Surekha Ragavan
Jan 25, 2022

Why do so many agencies continue to work with fossil-fuel companies?

The devastating impact of fossil fuels to our planet is undeniable—yet a majority of agencies continue to promote and sustain the ‘dirty energy’ sector with no immediate sign of backing away.

An ad by Australian Gas Networks promoting its green tech (Comms Declare)
An ad by Australian Gas Networks promoting its green tech (Comms Declare)

Last year, the folks behind Clean Creatives, Duncan Meisel and Jamie Henn, stumbled upon an ad from Philip Morris that was “so bad” they thought it was a joke.

“It was just really poorly made,” says Meisel, who is also a climate activist and strategy consultant. “It had a bunch of bad stock footage and it just wasn't persuading anybody. And I realised that when you get smart, creative people to stop working for an industry, the ability that they have to persuade the public is diminished. And we could probably do that with the fossil-fuel industry.”

Meisel and Henn joined heads to form Clean Creatives, a campaign to get agencies, creatives, and strategists to refuse any future contracts with fossil-fuel companies, trade associations, or front groups. By definition in the pledge, these companies include those that generate 50% or more of their revenue from fossil fuels and those who play an active role in funding fossil-fuel companies. This includes industry-funded non-profit groups representing the interests of fossil-fuel companies, utilities, or cooperatives.

According to multiple reports including this one by Production Gap in 2021, the planet will not be able to achieve its climate ambitions under the Paris Agreement unless a rapid reduction of fossil-fuel production takes place. In 2030, governments’ production plans and projections would lead to around 240% more coal, 57% more oil, and 71% more gas than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

The urgency of action needed by the fossil-fuel industry in the battle against climate change is why Clean Creatives is focussing on this area over any other areas of pollution, such as plastic.

“Any agency is bought into the idea that they need to have a sustainability policy, and not working with fossil-fuel companies is the bedrock of that,” says Meisel. “Fossil-fuel companies represent three quarters of global carbon pollution. And if [agencies] can address this and start to create transition within the energy system, it becomes much easier to create policy solutions across the entire value chain.”

"Fossil fuel companies hire marketing agencies to help them make more money to sell more of their product which is overheating the planet. It’s a straightforward relationship."
Duncan Meisel

Based on a 2019 report, the largest five listed oil and gas companies—including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP—spent nearly US$200 million a year on lobbying to delay, control or block policies that fight climate change. The report also found that these companies continue to use Facebook and Instagram to “promote the benefits of fossil-fuel production”. For example, the report said that BP—with the support of Chevron—donated US$13 million to a campaign that successfully stopped a carbon tax in the US state of Washington. Of that amount, US$1 million was spent on social-media ads.

‘Vague platitudes and shady spending’

The marketing and lobbying strategies used by the fossil-fuel industry have undoubtedly become more sophisticated through the decades. With increasing pressure and scrutiny, messaging is now focussed on green tech and a transition towards clean energy.

“[Fossil-fuel companies] are about innovation, or a commitment to the planet or something that's really vague," says Meisel. "These are very transparently designed to be what I would call lobbying the public, they're using these ads as a way to advance their general social legitimacy and political profile rather than to sell you any particular product.”

Shell promotes a 'sustainable project' on Facebook


One issue that crops up as a result is increased confusion among the public towards fossil-fuel companies and their promoted agendas around sustainability. For example, Meisel says that BP borrows from the style and aesthetic of genuinely green brands to promote a product that's not fundamentally green, which leads to “consumer cynicism”.

“This creates a question in the mind of consumers: 'Are all these corporations the same?’ And it diminishes the value of genuine investments in sustainability. And when [consumers] can't tell the difference between the genuinely good stuff and the dishonesty, that's a problem,” says Meisel.

He adds that marketing spend is also dependent on policy engagement; it's usually the case that fossil-fuel companies will likely spend more money on marketing when consideration of a major climate policy change is taking place. There's a direct link between the amount of money that these companies spend and their ability to avoid political action needed to stop the climate emergency, according to Meisel.

“You can really track correspondences between ad spending—in particular on Facebook—and the announcements by presidents or governments to limit carbon emissions,” he says.

For example, it was reported last year that ExxonMobil suffered shareholder rebellions when an activist investment firm claimed two board seats and promised to push the company to diversify beyond oil. Meisel says the company then spent “a lot of money on LinkedIn and Twitter to reach a more elite audience, who are more likely to be shareholders in a major corporation or part of a financial institution that would have a vote in that election”.

“There are special ad firms that work in places like Washington or Brussels, or I would suspect in Singapore or Sydney as well, that are focussed on decision-makers,” he adds. “In the end, [fossil fuel companies] are going to sectors of the public in order to advance their political agenda, which is aimed at continuing their polluting business model.”

If one were to inspect the fossil-fuel industry's public disclosures of investment, it’s clear that the large companies continue to invest some 90% of their money into the production of fossil fuels. Yet, some 90% of ads from these companies, according to Meisel, revolve around “green tech and vague platitudes”.

"These ads are very effective; they are designed to make the companies look greener and more socially responsible than they are. They are aimed at misleading the public about what they are fundamentally trying to do."
Duncan Meisel

Because of the sheer lobbying powers of the fossil fuel industry, Meisel says the real challenge is for automakers who are trying to invest heavily in electrification of their vehicles, and who need policies from governments that run directly counter to the interests of fossil-fuel companies. FMCG companies like Unilever that are trying to move away from single-use materials are also at the brunt of this conundrum, as they need to be able to use materials that are cheap and can compete with heavily subsidised fossil fuels.

A Tweet from Australian oil and gas producer Santos


And unlike sectors like tobacco, gaming and alcohol, there aren’t enough regulations in this area to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable for their ads. But Meisel says things are improving: “There are important investigations being carried out by regulatory bodies and by governments that are suing these companies for false advertising. These lawsuits are a significant source of liability in a strictly legal sense but also reputationally. So while there aren’t enough clear regulations about this, there are certain regulatory risks that are being presented.”

Where are the large agencies?

Comms Declare, an equivalent of the Clean Creatives campaign in Australia, has been gaining signatures from agencies for their word against fossil-fuel companies. But a quick scan through the agencies that have signed the pledge so far showcases a worrying pattern: major holding groups and large-sized independents are glaringly missing, save for a couple such as AnalogFolk and 303 MullenLowe.

INSIGHT FROM A CREATIVE

In a report by Comms Declare, Maya Halilovic, a former senior creative at 303 MullenLowe was quoted as saying that agencies should play a massive role in confronting climate change “if only because we are part of the reason that it exists”.

“It’s kind of a difficult one to stomach, because if you think about it, BP and Shell Oil and Chevron and whatnot—the giant polluters of the world—have and will continue to rely on agencies to lift their profile, and to talk about a ‘cleaner and greener’ future that is increasingly just a vaguer and vaguer concept,” said Halilovic. “We do need to start really pushing for some of those harder action items, such as saying, ‘No, I won’t work with you, I’m not going to do it. I don’t want to support that’.”

“We've got around 330 members now and over 80 organisations, and they are smaller agencies, no doubt,” says Belinda Noble, founder of Comms Declare. “It really is time that [large agencies] woke up because they're being duplicitous. When your holding company says that they're going to be net zero by 2050 yet they are still spruiking for Caltex or Chevron… I don't see how you can do that and also advise clients about trust and credibility.”

Based on Clean Creatives’ list of agencies that work with fossil fuel companies, all major holding groups are involved in some way with the industry. Yet, all these groups have publicly outlined clear sustainability goals within their many agencies. For example, WPP vows to use electricity that is 100% sourced from renewable sources by 2025, and it attempts to reach net zero by then as well.

Yet, based on agencies’ lofty sustainability goals, there is a clear disconnect between those and their continuous work with fossil-fuel companies.

“The work agencies do for their clients is the biggest part of their environmental footprint,” says Meisel. “WPP's annual carbon footprint is 5.4 megatons of CO2, and the footprint of their fossil-fuel clients is 2,287 megatons. So if they generate even a 0.2% increase in sales for their fossil-fuel clients, they wipe out the entire impact of their global pledge.”

Campaign Asia-Pacific reached out to WPP, OPRG, IPG (McCann), Publicis and Edelman for more information around their APAC-level initiatives pertaining to their work with fossil-fuel companies and how it plays in line with internal sustainability goals. IPG and Edelman pointed us to their internal net zero policies but declined to comment on their work with fossil-fuel companies. Campaign didn’t get a response from the remaining agencies.

In Meisel’s opinion, there could be more flexibility within smaller agencies to move quicker when it comes to dropping a problematic client. He is optimistic that at some point in the future, every agency will be a fossil-free agency because oil companies “will not last forever”. It’s more a question of how fast and effective the larger agencies are in taking that action.

Vero, a mid-sized independent PR agency which last week signed the Clean Creatives pledge, says it has identified itself as an employer and actor in the future of Southeast Asia, a region heavily impacted by climate change.

“Looking further forward, as we are concerned but also optimistic, we believe that agencies can actively participate in shifting the weight of economies towards climate-positive growth,” says Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse, brand and culture director at Vero.

"It’s also concerning that specific communication efforts from the [fossil fuels] industry, notably in the US, have been deemed misleading by some researchers, leading to legal scrutiny "
Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse

Nguyen-Masse added that while regulations have already been written into law in many countries, limiting the ability of fossil fuel companies to advertise is not a solution as it would indirectly impact the way agencies can or cannot work.

“In our point of view, regulations can impede the capacity of businesses to grow while encouraging them to devise workarounds,” he says. “We like to think that incentives may stimulate actors. Tax rebates for advising B-Corps and similar grades of sustainable companies can be a direction to explore. Incentives for sustainable business practices at all levels are also great motivators.”


This story is part of Campaign's series in exploring the role of the marcomms industry in sustaining the fossil fuel industry. If you wish to comment—publicly or anynymously—on this matter, contact surekha.ragavan[at]haymarket.asia

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