How to succeed in advertising without really dying
Clean Creatives, Santigold, and Sarah attempts a TikTok
A few weeks ago I interviewed the excellent Duncan Meisel, director of the group Clean Creatives. They work to remove the social licence of fossil fuel companies by getting creative agencies to pledge not to take these baddies on as clients. It’s as simple as it is about friggin’ time.
I wanted to speak to Duncan to learn more because the playing (oil) field has shifted so much since my days as a creative director, when there were very few agencies that could actively offer up anything resembling a client code of ethics. Just as cold brew on tap is now a must-have for attracting the best talent, I hope that pledging to advertise no evil will become table stakes in the coming years if you want good people on the payroll.
It’s still far too hard to find agencies that align with your values, and it’s thanks to the work of Clean Creatives that there are now many more options for good agency work, even as this is only the best byproduct of their overarching goal of ridding the world of crap fossil fuel advertising. That’s redundant. It's implicit that fossil fuel advertising is crap. Even when it’s good.
How did Clean Creatives get started?
We were looking at the 2020 election, at all these ads from the American Petroleum Institute talking about fossil fuels. We were going to figure out who made them and make those people feel really bad about themselves. But when we dug deeper, we found the agency was here in Austin. That turned on a light bulb for me because that agency employs young, smart people here, and I know their values are not the same as Exxon’s.
Shortly after this, Jamie [Henn, Clean Creatives co-founder] came across an ad by Philip Morris. It was so bad I thought it was a joke, it was made of stock footage, not compelling! And I realized that when companies don’t have access to the same creativity that they’re used to, they have fewer resources to persuade the public.
We launched Clean Creatives in late 2020 and it’s been really successful. We’ve had 350+ organizations that have signed the pledge, and it’s gaining momentum.
Empathy and strategy
It’s hard to run an agency. Not everything you’re going to take is going to be what you're really interested in. The question is, are you going to do the worst things for the worst people?
Let’s look at the people doing the most damage by doing the most misleading advertisement. If we can deal with them, then it’s much easier to deal with everything else, because there’s so much less disinfo.
The goal is to get pretty much everyone to recognize this is a social and business risk. Someone’s going to take the money. The question is, are those going to be the best people? If you believe you’re the best, you should not be providing the resources to these people doing the worst damage.
The cost of doing business with fossil fuel companies is rising
Agencies are letting contracts lapse. Because the risk is high. If you’re involved with making ads for Exxon, there are a dozen different lawsuits or regulator actions. If you’re making ads for them, your communications will be part of those legal inquiries. You have to think about the reputational issues. Are you going to have more news stories written about you? The question we ask is, what happens if you don’t stop working with fossil fuel companies? This will become something that no agency will be able to ignore. The CEO of every major holding company has had to answer questions.
The business case for getting rid of fossil fuel clients now
Everybody has their line. Everybody passes up or takes jobs. But the Paris Climate Agreement is to have fossil fuels decrease by 50% by 2030. Do you really want to be building an agency around clients that are going to be half as big?
What can people do?
The real thing we want to see happen now is for brands to speak up. If you are a company that has sustainability goals, you should be asking your agency to be as clean as you are. If you are a green company working with an agency that has fossil fuel clients, your creativity is going into the pitch decks for those fossil fuel companies.
That last bit is so obvious and yet I’d never even thought of it. Just hiring an agency that also does work for Big Oil means you are, in effect, legitimizing oil when your own creative finds its way into said agency’s marketing. Thank you so much, Duncan!
Do you work for an agency? Can you get them to sign the Clean Creatives pledge? Do you hire agencies? Can you tell them you won’t work with them if they work with fossil fuels? Of course you can. You’re you!
This is all so important because fossil fuel propaganda is so much more pervasive than even the most savvy among us realize. Climate-denying astroturfing groups spring up campaigns left and right, pretending to be lefties to advance the worst kind of garbage. The wonderful Emily Atkin unpacks their prevalence and how this garbage pushes public opinion. This defunct-ish IG of hers also catalogued the widespread sponsorship of journalism by oil.
Even as journalism ad revenues crumbles, we must urge publications to just say no to fossil fuel dollars, as the Ads Not Fit For Print campaign does. While it sometimes takes decades upon decades for a bad industry to lose its social licence (tobacco), in other cases the tide can turn faster (Bitcoin). Big Oil has our planet on the edge of collapse and deserves the swiftest loss of social licence imaginable. That’s a spot I’d watch.
Talk to me about fossil fuel advertising.
Joy and delight will make it all right.
Meg shared this lovely comment and I may have started crying at my desk.
Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. I really needed your post today to give me permission to focus on that which brings me joy and delight.
After a 40-year career as a Florida landscape architect, I’m done working for affluent property owners who are annoyed at the inconvenience and delays with their landscape projects, indifferent to the statewide impact of Hurricane Ian, which includes the wholesale nurseries that supply plants for their projects.
So today I chose to seek more joy and delight in my work. I resigned from a design project with a substantial fee. The clients aren't interested in lowering their carbon footprint, no matter what modest phased small improvements I recommended. In fact, they're going the opposite direction: more outdoor paving, more square footage. And they're impatient. It's sickening. I tried so hard, but it's simply not a project where I can even cultivate a shred of consciousness about their environmental impact, much less joy and delight.
As soon as I resigned, I felt a spark of joy creeping back into my heart. I'm FREE! from working for selfish folks who live in an artificial bubble. Now I can focus on working with people who really do care about their ecological impact, and feel joy and delight in the process of helping them.
Not to be outdone, Paul also made me start crying at my desk.
I always appreciate the dispatches, but I had forgotten that it was probably your column that inspired me to make the September 23rd Thunder Bay climate strike a Climate Disco Party. While we didn't draw bigger numbers (smaller, actually — maybe people don't like disco?), the music made the event more fun than any I can remember recently. As usual, we got local coverage, then, in a funny consequence, a few people at the EV show the next day commented that I should have worn my disco outfit! Thanks for the inspiration. We will carry on because there is no time for pessimism.
OMG, Stayin’ alive, Paul, I love this! Thank you both for these delightful doses of beauty,
• Loved this piece on electric tipping points. I once did some work with Singularity U and went a little too deeply poetic on the idea of exponentiality. Electric tipping points are a much more measured way of getting dorkily excited about nonetheless catalytic growth curves, and a pleasant counter balance to the terrifying terrestrial tipping points upon us. In Bloomberg.
• It feels like it happened a lifetime ago now, but in case you were floating in a sensory deprivation chamber, I think Peter Kalmus’ thread on the Van Gogh bean throwers is the absolute right take. I gasped. I realized there was glass on the painting. I applauded their ability to shake people into attention. All in the course of a minute. We NEED people pushing the Overton window, expanding the discourse and making the world aware of the terrible, terrible gravity of our planetary situation. I’m inspired by the bravery on display here. And grateful for the fresh space these young people have created. And now I feel like making beans on toast.
• My genius colleague Leah came up with the most brilliant metaphor for gas in the home. “Many of us are basically running mini fossil fuel plants.” Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. In Vox.
• Noahpinion unpacks the perils of per-capita emissions very thoughtfully. So much good stuff, but from a comms angle, namely: “Per capita” frames decarbonization as a sacrifice instead of an opportunity and “Per capita” makes us think about lifestyles rather than about government policy.
• Are there songs that jump at you as climate ballads even before you know what they’re about, and even as the lyrics give you no clues? My Horror by Santigold is a song about early motherhood, as tied to the current, horrorful, state of the world, including climate (she talks about it starting at 15:00 here), where she comingles upbeat beauty with sombre language. It felt like the most beautiful capturing of climate emotion, and I had to listen to it 300x before finding the courage to investigate the subject matter, for fear of it being about breakups or Cheetos.
It’s so lilting and plaintive and otherworldly beautiful, a perfect auditory reconciling of the joy and sadness of being alive right now. Santigold is interviewed in this Switched on Pop episode, in which she explores this juxtaposition so thoughtfully.
When you have these melodies that are so light and uplifting and even frilly almost and then you have these dark lyrics, I love doing that, because it really speaks to reality, nobody feels one way.
So good. And somehow restorative. The whole album is (Santi)gold.
Teddy is a good sport as Momjeans teaches herself vertical video. (#old. 16x9 landscape so much better, amiright?)
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Thanks so much for reading! Always tell me how to be better. Have a beautiful weekend!