Advertising badly needs its own Extinction Rebellion moment

David Ogilvy said the role of advertising is to sell, and that nothing should distract us from this sole purpose – but he never had to contend with the prospect of an existential climate emergency.

Last month, Extinction Rebellion provided a potent example of grass roots, youth-led people power when they hijacked London, met with environment secretary Michael Gove and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and got parliament to declare a climate emergency.

These unseasonably warm winds of change are also being felt in less likely climes. In the boardroom, Legal and General have been busy divesting from the worst polluters; in parliament, Greta Thunberg has been repping the kids with global school strikes; and on Netflix, David Attenborough has been breaking hearts with Our Planet.

For the first time, action and conversation are happening at every level, except in advertising. Are we clinging to the Ogilvy’s notion that our job is to sell, regardless of the sustainability of what we’re helping to push or — in a tough economic environment — are we just glad of the business?

It’s no longer possible to be agnostic in a world that’s heading to some version of hell in a handcart; we need to be on the side of preserving what’s left of this planet. For me, that means working with companies that genuinely endeavour to make the world a better place.

It’s brilliant business for brands to consider the vociferous power of the conscious consumers. Every sector is affected, with a correlation between impact and instagrammability: the number of vegans in the UK soared to 3.5 million in 2018, and consumer demand is being fed by edgier brands like Oatly, who are providing alternatives to milk and lending added kudos to a lifestyle. Bigger brands are also embracing the change, with M&S introducing vegan ranges, Pizza Express offering vegan options and even Guinness discarding the fish bladder after 250 years.

The climate emergency has established a moral imperative and a strategic business opportunity, so how do agencies respond?

1. The Vegan Option
If you adopt a purist approach to who you work with, you’ll gain the smug satisfaction of knowing you’re better than the rest of us but you will be left with barely any options, like a vegan in the 1990s. Most big brands have some toxic skeletons in the non-FSC approved closet, so this approach, somewhat ironically, doesn’t appear to be sustainable.

2. Flexitarian
Flexitarians are about taking a more intentional and conscious approach to your diet. In essence, it’s about eating more plant-based meals and cutting out processed meat. Stretching this tenuous metaphor, this could mean a new mindfulness, assessing clients not just on the fame or fortune criteria but also on their environmental impact and intentions.

3. The Holistic Approach

A lot of marketers have no right to appeal to conscious consumers because their business and products are anything but. They need to take a joined up and holistic approach, informed by maximum awareness of inputs and outputs. Remember that pants Gillette advert, #BestMenCanBe? It was so bad partly because Gillette had no track record in women’s rights, yet made a transparent attempt to cash in on this new purpose trend they’d heard about.

Whichever route they choose, agencies need to take a broader approach to a client’s business, helping to identify the commercial opportunities but also working out how they can be fit to meet them, otherwise they’ll just end up exposing the client to backlash and ridicule.

This might require bringing in external expertise, sustainability consultants for instance, so they can start to make changes that will appeal to new audiences and future-proof their company as well as help the planet.

Making this initial investment will not only pay back in terms of a brand’s appeal to today’s consumer, but it can result in saving costs and maintaining prices, creating a virtuous circle of opportunity.

Joe Wade is a two-time Comedy BAFTA nominee and one-time winner and the co-founder of Don’t Panic.

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