Purpose Disruptors’ Lisa Merrick-Lawless, Jonathan Wise and Rob McFaul on why we all need to raise ambitions and have honest conversations when it comes to using creativity to tackle the climate emergency
For an industry that loves to talk about disruption, Advertising has been slow to take substantial action on the most disruptive force facing us all: the climate emergency. Sure, there’s been much more discussion in recent years but, to date, the industry hasn’t quite shown the guts and ambition to really embrace the challenge at the speed and scale needed.
But there are growing numbers of people working in Advertising who are tussling with the tension between the realities of the climate crisis and the knowledge that their work is, in part, helping to fuel emissions. Enter Purpose Disruptors, founded as a beacon to draw like-minded industry folk together and enable them to collaborate and enact change.
In a short time, Purpose Disruptors has managed to pool creativity and experience from across the industry to kick start a number of initiatives, such as Advertised Emissions (which calculates the indirect carbon emissions caused by the advertising industry’s work), the Change the Brief Alliance (which is about treating every brief as an opportunity to promote sustainable mindsets and behaviours), and the Good Life 2030 project (in which creativity is used to reframe sustainable development and climate action as a compelling narrative to tend towards, thus engaging people put off by doom-laden messaging). But in order for the change to meet the scale of the challenge, the industry needs to meet these initiatives with some frank and honest conversation about its own contribution to the climate emergency.
To find out more about what a healthy climate transition might look like and how real change can come from within the industry, Amélie Lambert catches up with Purpose Disruptors co-founders Lisa Merrick-Lawless, Jonathan Wise and Rob McFaul.
Amélie> For a start, what is your raison d'être, your purpose?
Jonathan> Why we exist is really to explore the tensions. We've all got experience working in the industry. And so, what happens when you work in advertising, and there's this climate emergency around us, what do you do? How do you resolve the tension between doing the job you love and the knowledge that the work you do is helping fuel some of the climate crisis? All three of us had those questions. We started meeting in a pub in 2019 because essentially, we wanted to know whether or not other people were attuned to those questions. And they certainly were.
We're a network of advertising insiders, working together to reshape the industry and to tackle the emergency. Our vision is that the industry of marketing communications and advertising is transitioning, so we need work to promote the values, behaviours and lifestyles that will fit in a 1.5 degree world. We do that by bringing people together to collaborate on problems, aiming to move from a competitive mindset to a collaborative one and set up spaces, gatherings and initiatives to make that happen.
Lisa> We're not really the problem solvers, per se. We're kind of the facilitators, the enablers. We bring people together, hold spaces, design initiatives to enable the sustainability transition.
Rob> That’s the thing: the industry has creativity in its soul and has all these hugely powerful skills in storytelling and narrative, influencing behaviour and culture. How do you direct those to be in service of a 1.5 degree world? The climate crisis is such a complex issue, there's no one single silver bullet answer from one agency. It's about people coming together and working on this together in a collaborative way.
Amélie> Can you talk us through specific challenges that you're working on at the moment, or challenges you encounter in trying to achieve your purpose?
Lisa> I think the biggest challenge is the scale of the problem and the scale of the action, and how those need to be at the right balance. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says that we need rapid, far-reaching, unprecedented change, in all aspects of society. That's for everyone everywhere, including the Ad industry. So I think we're quite excited about the potential for ad folk coming together and using our creativity to lead the change. We are a creative industry, and we are usually progressive. Yet in terms of this particular kind of area, we're behind. What's that about?
Jonathan> When we were invited to contribute to the Ad Net Zero report, off the back of it we asked: ‘Can the advertising industry have a frank and honest conversation about its role in accelerating climate change?’
What I would say is not happening and needs to happen is for the industry to cross that threshold and fully acknowledge its contribution in driving the consumption that fuels climate change. At present, it is choosing not to do that. Industry groups and major industry bodies are choosing not to step into that challenging conversation, and we would suggest that until the industry has the courageous leadership to have a conversation like that, then the level of response is always going to be not far-reaching, and not unprecedented.
Amélie> Do you feel that there is a lack of long-term vision or understanding what it takes to transition into a sustainable industry? Do we even know that we're unsustainable to begin with, do people fathom where we're going wrong?
Rob> A lot of the work that is happening at the moment is pretty much business as usual. It's just about less impact and looking inward. We’re on the other hand looking at the bigger and wider responsibility. It takes a certain level of creative leadership to lean into such a big question. What is the purpose of advertising, given what we know about consumption driving emissions and being responsible for the climate crisis? How can the industry truly transition? We’re asking agencies and leaders to hold those questions, to invite the industry to think about that beyond business as usual.
Amélie> There's been so much talk about a green recovery since 2020 and how we could use the health crisis to bypass some of the hard transitions. In some ways, it can be easier to enact change at a time of crisis. In 2021 sustainability was propelled to the fore - at least for brands and business. So to your mind, is the industry lagging behind? Do we have leaders emerging here?
Lisa> I think one of the ways that we see it is that the industry and every agency needs a climate transition plan. It's a bit like a digital transition plan. How are they going to get from where they are now to where we need to be? And I think that's where we anchor our work, looking at the climate transition that's needed and looking at how you can support people as individuals, within agencies and within the industry, to go on that journey.
There are three pillars to our work in order to do that - Education, Measurement and Creativity. That's what we've been doing for the last two years and that's what we think is required, supported by collaboration. So, I think focusing on those three pillars of work and focusing on the fact that there is a shift is paramount. And to your question on visions, we recognise that there's a need for tools and approaches and frameworks to change the business as it is now.
Amélie> You mention your 3 pillars of work - Education, Measurement and Creativity. Can you tell us more about your relevant projects - respectively Change The Brief, Advertised Emissions and The Good Life project? Let’s start with Change The Brief.
Rob> The question we're trying to answer in the whole education piece is: ‘How can we give agencies and major clients the skills and confidence to promote sustainable lifestyles through their work’?
#ChangeTheBrief is essentially about seeing every campaign as an opportunity to promote sustainable values and attitudes through the work. And what the CTB alliance is about is creating the education and learning programme to give everyone that 21st century skillset. We all need this new skillset to be fit for a zero-carbon world. We need to give people in organisations and across the industry the skills and competence to be able to do that well and to avoid greenwashing.
You can do this on three different levels. At an enormous, quite straightforward level, you can change the image to portray sustainable lifestyles and behaviours. How can you change people’s behaviour? Then, how can you through your work promote sustainable behaviours in a way that appeals to mainstream audiences? And how can we, as agencies, help our clients change the business? Part of what the alliance does is it creates a faculty of experts who go deep into lots of different consumer-facing categories (e.g. food, fashion etc) and take us through what these may look like in ten years’ time in a Net Zero world.
So, we present our vision and then invite Alliance members to understand what the behaviour change is that they need to influence, essentially giving them a brief. It's about stretching the ambition and giving people the skills and confidence to promote sustainable values for a Net Zero world. How can you, through a brand's point of view, influence that behaviour shift? Take fashion as an example - in the future we are unlikely to be buying new clothes all the time, we would be renting our clothes. So how do we make that the norm, make that desirable? In the automotive sector, will we be driving in individual privately owned cars in 10-15 years? It's more likely going to be some kind of shared model. So how do we influence people to make that a desirable thing to do? So that's kind of a role play.
Amélie> Jonathan, could you tell us about Advertised Emissions?
Jonathan> So in the finance industry, there's a concept called financed emissions. If you're a financial institution like HSBC, then you have direct emissions, such as your offices, your business travel, etc. You also have indirect emissions e.g. the emissions associated with the loans that you make. So if I'm going to loan the money, making an investment in a coal fired power station, then the emissions associated with running that coal fired power station are on me. And so Black Rock, with $10 trillion in investments, recently in February calculated their financed emissions at 330 million tonnes of co2, which is about the size of the UK. They invest a lot of money in a lot of fossil fuel and heavily polluting industries. They want to reduce that.
So, if finance can do this, then can advertising do something similar? This is one of the things that we were invited to talk about at COP 26.
As such, we define advertised emissions as the greenhouse gas emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by advertising. For the last report, we worked out what the advertised emissions are for the UK advertising industry and through peer reviewed calculation, we worked out that these were 186 million tonnes. When you do the maths, it works out that Advertising in the UK adds 28% to the carbon footprint of every single citizen. Which sounds about right to me, because advertising is there to drive growth, to increase sales.
Then the question is, is the advertising industry going to take full responsibility for its climate impact? If it were to choose to do that, then advertising emissions would be something that they would be committed to reducing. This clearly feels like the next step from the direct emissions that is currently the focus of AdGreen in regards to direct emissions. This is about the indirect but much bigger impact. We've been looking for leaders to join a working group to come up with a method for them to calculate their advertised emissions, and we've got some good brands and agencies and media owners as part of that group.
Amélie> And Lisa, can you talk us through the Good Life 2030 project?
Lisa> The Good Life Project is something that kicked off at the early start of last year. The idea behind it is to try to find a way of having a compelling narrative to tend towards.
The trouble with sustainability and climate is there's lots of things to move away from and it doesn’t feel very appealing or inspiring. And so, the idea of this project is to enable people to imagine visions of the future that are positive and compelling and something they can move towards. It's planted in the idea of rather than just changing the existing system, look at a paradigm shift. If this system didn't exist, or if this system were to close tomorrow, what would we build now for 2030, knowing what we now know? So that's the scale of the ambition for this project - it's about a paradigm shift. It's an eight-year project until 2030.
We called it ‘Good Life’ as we went into deep qualitative research with lots of citizens, posing the question: what matters to you most in the future? And because when we talk about sustainability or climate or green, it switches a lot of people off. The people we are talking to who are not in the climate bubble need to be switched on to it. We wanted to reach further, to talk to everyday people and find a way of framing it that works for them. What would a new vision of the good life look and feel like in 2030? How might we make it something compelling that we can move towards? What's the role of the advertising industry as architects of desire in creating that and embedding that in the work?
Following the citizen research, we ran industry workshops, where 100 industry leaders came, from Google to Facebook to agencies to the government. From there, we developed a creative brief from which three ad agencies created ads on the future: McCann Manchester, Iris and Gravity Road. We also made a 15-minute documentary that featured seven industry leaders from Havas, M&C Saatchi, Mindshare, Mediacom, Mother, Iris, Elvis. In the documentary they are being very honest and vulnerable, talking about the tension they feel in the industry at this moment in time, and what might need to happen next.
We then launched everything on the final day of COP 26 in Glasgow, they gave us an hour-long slot in the IMAX Theatre, which was brilliant. We launched the documentary and did a talk there. And so the future-facing work is really about collaborating with people in the industry to explore this good life and what it means. That's going to be the focus of workshops and shared resources over the next year.
Amélie> Where do you think the advertising industry is doing well on sustainability and where is it falling short, or even causing active harm?
Rob> The first point to address is that a couple of years ago, it was very difficult to bring up this conversation at all. Now it's a given. So that's a positive step and we are happy about it and some leaders also invite those questions. I'm also observing that there is more collaboration and people generally recognising we can’t get stuff done in isolation. Just seeing people coming together whether at an industry level, or through the Advertising Association, Ad Net Zero, the Climate Charter Working Group. I know that many of the big networks have started to form working groups together as well. So, the industry is working collaboratively and sharing ideas and resources.
This idea that collaboration is a good thing is part of the positive first step. However, on the flip side, you have this misalignment of ambition. We need a bigger level of ambition than that. How do we help people and everyone in the organisation have a role to play in this, because everyone has a role to play? The first steps are taken by coming together - but the next step is fostering that ambition, which is everyone's job.
Amélie> Earlier you touched on a core industry tension - pushing for an unsustainable level of (over)consumption. What about another ‘elephant in the room’, i.e. some agencies not letting go of so-called destructive industries as clients, versus claiming full steam ahead with climate action? With the current crisis in Ukraine, do you feel there is a moment of reckoning - and are people joining the dots on the fact that we're supporting fossil fuels as an industry and our reliance on those as a society, thus fueling the crisis? And how does this add up with promoting sustainable lifestyles and behaviours?
Jonathan> We wouldn't suggest to anybody what they should do. We're not going to go around saying you should ban fossil fuels and things like that. There's a couple of observations, however. It's a complex issue, because you have Russia, which is a nation state then you have the brands that people work on which are companies rather than nation states - the likes of Shell, BP, Exxon, Chevron, etc. So there's a distance I think, between the Russia-Ukraine issue and those corporate entities. Some of these corporate entities have made some choices about whether to be in Russia or not.
For instance, WPP have pulled out of Russia. That's very interesting, because that means that on that issue, they have taken a moral stance as to what they believe is right and wrong. I wonder whether or not their decision-making process leading to that choice, can therefore be applied to their opinions on fossil fuel companies as well? So I think it's interesting that they seem to have crossed the Rubicon in terms of their attitude towards oil states. Should that same logic apply in relation to some of the oil companies they work for? That's not for me to decide, but I just think that there's a moral choice, a line that was crossed and could create a really fascinating precedent for them to continue on that line should they so choose.
Secondly, for companies that do have fossil fuel clients… What would it be if they were to choose to evoke a kind of democratic process here? If they were, for example, to have an open, all hands, all agency debate on what the pros and cons of the companies that they work for, in relation to climate. Where are they doing well, where are they not doing so? What are the costs and what are the benefits to the business? And what would happen if you put it to the vote for all staff? Would it mean that we would have to take a 10% pay cut if we were to drop them? Would we be happy to make that choice?
Lisa> I think when you're talking about ways to do that and methodologies it just makes me think in terms of red, amber and green, within advertised emissions. I think what's interesting about that project is that it’s a very logical and simple way for companies to look at where their work and clients sit. Whether they sit within the red, amber or green in terms of their emissions and so, that's one way of segmenting a client portfolio.
Amélie> What do you think is holding a good part of the industry back in the genuine transition? This question in fact applies both to the private and public sectors and across many industries. The reality is we humans will look after ourselves (and loved ones) first - earning a living, paying the bills however we can… This also touches on the 'moral high ground' some green activist groups can take, the choices that may be ethical but not practical (and lecturing). How do we reconcile ethical with practical, and call things for what they are?
Jonathan> I think you are really getting into the nub of the issue here. Something that we really started to dig into with the interviewees of the GoodLife documentary .
A response to this is rooted in the excellent quote from American poet Wendell Berry. He says:
"Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before recognising our dishonesty and living with it the best we can or we can begin the effort to change the way we live and think" Wendell Berry
So I would suggest that there is a strong, systemic resistance to embracing the connection between advertising / consumption and climate because in doing so people (and organisations) will have to make the choice that Berry calls out - where both options are not particularly appealing. It is easier and less challenging to attempt to ignore the connection than facing into the option of being dishonest or needing to change.
Yet, I would suggest that this is a key leadership requirement, at this time, given that we are in a climate emergency. Our climate emergency is an undeniable truth. To embrace the connection and have the necessary, mature conversations that will result. And to decide. At some level I am really happy if people choose either way - to live with the dishonesty or to begin the effort to change. At least we have the freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives. These are the adult choices. What I'm not okay with is that the connection is obscured or resisted as this obsures us from the truth and the need to make adult choices.
Amélie> Are there any current developments that you're inspired or excited by either in advertising or sustainability - or both?
Lisa> I think for me, it's what Rob touched on earlier, which is this idea of collaboration in an industry that's hugely competitive. I think we're seeing it at the moment within our own initiatives, which are bringing hundreds of people together, but also within other people's initiatives. That's the most exciting, how people can collaborate to find solutions and creative ways of approaching crucial issues.
Rob> For me it's the recognition that people need to skill up and educate themselves. If we're recognising the next wave of transition is going to be climate, the next wave of disruption is going to be climate change. So how can you be best equipped to handle that and use your skills and services in a net zero world? That's what's really exciting and developing, people stepping in and wanting to sign up and be part of these courses is fascinating to see.
Jonathan> I think the conversation and awareness and help are absolutely amazing. It just seems to be sweeping through, it's fantastic. I think some of the agencies and people are stepping forward to explore Advertised Emissions and the response is absolutely fantastic. And talking about the level of creativity, I’ve been judging on the One Show SDG Pencil and my favourite example of that is Pinatex. Basically, when you grow pineapples you get these big leaves which usually go to waste. Pinatex is a company that takes the waste leaves, turns them into thread, and makes that into vegan leather. You're taking a waste from one category and you're using it as a low carbon alternative for a high carbon option, in another category. If I'm an agency, how do I use my creative talent to come up with solutions such as this one, across categories?
Amélie> As Kate Raworth says, ‘Waste is a resource in the wrong place’. That’s a great example! Do you have any actionable takeaways or advice for the LBB audience?
Rob> Educate yourself. Notice this next wave of disruption that's coming down the track. And give yourself the skills and confidence to be ready for that net zero world.
Jonathan> If there is something that is on your heart you feel a bit scared to say, or to ask that question you've been concerned about, the guarantee is, somebody else is thinking or feeling exactly the same. You must be able to express, to put into words what you're feeling because others will be feeling it too.
Lisa> This is the biggest creative challenge of the decade. I think people can get excited about this because we're an industry of creative problem solvers. So, actually, there's an opportunity for people to come together and imagine something different. There's been maybe a shortage of imagination of late - it's very much kind of, you know, doing what's immediately in front of you. So it’s exciting that you can imagine something different, and to repurpose all those good creative resources that were in the wrong place!