Thursday, 13 June 2024
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Thursday, 13 June 2024

Why NGOs should start asking their agencies about who else they work with

By Harriet Kingaby

As an expert invested in ethical advertising practices, I often find myself navigating the complex landscape of agency-client relationships with a critical lens. Shedding light on the ethical responsibilities of NGOs in their partnerships with advertising agencies is, in my view, a topic that needs a closer look…

A recent report by Planet Tracker, titled ‘From ADversity to Advantage’ discusses the influence of investors in advertising holding companies and their connection to environmental sustainability. It includes tables detailing the top investors in five publicly listed advertising holding companies, providing insights into the ownership structures of these firms.

It mentions the Influencer Programme which aims to connect the environmental footprint of advertising holding companies’ clients to their investors. It argues that investors should be aware of the environmental impact of the companies they invest in, particularly regarding advertising campaigns for unsustainable products or activities.

The report underscores a glaring truth: while advertising agencies often claim to prioritise environmental awareness, their actions tell a different story. The report highlights a concerning trend of these agencies continuing to create campaigns for clients whose business activities wreak havoc on the planet. It’s a sobering revelation that demands our attention.

Most businesses carefully consider the partners they choose to work with, and yet when it comes to advertising, some are inadvertently choosing partners who are not working for their cause, but with other clients, they’re actually working against it. The report clearly shows that many advertising agencies are working for fossil fuel or high-carbon clients and those investors consider this financial risk. Would your donors be happy knowing their money was indirectly financing advertising agencies that were also working for fossil fuel companies?

NGOs, despite their limited budgets, wield considerable influence through their collaborations with advertising agencies. We must recognise the power we hold and leverage it to foster change. It’s not just about aligning with organisations that share our values; it’s about actively challenging those that undermine them. It’s important to ask: who else do you work with? Can we be sure that people on our team aren’t working on clients directly opposed to our values? Do our organisations have the same ethos? NGOs have huge power to lead and shape these conversations.

At a recent United Nations speech Maher Nasser said:

“Polluters need storytellers. But storytellers do not need polluters”. This powerful statement encapsulates our struggle against complicity during the environmental crisis. It’s a call to action for holding companies and advertising agencies, urging them to sever ties with fossil fuel interests and embrace a more sustainable narrative.

ACT Climate Labs, in partnership with NGO collaborators and BCorp agency Media Bounty, has demonstrated the effectiveness of rethinking climate communication strategies through the lens of combating misinformation. NGOs can learn valuable lessons from such initiatives. To build trust with the public, people must understand what NGO organisations do, why they do it, and how it benefits them.

They should consider helping their grantees invest in diverse media approaches and seek assistance from advertising BCorps to enhance their communication efforts. By doing so, their work will become more effective, highlighting the positive impact of philanthropy and fostering greater public trust.

By aligning our actions with our values and challenging the status quo, we can pave the way for a more ethical and sustainable future. By holding ourselves and our collaborators accountable for the impact of our actions, initiating dialogue and demanding transparency from agency partners, NGOs can drive meaningful change.

It’s time for NGOs to use their consumer power. Ask your advertising agency what clients they have who could be working against climate or human rights. Consider asking this question of all agencies that pitch for you, and selecting those who don’t have unethical clients. The more we ask, the more the advertising industry will question its commitments.

Harriet Kingaby is the Head of ACT Climate Labs. For more information, please visit:


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