Why working with fossil fuel companies is ‘choosing revenue over ethics and integrity’
Havas Media controversially won Shell’s account last month, a decision that has led to swift condemnation from climate activists, who have pushed for Havas to lose its B Corp status. Meanwhile, Havas Red, Havas Media’s sister PR agency, lost the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative as a client as a result.
Within the industry, reaction has been mixed as agency employees reckon with the ethics of supporting businesses that are directly contributing to the rapidly accelerating climate crisis.
On the latest episode of The Media Leader Podcast, Scope3’s co-founder and COO Anne Coghlan and The Responsible Marketing Agency’s founder and CEO Hannah Mirza criticised Havas for winning and taking the account. They also discussed the morality of working to advertise for clients that are contributing to the climate crisis, and whether individuals working at agencies can and should refuse to work on such accounts.
Listen to the clip, or read a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity, below.
Ella Sagar: Havas won the global media buying account for Shell, and it did prompt some backlash from climate protestors and also reportedly the loss of a client from another of its agencies. I wonder what you guys think about agencies working with fossil fuel clients.
And, I mean from what I see of their advertising, it is around a lot of their investment in renewable energy. When does that stray into greenwashing? Because obviously it’s important to be investing in that, but there’s still the other things as well.
Hannah Mirza: Havas must have been comfortable to lose their B Corp status because they had been a B Corp company and to be a B Corp company you can’t work with fossil fuel clients. So they’ve obviously stepped back from that.
I think they’ve chosen revenue over ethics and integrity, unfortunately.
It’s a tricky one. I know people who work in that sector and they work in sustainability and they say, I want to make the change from the inside. I know people who feel that that’s the only way these companies will change, by having that drive to work with them and influence them and drive strategy from a sustainability perspective.
But I think the challenge with the advertising of a company like Shell is that [renewables are a] micro portion of the entire business, but you only really get exposed to the positive messaging they want to put out, in a business that is under pressure.
I think the challenge is, it’s all well and good to have eyes on the oil industry, but every other industry is using shipping and freight and transport and various other things, and so we are a bit naive, I think, to think that they’re the only ones. If you look into plastics — it’s formed from petrol — and how many businesses are using plastics? There’s lots of issues there, and I think [Shell] is the easy one to say they’re the problem. That’s the tricky piece of it.
But it was a very controversial pitch, so the outcome of a global move, because it’s moved from a WPP agency over, I think is quite significant. It’s not going to be the only one. I think there’s other oil companies that will be observing what happened and wondering, Will I just renew where I am and keep it out of the spotlight?
Anne Coghlan: Yeah and the spotlight especially during climate week in New York, where Clean Creatives published their annual list to employees of various advertising agencies about the [fossil fuel] companies [they work with].
For me, it’s interesting what you were saying about people that work from the inside and try to make those changes, because I know many people that work at agencies that don’t want to work on those accounts. I wonder if over time as you see more and more people, especially in Gen Z, coming into the workforce and working in ad agencies, how [agencies] will be eventually, ultimately staffing those accounts.
HM: Yeah, good luck to Havas finding all the people to work on it. I think that’s gonna be a real challenge for them, because they will have some resistance of finding people willing to work in that sector, unfortunately. They may have to pay above the odds to get the people, and that comes down to a person’s ethical choices about what they will and won’t work on. I think it’s, as you say, younger generations that are being more selective on that.
ES: I wonder, as a new account exec or media buyer going into that organisation, how much control you would have over what accounts you work on. And how much you can say, No I’m not comfortable with that. I would hope that that would be respected, but that does sound kind of optimistic.
But I do think you’re right, if it’s a whole swathe of people that don’t want to work on that account.
It’s a good point you make, Hannah, that there’s other brands that are dependent on oil, but also other brands that use other damaging materials and have also got pretty dire emissions statements, if they do [even] disclose them. So if you can pick what to work on, how do you know what’s right?
HM: Yeah, it’s really tricky. I’ve definitely had times in my career where I’ve declined to work on certain clients and been lucky enough to have managers that supported those decisions, but I understand some people have to earn a living, and that’s their only choice.
It’s going to be really tricky and I hope they find the people that are the positive agitators and use that opportunity to really, as best as possible because it’s a behemoth, influence more change and more sustainability and more renewables from companies like that.
It’s a very conversational piece of business to work on these days.
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