As the number of ad agencies seeking B Corp accreditation grows, those aspiring for the stamp of approval on their socially and environmentally responsible business practices find themselves on one side of the fence in the industry’s ongoing debate over working for fossil fuel clients.
The advertising industry is increasingly divided into two camps – the B Corps and the agencies that work with fossil fuels.
It may seem a polarizing split, but the correlation between agencies that have certified to the highest standard of ESG and those that have signed the Clean Creatives pledge to refuse to work with the world’s biggest polluters is stark.
As speculation grows over which agencies will and will not be pitching for Shell’s controversial (and lucrative) media account, The Drum sat down with B-Lab to understand its process of determination on which clients agencies should avoid if they want to be granted B Corp status in the future.
The B Corp certification process is long and rigorous, as the growing number of agencies seeking certification will tell you. Taking up to two years and involving reporting across an agency’s operations and supply chain, “It’s a lot of hours, a lot of people need to get pulled in at the most senior levels, from HR to finance and it takes some commitment,” Wieden & Kennedy told The Drum when it certified back in April.
“It’s especially complicated when you’re seeking accreditation across multiple businesses. It requires a huge team effort,” says MSQ’s executive director, Ben Rudman after the global data agency certified in May.
Chris Turner, executive director of B-Labs welcomes the latest B Corps to the roster, saying companies in the advertising and marketing industry committing to the highest levels of ESG is crucial to tackling our climate emergency. “Now more than ever the UK needs business to act as a force for good. This leadership is essential – it challenges others to improve and follow suit and raises the bar of what responsible marketing, communications and advertising looks like,” he says.
With agency Futerra ensuring that 90% of its customer and project portfolio revenue is aligned with the ambition to halt global warming at 1.5 degrees celsius and ad-tech platform Good-Loop announcing the launch of a tool that helps advertisers filter out carbon-intensive publishers, to Milk & Honey PR reporting on the percentage of turnover from high carbon clients (0% in the last two to three years) – adland’s B Corps are doubtless setting a standard in the industry for more socially and environmentally responsible practices.
But accreditation is both a carrot and stick approach, as Turner explains, “Every company that becomes a B Corp makes a legal change to align the interests of people and the planet alongside profit in all decision-making. We see examples of how this manifests from B Corp agencies all the time – from implementing processes to vet the alignment of client values or intentionally seeking to work with businesses who are a force for good.”
While B Corp has never explicitly stated what clients agencies can and cannot work with, it leans heavily on the clients they ought not to. “A company’s negative impacts, including any clients it works within sensitive industries, are identified through the Disclosure Questionnaire, background checks, and the public complaints process,” Turner explains.
“B-Lab has not stipulated the exact industries that B Corps cannot work with. That being said, if a company has clients in the fossil fuels, defense, firearms, gambling, hazardous materials, pornography, prisons or tobacco industries then their eligibility for certification would be reviewed.”
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Therefore it’s unsurprising that at a time when a significant number of fossil fuel companies are dialing back on their green investments (last week Shell announced $40bn in new oil and gas investments versus $10-15 in ‘low carbon’ alternatives) and consistently being penalized for greenwashing, it’s far easier for agencies seeking B Corp accreditation – and all the market value it brings them – to choose the safest option of divestment.
The waters are muddied however when individual agencies within a network are certified but its parent company is not. For example, Havas London is certified as B Corp and has been since 2018. When news of Shell’s media review reached activists, they took to protesting outside Havas’ offices, suggesting that Havas Media Group could be in contention for the account.
However, The Drum understands that Havas is now in the process of certifying as a B Corp across the UK. This tracks, as Turner elucidates that “where a subsidiary shares a name with its parent, the subsidiary certification triggers a requirement for the parent to certify in the future.”
He adds that “As with any company looking to become a B Corp, when the parent goes for certification, if they are not meeting our standards (for example, material work with clients that operate in sensitive industries such as the fossil fuel industry), then the eligibility of the entire group for certification would be reviewed.”
If for no other reason than the suggestion that pitching for Shell might jeopardize its B Corp accreditation, we might assume that Havas is out of the running for the Big Oil account. It declined to comment on the matter.
But B Corp’s statements will bring home the reality for agencies owned by holding companies that have made their stance on working with fossil fuels clear: accreditation would be unlikely unless the parent company has plans to divest in the future.
As the civil war over adland’s relationship with fossil fuels rages on, B Corp is uniquely positioned to guide its accredited and yet-to-be-accredited agencies on the issue. The two camps of B Corps and the have-nots seem more divided than ever.