Until three years ago, PR and advertising agency manager Marian Ventura was more than happy to work on projects for oil and gas companies.
“I felt like I was pushing for change from the inside, working together to improve their transparency and accountability,” says the founder of Done!, which is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
She says that in Latin America the fossil fuel industry is considered “prestigious”. “They sponsor every sustainability event or award in the region, and of course they are the ‘best clients to have, for their big budgets.’
Then in 2019, Mrs. Ventura’s feelings began to change when she decided to certify her business as a so-called “B Corp” organization. This is a global certification scheme where companies aim to meet the best possible social and environmental standards.
“As a B corporation, we know that in order to fulfill our business purpose, we cannot close our eyes to these questions: Who am I selling to? What am I selling? Will I be proud of what I’m selling in 10 years? ,” says Ms. Ventura.
As a result, she began to reduce her oil customers, but in 2021 she went a step further.
Last year she decided that Ferdig! would become one of the now 350 advertising and PR firms that have joined a movement called Clean Creatives. Joining the movement means pledging to refuse future work for fossil fuel companies or their trade associations.
“We dropped at least four active clients related to oil and gas, and turned down a dozen RFPs, which actually keep coming in,” Ventura says.
She adds that her decision has drawn criticism. “People with whom we have stronger relationships told me that they do not agree with our position, because they believe that oil and gas are irreplaceable resources for society, and they assure that it can be developed in a responsible way.”
The United Nations (UN) recognizes that the burning of fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – “is by far the biggest contributor to climate change”. It says that they account for “almost 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions”.
Speaking on the subject in April, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “some government and business leaders say one thing but do another”. He added: “High-emitting governments and companies are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames.”
Meanwhile, a report this year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that “corporate advertising and branding strategies may also seek to deflect corporate responsibility”. The study went on to ask whether stricter advertising regulation was necessary.
Duncan Meisel, director of US-based Clean Creatives, says he sees a shift happening. “We know there are agencies that are not taking the pledge that have told us privately that they are no longer pitching fossil fuel clients. That’s a step forward.”
He adds: “The fossil fuel industry uses advertising agencies and PR agencies to make it harder for governments to hold them accountable. And ads are misleading and make companies appear more committed to climate action than they really are.”
However, some advertising firms continue with fossil fuel clients, such as the UK’s WPP, whose subsidiaries have worked with the likes of BP, Shell and Exxon Mobile.
“Our customers have an important role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy, and how they communicate their actions must be accurate,” says a WPP spokesman. “We apply strict standards to the content we produce for our clients, and seek to fairly represent their environmental commitments and investments.
“We will not take on any client, or work, that aims to frustrate the policies required by the Paris Agreement [on climate change].”
Meanwhile, the world’s largest PR firm Edelman was criticized at the end of last year for its work for fossil fuel companies. Their clients have included American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and also Exxon Mobile.
The US headquarters then conducted a 60-day review of its climate strategy, and CEO Richard Edelman said in a blog post in January that it may have to “part ways” with customers not committed to net zero emissions.
Edelman declined to provide a subsequent comment to BBC News for this article.
The industry organization for oil and gas, Offshore Energies UK (OEUK), says it is wrong to criticize PR and advertising firms that work with the energy sector.
“Pressuring agencies to avoid working with companies involved in oil and gas is counterproductive to combating climate change, since they are also the ones with the decades of energy expertise developing and rolling out cleaner technologies that are needed,” says OEUK Director of External relations, Jenny Stanning.
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A spokesperson for the Advertising Association says they do not believe the fossil fuel industry should be banned from advertising, “but we recognize the right of individual companies to decide who they do and do not work with”.
“Accuracy and honesty in all advertising is essential,” he adds. “This is an area closely regulated by both the CMA [Competition and Markets Authority] and ASA [Advertising Standards Authority]which expects advertisers to be able to show evidence for all claims they make about the environmental impact of the products and services they offer.
“We believe in freedom of expression, and Clean Creatives exercises that right. Our end goals are the same, i.e. net zero, but we believe a more nuanced approach is necessary.”
Solitaire Townsend, head of UK advertising agency and PR firm Futurra, gave up working with oil and gas clients around 15 years ago.
She says that more and more companies in her industry must follow suit – if they want to attract the best employees.
“A lot of agencies will get to the point where they have to make the decision whether they’re going to be able to recruit the best,” says Townsend. “The young do not want to work with oil and gas [clients].”