Advertising World, Why Are We Not Embedding Climate Change Discussions Into Our Boardrooms and Campaigns?

Because, honestly, a lot of these issues fall on the shoulders of big brands

Silhouettes over a table depicting climate change of ice breaking away and melting
We're living in a time where discussions around global warming need to be happening at every meeting.
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Every year, our University of Oregon ad program brings 100-plus creatives, strategists, managers and producers to New York for Creative Week. It’s a remarkable front row seat to trends of the industry. While visiting agencies, production houses and awards shows, we get a snapshot of industry trends and professional realities that few get the chance to experience.

This year was no different. We heard about the decrease of AOR and the move in-house for many brands. We saw the increased need for diversity and the reality that some places talk about that need but do not act upon it. We witnessed the continued rise of small, entrepreneurial agencies that move quickly to do work of merit.

But what we didn’t hear concerns me more than implications of these more obvious trends. What we didn’t hear was anything about climate responsibility, the most serious issue of our time.

Policymakers point to climate issues at the core of food scarcity, national security crises, health concerns, social justice inequities, ecosystem collapse, loss of homes and land and extreme weather events. Climate scientists show data that prove we citizens of the world have a decade to slow carbon emissions and put the brakes on global warming. We can do this by engaging humanity in resilience and adaptation.

The advertising industry can’t hide from the fact that we played a role in this climate crisis.

Let me admit my own struggle about having 100 students fly across the country, knowing the amount of carbon output involved. We weigh the career opportunities of the trip, purchase carbon offsets, talk about New York’s impressive public transportation way of life. Though individual output pales in comparison to large scale corporate emissions, we still know everyone plays a role in climate adaptation.

Which—returning to the reality that the industry ignores climate issues—is the problem. Except for a few smart and engaged folks, this important issue is not at the forefront of concerns driving business and creative decisions in the advertising profession.

No agency we visited offered even a sigh in the area of climate discussion. There were no Creative Week rallying moments, no inspirational talks. Awards shows did nothing to rally the troops.

Last September, Advertising Week and Climate Week in New York were back-to-back in some random matchup of the calendar gods. There was no overlap. No discussions or bridges about what brands and creative people might do.

Our reality as a profession is this: the great creative revolution of the ‘60s, the development of strategy through planning in the ‘80s and the onslaught of technology into the 2000s all helped to build consumerism. The advertising industry can’t hide from the fact that we played a role in this climate crisis.

A recent study by the Climate Accountability Institute shows that 100 companies have been the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Those companies include fossil fuel corporations that support transportation, manufacturing and distribution of products. The network of consumerism.

And so it begs the question: What matters?

We as a profession of idea makers, producers, strategists and educators must create a movement to address climate in an urgent fashion. We as individuals need to find our place in this movement. We need to understand climate science and embrace the work of those who do it.   We need to guide brands and clients to messages and actions that show bravery. We need to think of climate urgency as an ethical and moral responsibility, not an opportunity for pro bono work. We need to build energy within our systems—process, leadership, production, education—and embed climate responsibility into each. We need to talk and vote and rally. We need to do those actions that matter.

The brilliant strategy and beautiful craft made to engage consumers to buy cars and lifestyle are desperately needed to inform, engage and develop action about climate issues. Admittedly, this isn’t easy. Changing systems and mindset takes dedication beyond an obligation.

If you want role models, here are the few leaders beginning to emerge:

  • John Marshall, senior client advisor and strategist at Lippincott in New York, who formed Potential Energy last year, a clutch of 17 agencies dedicated to climate strategies.
  • In London, the Comms Lab led by strategist Jonathan Wise will hold the first Climate Crisis Summit on June 25, gathering agencies to address climate action. Already, 50 advertising leaders in the city have signed a statement of support.
  • Our own University of Oregon masters in brand responsibility explores the complex arena of building brands to do good as they do well.

Climate responsibility should now be a topic in classrooms, stakeholder meetings, client pitches, advertising industry celebrations and trade publications. Truth is, it will be individuals who push this agenda, not agencies or organizations. We the people need to work.

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