of sustainability, such as Nescafé's support of more sustainable coffee growing practices in China, and Shopee and Unilever’s Clean Home Clean Nation partnership.

Over at Omnicom, TBWA launched TBWA Sustain a purpose-driven business transformation consultancy tackling sustainability efforts internally and for clients. Key work included Cool Ridge’s 100% recyclable water bottle (see above), where the campaign encouraged people not to buy it, instead pushing consumers to use a reusable water bottle whenever possible, while opting for the brand's beverage as the next best option. The agency also resigned from a traditional electricity and gas provider Origin Energy, and instead opted to work with smart energy venture Amber Energy. 

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