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Global climate strikes: Can agencies afford to be silent?

One month ago, a call went out to our industry: ‘on 20th September, young people are mobilising to fight the climate emergency. We say creativity can shape culture. This is our chance to put our talents behind the voices that matter. Create and Strike'.

The response has been incredible. Over 80 agencies have come together from independents and networks alike including Iris, BBH, MullenLowe, Engine, W&K, TBWA, 7 Stars, GoodStuff, Cheil, Lucky Generals and Uncommon. They are joined by a group of famous British creatives including photographer Rankin, Hollywood film director Edgar Wright, Glastonbury Festival’s Emily Eavis, Director of the Tate Modern Frances Morris and AMV BBDO’s Chief Strategy Officer Bridget Angear, who are all backing the initiative. A panel of them will join the UKSCN in judging the most impactful work.

The creative industries are not alone. Organisations who have committed to closing their doors on Friday range from tech companies in Australia, to global brands like Patagonia, whose CEO this week spelled it out pretty clearly ‘Like the fake science paid for by tobacco companies that for years denied the link between smoking and cancer, denial and delay on climate is destructive to human life. Enough is enough. We need action.'

The need to halve emissions by 2030 is now clear and obvious while the courage of the young people leading the strikes is finally inspiring tangible momentum in our industry.

Yet despite all this, some of our most powerful agency brands and our industry’s largest holding company are still reluctant to commit their support for the young people’s message. Is it still debateable whether this is an issue companies ought to be supporting?

We’ve been speaking to an array of agencies over the past few weeks, and have encountered 4 key factors holding some back from showing public support for the strikes:

1. We see striking for the climate as an issue of personal choice, not corporate allegiance.

2. We feel it would be hypocritical to support the strikes until our own house is in order.

3. We would prefer to focus on our own independent initiatives.

4. We are concerned about alienating our clients.

These are all perfectly reasonable and valid justifications. We are talking about multinational agency companies with millions of dollars at stake, and the wrong step on this issue could result in serious disruption to business.

However…. it’s now one year since the IPCC told us that disrupting business as usual is exactly what we must be doing. When the scientists tell us we need ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in every aspect of society’, it means we must challenge all the assumptions that have guided us in the past.

So with the strikes now only four days away, we should each take a moment to reflect on these questions in turn.

1. Is it ok for agencies not to take a corporate stance on the climate strikes?

For 150 years, our industry has existed - and thrived - as a morally neutral ‘gun for hire’ for corporate organisations. We pride ourselves on the objective, unbiased counsel we provide and are

careful to leave our subjective opinions at the meeting room door. Ultimately we entrust the question of what’s acceptable to our client’s values, consumer reactions and the ASA.

Yet the world is changing, and fast. We now preach the power of ‘social purpose’ to our clients on a daily basis and Unilever’s sustainable living brands are growing 69% faster than their others. If moral ambiguity is no longer competitive in the wider marketplace, doesn’t the same apply to the advertising industry?

The fact is that in calling the climate strikes an issue of personal choice, not corporate allegiance, companies are delegating moral responsibility to their employees. By leaving it to their people’s conscience, leaders are saving themselves the (considerable) challenge of clarifying their brand's own corporate values.

2. Is it hypocritical to strike for the climate when our own house isn’t in order?

We all need to work, to eat, to travel to meetings, to buy gifts for those we love. Yet if this lifestyle and career model we have known since birth continues as it is, life as we know it will be destroyed. And while this isn’t our fault, the longer we continue to perpetuate the current model knowing what we now know, the higher our personal responsibility for the consequences.

This is a tough truth to face, so it’s no wonder we avoid engaging fully in it. But until we openly admit our own failures and contributions, we will continue to skirt around the issue and avoid any kind of meaningful action.

However - we have been trained that the route to creativity is to find tensions and conflicts that need resolving. And there are no greater tensions than in our industry’s own relationship with the climate crisis. Imagine the creativity that could be unleashed if we started embracing our own hypocrisies and inner conflicts head on.

What if we all did what Extinction Rebellion have asked and 'Tell the Truth' about our hypocrisy? What if we walked the streets on Friday holding up the words ‘I’m complicit’? Because only once we take responsibility can we really get on with doing something about it.

3. Why team up when we’re already going strong ourselves?

There are some amazing initiatives coming out of agencies around the world to tackle the crisis. From Cannes-winning campaigns and Mother’s work with Greenpeace to WPP’s vegan catering options, the industry is starting to take up the mantel. The attraction of these solo initiatives are obvious - not only are they are simpler to implement, but agencies can ‘own’ them, generating positive press and pride for their employees.

But while some healthy creative competition is positive (and hardwired into our DNA), solo initiatives will not be enough. For the same reason countries need to come together to solve the crisis, companies need to too.

The UN’s emissions gap report tells us that the targets agreed by world leaders will contribute only a fraction of the emissions reductions we need for our way of life to survive. It’s not enough to just follow the rules set by world leaders, we need to follow their example. That means working together to create an industry agreement that picks up where the Paris Agreement left off and helps plug the gap.

For inspiration look to DDB Unlimited in Amsterdam who want to make their ‘Fly Responsibly’ platform for KLM an open source commitment that any airline can adopt - and have invited agencies to work with them to make that happen. Meanwhile as a cross-industry initiative birthed out of the industry’s first climate summit, hopefully Create and Strike can do the same.

It’s time to let some of our natural competitiveness go and find a new level of cooperation. After all, if a tiny little industry like ours can’t put our self-interest aside and work together, how on earth should we expect world leaders to do the same? We have a unique opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder and declare ourselves on the same team. And it starts on the streets at 11am on Friday.

4. Is this issue worth alienating clients for?

This is the hardest one of all. It is clearly not good leadership to take cavalier actions that risk the jobs of hundreds of people. And if we alienate our clients, we are no longer able to influence them. As tempting as it is to suggest we should all resign or refuse to work on high polluting clients, is it not more powerful to use these relationships as a chance to drive real, positive change?

Better to start acting like the leaders we aspire to be and consistently confront every client with the facts that will inspire them to change. As an industry we are in a position of unique influence - and we are far better equipped to drive change than the giant organisations we serve. What if we saw this issue as an extension of our battle to shift clients’ focus from the short to long term?

It’s ok to be close to the problem. It’s not ok to ignore it. We are most complicit when we are silent. When we aren’t prepared to confront our clients on their own bad behaviours or lack of action. When we refuse to take a public stance on an issue that 85% of the UK population are worried about. When we feel we can’t publicly support strikes designed by children to provoke change. That’s when we need to ask ourselves what kind of organisation we are.

Because whatever difficult conversations it creates in the here and now, history will only look kindly on those who were prepared to stand up in public and say we need to disrupt business as usual, now.

The future of our industry begins on 20 September.

We are stood at the apex of the greatest transition in the history of our industry. For 150 years we have been the demand creators of the industrial era. We now have the opportunity to be the designers of the net zero era. Designing new, circular, digital lifestyles and businesses for a net zero future will be the task that defines the rest of our careers.

The fundamental truth of the climate crisis is that we have only two choices: drive unprecedented change now, or deal with unprecedented challenges later. In committing their creativity to the strikes on Friday, over 80 agencies have said they are voting for the former. We now hope that the rest of the industry will join us.

Ben Essen is the chief strategy officer of Iris Worldwide

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