On Tuesday 27 September Vero, in association with PRovoke Media and PRCA APAC, hosted a panel discussion to talk about the Clean Creatives pledge and their upcoming campaign in Southeast Asia.
Here is that discussion:
Arun: Thanks for joining us. Today we are going to be speaking about the Clean Creatives pledge which calls on agencies and creatives to decline future contracts with fossil fuel brands and calls on clients to decline work with agencies that retain fossil fuel industry clients. So far more than 1000 agencies and 400 creatives have signed the pledge, and we’re going to talk about the pledge coming to APAC where Vero has become the first Southeast Asian agency to sign the pledge.
This session comes from PRCA APAC, in conjunction with Clean Creatives and PRovoke Media.
And it comes as PR industry work for fossil fuel companies is attracted attention – the US general assembly, Antonio Guterres, UN secretary criticizes fossil fuel brands for raking in billions, “shielding the fossil fuel in from scrutiny just as they did for tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation,” he says.
The week before that the US federal legislators ramped up their probe into PR firm’s relationships with big oil companies through a congressional hearing, that investigated the industry’s role in spreading deceptive information. And Clean Creatives have launched a poster campaign in New York directly calling out PR agencies.
This is a culmination of the work Clean Creatives has been creating over the last couple of years.
Let me introduce the panel:
Duncan Meisel, Executive Director of Clean Creatives, Rachel Cheang, Divestment Organizer for Students For A Fossil Free Future, Raphael Lachkar, Chief Operating Officer at Vero, Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse, VP of Brand and Culture at Vero and Anish Daryani, Founder and President Director at M&C Saatchi Indonesia.
Arun: Duncan, tell us a little more about Clean Creatives, how it came into being, and what it’s looking to accomplish specifically in APAC.
Duncan: Thank you very much to all. Really great to be part of the conversation. Clean Creatives was started based on my experience as a campaigner for climate action. My experience of working at climate NGOs was that any time we tried to do something good, a big PR company would come in and do something bad. This really hindered our role to do things like make the Paris climate agreement stronger or advance climate legislation in the states – which is mostly where I worked.
And we began this project because we realized that in part. With young people in the creative and comms industry, their values are not in step with fossil fuel companies. There are many thousands of young people who play a vital role in growing the communications industries and they see their future as on the line with climate action, and we thought if we brought those people together to have a conversation about the reality of the role that fossil fuels have in climate change, that we would be able to move the PR industry towards pivoting to work for climate change rather than against it.
Somewhere between 75 – 90% of global carbon pollution comes from fossil fuels. At the same time every year, there are 7 million people who die prematurely because of pollution from fossil fuels. And every single year, fossil fuel companies’ big oil, coal, and gas companies tell investors, they tell bankers, they tell regulators that they are going to dig up and burn more fossil fuels. They have announced this as their business plan, and we think that is not a responsible way to conduct business practice. And that essentially PR agencies and advertising agencies should not align themselves with companies that are causing the climate emergency. This has relevance in APAC for two big reasons in my mind.
It’s an area with a lot of growing fossil fuel consumption right now. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of coal; China is the world’s largest coal consumer. Country wise there’s an enormous amount of capital flowing in and out to support fossil fuel development. At the same time, it’s one of the most climate-vulnerable parts of the world. Jakarta is hugely vulnerable, it’s one of the most climate-vulnerable big cities in the world, and it could result in the displacement of 10 million people. Right now, there are 12 million children in Bangladesh displaced because of flooding and this impact is going to get worse. That is essentially the thing that we are trying to stop, and we think that the companies that we’re talking about are responsible for those impacts and it’s not the right thing to do to work with them.
Ultimately our take is that this is the most effective way to impact the plans of fossil fuel companies. If you take steps to limit their access to talent and creativity until their business plans align with science and align with the things that scientists are asking us to do, they are more likely to align their business plans with those priorities. So that’s our approach to this issue.
Arun: Thanks Duncan, Rachel if you don’t mind, I’d like to come to you next, because I’d like to hear the perspective that you represent – a coalition of Singaporean universities that are calling on companies to ensure a fossil-free future.
How do you feel about the clean creatives campaign coming to Asia pacific?
Rachel: Thanks, Arun. Essentially the student coalition has been calling on our universities to end their current partnerships with these industries and to diversify their investment in the fossil fuel industry. The CC has been gaining traction in North America, and Australia, and the role of PR agencies have been coming under increasing scrutiny. So, we are happy to see this emerging in Southeast Asia, be it in a very different political and economic climate. But hopefully bring about greater accountability measures when it comes to environmental things, as ESG and the field are growing. I believe we can be a leader in making sure it’s done well and right.
Arun: I’ll come to Vero next. Obviously, Vero has signed the pledge, why do you think agencies should sign this pledge? And how difficult was it for Vero? Did you have to give up any existing clients?
Raphael: I should highlight that we were fortunate enough to be able to take the pledge. We’re an independent agency, we’re an employee-owned company, and we could make that decision seamlessly. We were not overly dependent on fossil fuel budgets, we receive opportunities, and we still do even after taking the pledge, but it was not a difficult business decision to decide not to engage with them anymore, as a matter of fact, we were not engaging with these companies already. We took the pledge because we could. And we see this to put the agency on track toward a more sustainable corporate practice in Southeast Asia. We know how important it is for the region. I live in Ho Chi Minh City, which will be underwater by 2030, with the rising levels of the sea, so we know how important that is. It’s also something that also ties to our role as an employer, that there is a growing expectation from people in SEA to veer away from fossil fuel. Some studies show that more than ever today, inhabitants across the region understand that there needs to be a shift away. Why we thought taking the pledge was important was that it’s the best way today, to show that we are on the right side of the agenda and that the work that we do doesn’t contribute to maintaining a status quo that is affecting the planet and going against the sustainability agenda that can affect climate change. And it makes it clear how we want to engage with companies in general. What I find very compelling about the Clean Creatives pledge is that it’s very straight forward and for that reason, it is very compelling.
Arun: And what was the response like within Vero? From your staff, were there any specific questions that came up from them?
Raphael: It was two-fold. We looked at our brand engagement just before signing. Potential clients or brands we might have to let go so we had to do some due diligence. We are a very horizontal structure; people get to choose in general who they work with or have done work with. There was a lot of conversation about why we might have to let go of certain clients. On the other hand, when interviewing new employees, it’s also something that comes up. And we know that when discussing with our people, is that it’s very important to them. What I find very compelling about the pledge is that it’s very simple. Our team knows exactly how it works, it’s very straightforward day to day, and it’s very clear what we are doing. In general, the reaction has been very positive.
Arun: Ok, good. Anish, let me come to you next. How do you see the situation in terms of agencies taking the pledge? Do you think it’s that simple? Or is there more involved here?
Anish: Let me talk about M&C Saatchi and myself. Earlier this year M&C Saatchi set up a business called M&C Saatchi Lights, which is basically aimed at enabling clients to achieve sustainable goals and brands the agency internally towards a net 0 commitment, which we want to achieve over the next 3 years. That’s at a group level. On a local level, I’m proud that we’re one of the few agencies in the region that has won a Cannes Lion in the sustainable development goals space. And we do a lot of work proactively and pro bono when it comes to sustainability. I’m personally a member of the Indonesia Indo foundation and we have done campaigns where we’ve brought a million people onto the streets, not to party or have fun but to pick up trash from the streets, from the rivers, from the hills, and mountains of the country. We’ve done campaigns that prevent child marriage in Indonesia, which is another aspect of sustainable social structure and we’ve done voluntary work for a local writer and reader festival to promote the adoption of reading so that people are more aware of social issues and how they can do something about it. So, that’s my background. But when it comes to the idea of supporting a cause where agencies should stop supporting brands that have their origins in fossil fuels, I beg to differ.
The reason for this is that we’re not really solving anything by signing this pledge, by saying that agencies should stop working with fossil fuel brands. If you look at it, they were at the bottom of the chain of the value system. If we direct the same energy towards engineering and mining companies to stop searching for sources of fossil fuels moving forward, we’d be directing our energies in a way where the problem starts, rather than where the problem ends. Largely, as professionals, we owe it to our clients to solve problems when they come to us. It’s like saying doctors shouldn’t be treating people who work in fossil fuel or lawyers should pack up their cases because they shouldn’t be supportive. I think we live in more and more of an inclusive environment and this is an aspect of inclusion that we also need to acknowledge and accept. I’m glad there is a Clean Creatives pledge, and that someone is doing something about it, but I do believe there are better ways to approach the problem.
Arun: Great, thanks Anish. Duncan, let me come to you, to respond to Anish’s point, that agencies shouldn’t necessarily be shunning fossil fuel companies? Partly because they are not quite as influential as we think they are but also because of this notion that everyone deserves representation.
Duncan: I think our basic position is that companies that are announcing to investors that they want to destroy the one planet that supports life don’t deserve representation. There’s a line that should be drawn when you’re dealing with an issue with this level of gravity, and it is simply a different case from other issues where there are different boundaries you can draw.
You know agencies make decisions every day on what they’re going to pitch for and what they’re not, and we’re just encouraging agencies to add this to their criteria because there is a level of urgency – you know a literal emergency. You have to figure out where you have the most leverage, so if it’s a situation where you’re at the end of the food chain then maybe the best thing to say is ‘I can’t make any ask for you to change, but you’re still willing to pay for my services, perhaps the leverage you have is to walk away, at least until you can share that you have a different plan that’s not going to support the destruction of 10’s of millions of lives. I love this campaign because I’ve connected with so many incredibly talented people and I do believe this is an industry full of people who can change the world for the better, and I think you do that by developing clear boundaries, and I think this is the right boundary to draw.
Arun: Thanks, Duncan. Curious to get Vero’s view on Anish’s point that companies are all deserving of representation. When you talk about doctors and lawyers, they are required by law to represent client – doctors take an oath, and everyone is guaranteed, legal counsel.
So, this doesn’t really apply to the PR industry. Raphael and Vu-Quan, as an agency do you feel it’s ok for you to exclude certain clients from representation and how do you decide?
Vu Quan: We just need to be conscious in our industry. In PR and comms, we are influential because the data shows it. The budgets that fossil fuel companies put into our practices are huge, it’s literally billions of dollars. That’s influence. Taking that money is influence or refusing to take that money is influence. So, to that end, if we do have an impact on the question and how to change things, then we are led to believe. That’s one element, the second element is that the people who work for us, and with us are professionals but also citizens and they’re moving towards a belief and awareness that there is an emergency at hand and the reason that we moved forward with this pledge was that there is an urgent need to respond to the climate emergency and raise awareness so that professionals can voice their concern and impact how we as an industry operate with fossil fuel industries.
Raphael: First Anish, I do agree with you that there is a lot more that could be done. What I do believe though is that taking the pledge is a part of that process. With regards to whether everyone deserves council in PR, I think it really depends on what the brief is; what is the agenda when fossil fuel companies come to PR companies, and unfortunately, the brief very rarely if ever – helps us change our business practices so we can be more sustainable. The brief – or the subtext – help us maintain a reputation and an influence on policymakers for long enough so we can maximize profits until we disappear because unfortunately for them, they are going to disappear from the role they are playing in economies. And the numbers prove that. There’s a report from Influence Map, an NGO based in the UK that looks at monitoring the climate agenda, and they show that 60% of the budget from fossil fuel companies goes into communication on sustainability, tied to positioning them and detailing their actions on sustainability – at least that’s what they brand as such – and only 12% go into actual sustainable energy production, development R&D and distribution, so there’s a huge dichotomy on the amount of time spent talking and branding their overall operations as being good corporate actors’ sustainable agenda vs. The number of resources that are put on the ground to ensure that they become sustainable corporate actors. This is a very straightforward way of looking at what is the brief. Is the brief about protecting reputation or initiating change in an organization? And unfortunately for the planet, it’s more of the former than the latter.
Arun: If you look at the public relations industry in general, it wouldn’t be much of an industry if it only worked with clients who had unblemished reputations. The whole idea behind PR is to work with co to try and improve their behavior and to try and do that in line with the expectations of various stakeholder groups, but the issue here is that what you often hear from PR firms is that they are working on the 5% of the energy companies’ biz that is devoted to net 0, renewables, etc., but is that providing cover for the other 95%, effectively undermining the good work they are doing?
Duncan: Yeah, it’s very interesting when you see a lot of fossil fuel ads in PR, sometimes it often seems that they aren’t quite selling anything in particular. You know you might see Ramco at the F1 races or something like that it’s the general idea of sustainability. They’re not saying we’re really excited for you to buy more oil, or gasoline is great – it’s energy, its concepts, and feelings, it’s abstract from their business practices. It’s not like a Burger King advert where there are pictures of burgers, and they say we would like you to buy hamburgers. And the reason that is the case is that most of the ultimate purpose of these campaigns is to limit the political room for governments to regulate fossil fuel products and consumption. The target is influential decision-makers, so there’s not as much room for climate action, and that rides on reputation. And the reputation of your company being responsible or irresponsible has a great deal to do with whether the government nationally, or internationally is willing to regulate your business. So, in my opinion, and Vu-Quan brought this up when he was talking about how money is spent, and it’s often spent in sync with discussions on when legislation is being considered, that’s when PR activity begins to occur, that’s a pattern that is meant to disrupt the meaningful steps taken by the government to stop the climate emergency. That’s my takeaway from the 5% problem. There’s a very specific agenda I’m kind and that agenda can be harmful to the global action that we need to take.
Anish: I think by going against clients and brands who have origins in fossil fuels, we are sort of closing our eyes in terms of the opportunities that lie there, we are making them the cause of the problem, rather than making them part of the solution. And there’s a big opportunity in making them part of the solution. You spoke about hamburgers Duncan, livestock – all the meat that we love to eat. All the beef, steaks, etc. are the largest contributor to methane, I don’t have the stats, but it contributes 3x more CO2 than automobiles and vehicles, etc. By that logic, Clean Creatives should ask everyone to go vegan as well, because they are perhaps a bigger contributor. The second aspect is behavior change, instead of working against the brand, we should work with the people – carpooling, flights when you need to, etc. Where we can truly make a difference, and I genuinely care about sustainability and I do a lot of work pro-bono, can we bring in governments? Can we bring in regulators to work with fossil fuels and manufacturing companies to devote more of their time and resources and budget towards sustainable options or having a net zero carbon output? A lot of the companies are already doing that, I work with them, but some companies do it as lip service and make them accountable. This is what Greenpeace is doing every day, and yes make them accountable and make them deliver on their promise. And make it mandatory for these companies to have their carbon emissions on their products and advertising. – this is how much harm we cause the planet. And let the consumers decide if they feel they do enough to offset their carbon footprint. A lot of us feel the pain that the planet is going through, you know bringing kids into a world where we can offer a safe enough future. So, everyone will care in terms of buying into brands that are genuinely doing enough. And the reason that care comes into being, is that we as consumers as users are as much a part of the problem as the creators because we’re the ones who consume, right? We’re not going to stop using our cars or planes or bikes, starting today. And even if we had options like electric vehicles. How do they work? The dark side of how EV batteries are made is another problem, and we must use fossil fuels to recharge our EV batteries. Not sustainable energy. Which is a new debate within itself. We must solve the problem at its root and not just at the surface.
Duncan: I’m a vegan, I don’t eat meat. I haven’t for many years. And I still do this work because I see the fossil fuel economy as being at the center of the climate problem, I think people should eat less meat, but the scientific reality is agriculture in general, not just meat is about 12% of global carbon emissions, so the reality is it’s a relatively small part of the climate puzzle and its one that we have a lot of influence on. And we do have options, renewable energy is some of the cheapest in the world – you can get it from the sun. And the question of the new economy and the impact that’s going to have on the planet is significant and it’s going to involve some difficult choices. Ultimately when we build that clean energy structure it will have 1/100th of the impact that fossil fuels have every single day.
When it comes to the pledge, we’re trying to be as specific as we can about the kinds of companies that we want agencies to avoid working with and those are companies that are spending more than half of their existing budget on fossil fuel expansion while receiving more than half of their profits from burning fossil fuels or you’re a utility or industries or organizations that support them.
Really what we’re asking is for agencies to draw a very firm line about companies putting their money where their mouth is, and that their statements align with their budgets.
Arun: I’m keen to get your perspective here Rachel, given the coalition you represent, how important is this kind of a pledge in terms of the company’s appeal as an employer? Also, as a consumer?
Rachel: Thanks, everyone. I’m going to pick up on some conversations and hopefully offer a different perspective. I do agree with Vu-Quan about not undermining the role of creatives and the creative industry in tackling climate change. As a young person, I see climate change as the most significant creative challenge of our lives, good creative work generates attention, and if there’s anything the climate crisis needs its good attention from the younger generations. And the creative industry recognizes that they have the individual and collective power to change things, we are responsible and accountable.
I want to pick up on what Anish said, because when we released our report that’s what we got a lot of – you know ‘do these kids bike to school,’ ‘how dare you eat meat?’ What’s often missing from climate discourse is the nuances of power. The idea of a carbon footprint was created by the fossil fuel industry as a distraction from the sheer scale of carbon emissions they were putting in our atmosphere, and are we fixated on creating a sense of moral purity or are we going to be courageous and say that we’re going to take every action that we can to move the needle towards acting against it. A different perspective I can offer is to just be a bit more critical about the role of the PR industry as a stakeholder and historically perpetuating climate change. The PR industry has historically downplayed the role of climate change, promoting industry-favorite solutions as a perfect cause of action even to the extent of promoting climate denial as an action. It has been a long-overlooked influence in climate policy and politics. When you think about policies and regulations, they do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect attitudes and beliefs that the PR industry has a huge power to shape.
When I think about PR, I think about the word relations, and I think about the word relationship. And what it really comes down to is trust, A recent study released by Eco-Business in September this year, found that 60% of communications by big oil majors were green claims, and only 12% of their investments were really going to renewables so I think that brings up the question, do they want to be part of the solution? But as a consumer, when I’m reading otherwise, I’m questioning do they really want to be part of the solution, and do we trust the fossil fuel industry will use the power that they have to change the status quo and lead the way.
Anish: I agree with what Rachel said and say I’m not going to do any greenwashing, but I want to work with you towards building a more sustainable practice, so we do what’s good for the environment, for our kids for the world than help you sugarcoat reality. But we will never be able to do this if we refuse to work with them. It’s even more reason we should work with them, and if they refuse to listen to us, then that’s a reason to walk away. I would see it as a clash of ideologies, but I wouldn’t be able to have that conversation or intervene and make a difference if I refuse flat out.
Arun’: Very clearly counsel first, and maybe cancel later. Question from the floor – isn’t the big question here that a lot of agencies are willing to refuse work from fossil fuel clients, because they can make a lot of money from them and charge high fees and keep people employed and all those reasons, under economic development. For Vero, I expect it was a much easier decision because you didn’t have any big fossil fuel industries to let go, but for big agencies, it’s a much bigger decision. Is it basically impossible for agencies to take the pledge because of this?
Vu-Quan: From a cultural perspective, the campaign that we’re taking with Clean Creatives and professionals is about education, I think. There is research showing that in Asia, the leniency towards the climate crisis emergency, the fact that it’s being downplayed, is quite true and what we’re doing right now is trying to reverse that. When we do that, I believe that the professionals do have an impact now on how their employer’s work. More and more there’s talent competition. Since COVID we’ve heard about all the cultural issues in many industries, including ours, which is one with high turnover, where people might want to leave or quit, or go independent or move to another life altogether, because they’re anxious about COVID and now climate change. So, education is at the core of what is happening now in Asia. And with that, we might get to a point where decision makers – agency side and client side, might be able to have the discussion that Anish is mentioning, which is maybe we should move faster now, and we should listen to each other, but as long as our peers are not yet equipped to voice this and to say ‘I am committed to not doing work with this industry’ or ‘I want to put pressure on this industry to change now radically because it’s urgent,’ once we have these people ready to do this, the culture will dramatically shift. It’s just a matter of time before the Asian market and our peers become educated about the question and start putting pressure on the industry.
Raphael: I think the question is really about what the cost benefits are to taking the pledge. There is and will always be a benefit to how the workforce looks at employers and this should drive bigger corporate employers to take a stand on the issue, but I also think there should be incentives or benefits in commercial discussions with other brands as well. We’re receiving briefs from large international companies that are not fossil fuel companies, they could be FMCG, or tech and they brand themselves as being very active in the sustainability debate, those briefs don’t account for our position as a supplier and whether we’re doing good or bad in terms of sustainability agenda. and it should become a factor, there should be a benefit in taking that pledge from a commercial perspective. That should be an incentive. On a broader level, we know complete bans actual work, not partial bans. Complete bans. We know from other industries such as the tobacco industry, that when you put a complete ban on advertising or engaging with brands through PR, people stop smoking and it does work, and there should be more engagement with policymakers, who are making drastic decisions to help us tackle the issue more broadly.
Arun: Ok let’s take some more questions from the floor. “Duncan, I agree that it’s time for agencies to take a stand and use their power, but there will always be agencies who want to work with that industry, how do you account for that?”
Duncan: Yeah, this is a good question, and it was the first question we asked ourselves when we thought this was something worth trying. And yeah, there will always be someone who takes the money. The question is, is that the A team or the C team. Are those the people who are the most effective communicators out there? All creatives put themselves out there because they believe they have something unique to contribute. Skills or perspective and if you believe that’s true that’s what you’re putting in your pitches or deck and if that’s true for you then you should not be offering your unique contribution to companies that are doing great harm. It may be that someone takes the money, but is that the person that’s the most prestigious and most innovative? Do they have the best talent?
With the pledge, we can limit fossil fuel companies access to the best talent. That’s our perspective.
Arun: Do you assess prospective clients if they have been involved with fossil fuels or unsustainable practices?
Anish: Coming from first principles, my beliefs, and what the organization believes at a global level, of course, we’re concerned, we’d like to know, and we probably believe that we should intervene and council. As much as we have a business to run and mouths to feed, I can put a pledge out to say that I won’t greenwash ever, but I don’t want to ostracize an entire industry.
Raphael: Yes, we do due diligence, but we also ask. We’re very transparent about the fact we’ve taken the pledge. Whenever there is a new business relationship, we highlight that we’ve made the pledge and how the position within that.
Arun: Question for Rachel: I see education as a solution that addresses some of the concerns about inertia and power dynamics that the PR industry has served historically, how can the industry and professionals shape education?
Rachel: I really think that creative professionals do have a role to play in advocating for more accessible design education, not just why we create but how and why we create, what is the ethos of change behind campaigns in the world. Dialogues like this are a great start and I hope more conversations like this happen in school, where communications professionals are trying to cite and have their own views and opinions, understanding where their values lie and how they want to act.
More broadly when we talk about education too it’s about the framing of problems. When it comes to climate change, and when we look at how problems are framed specially in this context, we see that powerful institutions tend to frame problems for creatives to solve in a way that invisibilizes structural inequality. So, I would like to see the industry push the needle on that. For PR to acknowledge the systems of power that have given rise to climate change, acknowledging that the responsibility of climate change is not equal, that we have a role in exposing that and educating people in that and understanding that other social issues are interconnected. I think the youth of our time are becoming more environmentally aware and conscious of their power to hold industries accountable and that different firms will talk to individuals differently. I’m very grateful to agencies like Vero for taking on this leadership, there will always be space for youth to make their own decisions when stepping into the field and finding somewhere that aligns with their values.
Arun: Ok I’m afraid we are out of time. This is a shame because there are still many questions coming in, and I still have questions I want to ask. We had an interesting conversation, its clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe we need a second or third session even.
Thank you to our wonderful panel today.
The Clean Creatives pledge is open for any agency or individual to take. So, if you’re concerned about climate change and want to use your talent to do good, sign up here.