Fine-tune your media, marketing and technology strategies at the Convergent TV Summit on October 25 with expert insights and strategies from the pros. Register now to save 35% on your pass.
Even as climate change becomes more devastatingly apparent—and Big Oil’s role in it increasingly irrefutable—major polluters like Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron and Saudi Aramco still have the world’s biggest advertising and public relations firms in their corner.
Industry activist group Clean Creatives today released its third annual F-List, which names 294 agencies that worked for fossil fuel companies in 2022 and 2023. It identified those relationships through public disclosures, lobbying reports, agency websites, awards submissions, portfolio sites and LinkedIn.
The F-List is “proof that we still have a problem that needs to be solved,” said Nayantara Dutta, researcher for Clean Creatives and author of the report. “Despite all of the carbon targets and net zero pledges, the advertising and marketing industry still promotes fossil fuel polluters.”
Building fossil-free momentum
Founded in 2020 as a campaign of Fossil Free Media, Clean Creatives aims to cut fossil fuel companies off from the talent and expertise of the advertising and PR industry.
It argues that given Big Oil’s track record of involving its ad and PR partners in its efforts to hide critical science from the public, lie about its impact on climate, and intentionally sow disinformation related to global warming, agencies that care about climate would do well to stay away.
So far, over 700 agencies, 1,900 individual creatives and 55 creators have signed Clean Creatives’ pledge to turn down work for fossil fuel companies, trade associations or front groups.
As the group was researching this year’s F-List, it noticed several changes. First, agencies were removing webpages highlighting their work for fossil fuel clients. Second, that work for carbon-intensive clients is migrating from big agencies to smaller, boutique, regional shops.
“Both of those trends are just a sign of the stigma increasing,” said Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives. “[Working for fossil fuel clients is] less palatable, less exciting, less interesting to young creatives. And so you kind of have to hide it.”
The report demonstrates progress toward its goal in some areas. VaynerMedia and Media.Monks split with all fossil fuel clients after they were named in the 2021 and 2022 F-List reports.
But there are major sticking points in others. The six major ad agency holding companies, for example, have at least a few fossil fuel clients, while others have dozens. Clean Creatives did not find any fossil fuel contracts associated with Stagwell agencies.
The world’s largest PR firm, Edelman, despite reportedly cutting ties with clients like Exxon and Standard Bank, continues to work for Shell and TotalEnergies, both of which have rolled back climate commitments in the past year.
“We have instituted a client acceptance process that is informed by our climate principles,” an Edelman spokesperson shared the following via email. “All staff underwent—and new joiners must take—a mandatory climate training program, developed in conjunction with Columbia University’s Climate School, to immerse themselves in the science of climate change and our approach. Our board-level climate and sustainability committee reviews our progress quarterly and we are also advised by an Independent Council of Climate Experts.”
Holding company holdouts
WPP had 55 fossil fuel contracts identified by Clean Creatives, the most of the six major ad agency holding companies. Omnicom had 39 contracts, the report said, while IPG had 25 and Publicis had 11. Havas and Dentsu each had five fossil fuel contracts, according to the report.
“A small number of IPG agencies create marketing for carbon-intensive companies that have been clients for some time,” explained Tom Cunningham, svp of global communications at IPG. “In 2022, we began to proactively review the climate impacts of prospective clients that operate in the oil, energy and utility sectors before accepting new work. Since that time and as a result of that policy, we have, on multiple occasions, turned down potential new business opportunities.”
“We approach companies on a case-by-case basis, as no two clients are the same, and some companies are on a longer transformation journey than others,” said Danika Gregg, global sustainability communications lead at Dentsu. “We are committed to partnering with all clients who share our values and are committed to tackling the challenges within their business, and helping them to accelerate their progress.”
“We are invested in supporting all companies in their communications provided that they are actively engaged in a transformation journey,” Havas said in a statement. “We launched a mandatory training program for all our employees on ways to detect and avoid greenwashing, prioritize low-carbon impact campaigns and understand the impact of their work on consumer behavior.”
While it’s clear that holding companies’ relationships with Big Oil run deep, the campaign has made waves within the industry in a relatively short period of time, and that could lead to pressure from more powerful forces.
“A huge number of people outside of the industry hadn’t heard of any of these holding companies [prior to Clean Creatives’ campaign],” said Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainability-focused agency Futerra. “A lot of activists now have.”
This article has been updated to include comment from Havas.