British Agency Execs Make Fighting Climate Change Part of Their Job

The Purpose Disruptors put the climate crisis front and center in their work

purpose disruptors london climate crisis
Attendees at the first-ever Climate Crisis Summit, which took place June 25 at the Royal Institution in London. Purpose Disruptors
Headshot of Minda Smiley

This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

This Friday, millions of young people will leave school for the day as part of a worldwide strike protesting inaction on climate change. The global climate strikes will occur just days before the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York.

The strikers will be joined by adults as well, some of whom hold powerful positions within the advertising industry. Their participation is in part thanks to a group of activists in the industry who call themselves the Purpose Disruptors, and are on a mission to ensure that agencies are doing their part—and using their creativity—to tackle one of the biggest issues of our time.

Helping to lead the charge is Jonathan Wise, co-founder of London-based Comms Lab, a four-year-old organization dedicated to helping agencies find purpose and make positive contributions to the world. While the Purpose Disruptors network is relatively new, it has already managed to mobilize a number of agencies in London, where the group was founded.

Its latest endeavor is Create and Strike, which encourages agencies to let their employees take time off on Sept. 20 to participate in the global strikes. Additionally, it is asking signatories to create something that “amplifies the climate emergency message” that can, in turn, be used while striking.

“Not only are we encouraging people to go out and strike, but also to use our creative talents to make something to amplify the message of the young people,” Wise said. For those who might need some inspiration, Create and Strike is hosting two workshops on Sept. 18 at the Tate Modern art museum so people can put together posters, signs and whatever else they choose to make.

So far more than 100 agency CEOs, founders and managing directors have pledged to participate in Create and Strike, including Wieden + Kennedy London CEO Neil Christie, TBWA\London CEO Sara Tate and Lucky Generals CEO Katie Lee.

While the majority are London-based, a handful of agencies from other parts of the world—including Joan Creative in New York and Pixelis in Paris—have pledged to participate as well.

Starting from scratch

Purpose Disruptors got its start last year somewhat informally. Initially, it was just a small group of execs from different agencies who met once a week at a London pub to express their concerns about climate change and brainstorm ways to act. According to Wise, week after week, more and more people were showing up.

“People just kept turning up,” he said. “These conversations are really desired.”

A turning point came earlier this year when Extinction Rebellion, an environmental activist group that uses nonviolent action to encourage governments and others in power to act on climate change, addressed the advertising industry via an open letter. The letter implored agencies to “declare a climate & ecological emergency and act accordingly.”

Wise said this spurred Purpose Disruptors to host an event that would bring the industry together to not only address the issue, but also outline what actions need to be taken to make the changes so desperately needed.

So the group organized a Climate Crisis Summit at the Royal Institution in London earlier this summer. To spread the word, Wise and other organizers wrote a letter of their own, and sent it to colleagues and friends at agencies.

“We are aware that as an industry, we have at times been complicit, knowingly or unknowingly, in exacerbating our current climate crisis through promoting unsustainable consumption on behalf of our clients,” the letter read. “Let’s tackle the biggest and most exciting brief we’ve ever been given.”

Wise said the turnout surpassed expectations, with the event selling out in 10 days.

“People came in their droves,” he said. “We’re in a moment of time where people are becoming more and more present and aware of what’s happening with the climate emergency, and they really want to help.”

Making tangible change

At the Climate Crisis Summit, attendees came up with a list of ways that the industry, particularly agencies and their clients, can begin to tackle global warming. They included: stop working on briefs from clients that aren’t committed to net-zero global emissions; stop awarding work that damages the planet; stop promoting unsustainable values and lifestyles; and stop measuring only growth and sales as metrics of success.

Since the summit, Purpose Disruptors has hosted a number of Action Studios to develop these ideas and find ways to implement them within agencies.

“There’s an awful lot of talking in advertising about things like this, and not a lot of doing,” he said. “We were really clear that we wanted to create an infrastructure so people had the opportunity to take their energy and convert it into action.”

For instance, one of the projects that came out of the summit is Change the Brief, which is being led by Marco Rimini, global chief development officer at Mindshare. According to Wise, Change the Brief asks agencies to respond to client briefs in a two-fold manner: by offering a typical solution, as well as one that’s more eco-friendly.

“Imagine you get a brief to sell more stuff at Walmart,” he explained. “As the media or creative agency, you would present two responses back to the client. The first response would be the ‘now brief,’ which is basically exactly what the clients asked for. And then you would present a response called the ‘future brief.’ The future brief would basically be a response which [encourages] the business to promote more sustainable lifestyles.”

For Purpose Disruptors, the hope is these kinds of initiatives and ideas will begin to take hold within agency walls. In the meantime, the network is still on a mission to serve as what Wise calls a “conduit” between the industry and the issue.

“We’re just creating the spaces and process for people to make something happen that allows them to feel like they’re contributing to this massive challenge that’s facing humanity,” Wise said.

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.