Publicis buys sustainability firm Salter Baxter: what it means for advertising
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Advertising is a dirty word. That's how many in the sustainability world see it, at least. Sustainability professionals want to save the world; advertisers want to flog you cars and gum. The two seem worlds apart.
Yet global advertising and public relations firm Publicis announced today that it has acquired SalterBaxter, the London-based specialist sustainability consultancy. So are the two worlds converging or are we witnessing an awkward marriage in the offing?
The official version is, of course, upbeat. For its part, Publicis says the deal will enable it to meet the growing demand among its global client base for strategic sustainability services. As the relative minnow in the piece, SalterBaxter gets the opportunity to operate at a genuinely global scale (Paris-based Publicis works in 108 countries).
A compelling commercial logic certainly underpins the deal. Whatever your opinion of advertisers, you have to credit them for one thing: they excel at spotting trends. And, right now, there are few trendier topics in the business world than sustainability. Publicis' study of 8,000 young people found that 67% 'millennials' expect business to get involved in societal issues. A similar proportion wants it to be easier to identify which companies are "doing good".
"Sustainability is at the heart of business strategies and value creation for companies today and that was not the case even a couple of years ago", says Pascal Beucler, chief strategy officer at MCL Group, a strategic communications firm owned by Publicis.
Can the industry's big players deliver on this surging demand? No, not really. Although Publicis has a team of 150 people in its sustainability division, Beucler admits that this changing agenda requires "new skills that you don't find in the advertising industry".
The evidence bears that out all to keenly. With a few notable exceptions (Innocent's recent Chain for Good campaign), the advertising industry has made a hash of embracing sustainability. All too often, brands are left looking 'do goody' or disingenuous. The result is a general sense of corporate greenwashing and, as a consequence, an increasingly disengaged and distrusting public.
As with Publicis, the industry's big players have in-house expertise. Saatchi & Saatchi has its sustainability-focused Saatchi and Saatchi S division, while OgilvyEarth and Grayling Future Planet perform similar roles for their eponymous agencies.
Welcome though such teams are, their influence on the mainstream services of their employers tends to be "extremely limited", according to Brendan May, chairman of sustainability advisory firm Robertsbridge and former managing director of Weber Shandwick's in-house sustainability practice. "There are some great individuals working within these organisations, but they tend to be lone wolves or sole traders", he notes.
The proof is in ad agencies' client lists. One moment, they are shouting about the green benefits of an organic food brand. Next, they are championing companies guilty of wilful pollution. "That's simply not a credible position to hold", May argues.
Yet the field of corporate communications in general – be it advertising, marketing, public relations, government affairs, the whole gamut – is far too important for sustainability advocates to dismiss. Brands are arguably the most powerful influencers in the world today. And they have it in them to awaken the world to cultural taboos or excite the public to become agents of change. It's a crying shame more don't.
Buying in specialist expertise, as with Publicis' acquisition of SalterBaxter, could see that begin to change. So too could the hiring of individual subject experts. Although avertising and PR firms need to find convincing arguments to woo sustainability professionals.
If the WPPs, Omnicoms and Interpublics of this world are to ever really get up to speed with sustainability, they need to use the sustainability experts they have. Tucking them away in a fringe sustainability unit is useless. They must be there from the very first brand development meeting to the execution of an ad campaign.
"We're not communications specialists, but we understand what real authenticity and genuine sustainability looks like, and our more astute colleagues call on that expertise", says Mike Tuffrey, co-founder of responsible business consultancy Corporate Citizenship, which was acquired by UK marketing services firm Chime Communications in 2007.
The final and most important step is to turn their gaze inward. As May argues: "What ad agencies and PR firms are not doing is exactly what their corporate clients are doing: that's to say, rethinking their business models in light of sustainability."
Do that and they might well stumble on some insights that are genuinely worth sharing. If advertising is to stop being a dirty word, it needs to clean up its act. It must become more sustainable itself – not just flog more sustainability.
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(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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