Anti-fossil fuel industry group Clean Creatives has released its 2023 F-List, which highlights 500 contracts with fossil fuel companies across 294 advertising and PR agencies between 2022 and 2023.
According to the annual report, holding companies held 140 contracts with fossil fuel companies and independent agencies had another 360 contracts across 45 countries.
“Starting in 2022, there were very clear warnings from scientific authorities about the role of fossil fuel advertising and PR,” said Duncan Meisel, executive director at Clean Creatives, on the choice to limit the list to contracts from the past two years. “We thought it was important to highlight the agencies that were seeing and hearing those warnings and ignoring them.”
In January 2022, over 450 climate change scientists signed an open letter urging advertising and PR agencies to drop their fossil fuel clients, noting the challenge they face of “overcoming advertising and PR efforts by fossil fuel companies that seek to obfuscate or downplay our data and the risks posed by the climate crisis.”
This year’s F-List found three holding companies have a combined 119 active or recent contracts with fossil fuel companies: WPP (55), Omnicom (39) and IPG (25).
A spokesperson for IPG provided the following statement: "A small number of IPG agencies create marketing for carbon-intensive companies that have been clients for some time. 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."
WPP and Omnicom did not reply to requests for comment.
Though agencies do not often publicize their partnerships with fossil fuel companies, Clean Creatives found they usually weren’t as shy about posting the resulting campaigns on social media or submitting them for awards. Nayantara Dutta, Clean Creatives research director, said she was able to confirm many of the active or recent contracts via social media channels as well as employee portfolios and production studio credits.
Timed to coincide with the Climate Week event in New York, Clean Creatives also released an out-of-home (OOH) campaign using imagery of an orange New York skyline that resembles whenCanadian wildfire smoke made outdoor air unbreathable in the city June 2023.
Why take on the ad industry?
In an address to the general assembly in September 2022, United Nations security general Antonio Guterres called out the role of communications and marketing agencies in the climate crisis., “We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account. That includes the banks, private equity, asset managers and other financial institutions that continue to invest and underwrite carbon pollution.”
Meisel added this industry wields some power over the fossil fuel giants, which aren’t going to change on their own.
“In some ways, the ad industry has the most leverage because they have a service that the fossil fuel companies absolutely need,” he said. Communications is “the real source of their power and of their ability to obstruct.”
Communications on behalf of fossil fuel companies, created by agencies, have the ability to sway public opinion. “The only way to influence them is to say that you aren’t going to work with them anymore,” said Meisel. “Until they can't access the public and decision makers, they have no reason to change—and that's the role that this industry provides to them.”
Each time Clean Creatives launches a new F-List—now in its third iteration—Meisel said he notices the industry slightly improving. For example, after the 2022 F-List was released, Forsman & Bodenfors, VaynerMedia, Media.Monks and GSD&M noted they no longer worked with fossil fuel companies, though only Forsman & Bodenfors signed Clean Creatives’ pledge.
Clean Creatives sees the choice not to work with fossil fuel companies as first and foremost an effort to become a sustainable business in the long-term. As more and more companies across industries place more importance on sustainability, they may choose not to partner with agencies working with fossil fuel clients.
“On some level, they will have to face a choice: Which of these clients is more important to us, which of these priorities actually matter?” said Meisel. “It's a relatively easy choice and hopefully that will become more salient as time goes by.”
“There's no creativity on a dead planet at the end of the day,” he added.
Clean Creatives’ OOH campaign speaks directly to employees from Edelman, McCann, Ogilvy and Publicis Groupe, which the group noted work with fossil fuel clients Shell, Equinor, BP and TotalEnergies, respectively. Each agency’s logo is set against unedited photos of the dystopian New York skyline during the worst of the air pollution caused by Canadian wildfire smoke this summer.
An Edelman spokesperson noted that the company has " incorporated our climate principles into our client acceptance process, discontinued work with some clients and turned down new opportunities that did not meet our standards."
"We have instituted a client acceptance process that is informed by our climate principles," they said. "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.”
An open letter urges employees to educate themselves and internally raise their voices against working with fossil fuel clients.
Dutta said the OOH campaign’s directive was to “invite employees and creatives to know who they're working for and understand what's happening in the industry.”
“Many people who are just working on one or two clients may not actually know who else their company is working for,” she added.
Clean Creatives hopes that by clearly providing this information to employees, they will be spurred to action. “This is not something that aligns with the values of people in the creative industry,” said Meisel.
He added he is seeing change and it has been a result of “professionals inside these companies talking about why they don't think this is aligned with their values or the best interests of the business.”
Employee sentiment is a valuable point of entry, as Campaign US’ 2023 Salary Survey found 84% of employees in the industry value feeling their work has a positive impact on society. Two-thirds (65.5%) of respondents value their company’s commitment to sustainability and 64.5% value their company’s willingness to take a stand on social issues.