The Drum | ‘I Hope The Client Doesn’t Find Out We Came’: The Cannes Sustainability Paradox

The Drum’s team in the south of France quiz top marketers and agency leaders on the week’s hot topics. Today, we explore whether brands should continue talking up their sustainability efforts at Cannes Lions.

From the Palais to the beaches to the villas, in Cannes, there is always a panel of people perched on stools putting brand at the center of the climate discourse. It’s a cauldron where the best and the worst of marketers mix. That should be a volatile mix, but it’s been calm. Calmer than usual.

One anonymous chief executive of a creative agency told me: ”I hope the client doesn’t find out we came here to talk on sustainability – we’d be in trouble.” On the one hand, coming to the center of global advertising and sharing learnings can be useful. On the other, agencies are aware of the optics.

Meanwhile, protest groups have always been on the periphery of the event, trying to also shame the world’s biggest brands into action.

In 2022, Greenpeace stormed WPP’s beach in a fossil fuel client protest, Gustav Martner intervened in the opening ceremony and activists scaled the city’s central locations. In 2019, it was Extinction Rebellion that interrupted proceedings, simply urging agencies to start to ’tell the truth’. Now in 2023, there’s definitely a bit more truth in the mix.

The festival itself has made some concessions. For the first time, entrants were encouraged to provide information about their CO2 emissions in line with Ad Net Zero’s guidance. The data was not compulsory and wasn’t used as part of the judging process. One creative believes he could see a scenario in the future when this data will sway awards decisions. Another asks: ”Why not now?”

One agency CEO relaxes and says something they dare not say out loud. ”If sustainability is being talked about less by CEOs and CMOs this year, then I can’t help but think that’s a good thing.” They explained that promises have been made and now they need to get their heads down and do the real work “before they start talking about it”.

Meanwhile, on the record, Unilever’s Conny Braams talks about balancing sustainability investments with profit, very much a huge concern at the FMCG giant: “It’s an ongoing debate all the time. Sustainability is truly engrained in our business and it’s not one thing one department does.

”Because we’ve got a history, it’s in our DNA, and we’ve got the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, people are convinced it’s not a cost but that the business case for it works. It drives growth. We’ve seen 60% of our brands that are seen to be contributing positively to society are growing a lot faster.”

The real picture isn’t quite as rosy as painted here.

”At times it’s an additional cost. But also more often a saving. If we take our food waste out of factories, it’s a saving. But what’s more important is that we’re in business not for short-term growth but long-term resilience and that’s what sustainability builds.”

Thomas Kolster, an author and authority on sustainability who is advising major brands here this week, tells The Drum there are two fronts drawing up. One is the ‘long-term, we shouldn’t just be thinking one, two, three years ahead; we know what we need to shift, we have a plan and we stick to the plan’.

“It’s really encouraging to see the brands actually following through and not cutting down on sustainability because that would be the fear I had at the beginning of the year.

”The back side is that there are brands who are abandoning the ship. And I think this is a very short-term strategy, but of course, they are feeling the shift in consumption patterns: people are maybe not really choosing that fair trade chicken, or they might not be following through in buying organic or they might not be going ahead with that beautiful FSC-labeled table for the terrace. And they start to do something short-sighted – change suppliers, limit the number of goods to deliver the shift we need.

”So I’m encouraged with the people who stick with their guns and stick with the strategy, and some of them are present here at Cannes. And to the rest of them, I’d say it’s a bit like pissing in your pants – it’s going to sting at some point.”

As many marketers say, sustainable brands need to grow to drive their agenda. With the onslaught of green-themed marketing over the last few years, a great many consumers are now on the hunt for greenwashers – as are regulators.

At least one activist feels drained, however, after a week of seeing the commerce train trundle ever onward. William Skeaping, an adman who was involved in the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests explained.

”Even fossil fuel promoter Richard Edelman (of all people) explained at Cannes that consumer demand for sustainable brands is growing fast, so it’s basic business resilience to replace dissenting board members and leaders with forward thinkers who are fit for purpose. You don’t have to do this alone: team up with other employees and brands to demand meaningful commitments and hold all leadership to account, before business as usual wipes out your career and business altogether.”

Next year we’ll all reconvene and likely ask the very same questions once again.

Yesterday we gauged why brands are considering a retraction from LGBTQ+ advocacy.

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