There is a tension at the heart of events like the Purpose Disruptors Earth Day Advertising Summit. As co-founder Jonathan Wise said at the opening of the summit full of advertising and marketing professionals this Tuesday at London’s Tate Modern, “The job that we do is making our climate emergency worse.”
It’s a tension that helps Purpose Disruptors define what they are driving for. As a group embedded in the ad industry, its goal is to answer that problem, setting out appropriate ambitions for the industry in the face of the climate crisis.
Turning to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Jonathan reminded the audience that to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees the IPCC says we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change.” What does that mean for advertising? He suggested: “Disrupting and changing the entire purpose of the industry from an industry in service of driving unsustainable consumption, to an industry in service of the thriving future for all.”
The History of Climate Action in Advertising
To take some of the sting out of that daunting mission, Jonathan reminded the room how far we’ve come. In 2019, Extinction Rebellion turned its fire on the advertising industry in a public letter, encouraging it to use its expertise in manipulating public opinion for good or risk mass public protests against it. In its provocative tone, it wrote: “You didn’t think we’d forget about you?”
Jonathan, who’d worked as a strategist in agencies since 1999, saw the industry’s response as “tepid” and “weak”. Purpose Disruptors realised it needed to make the industry respond. The community, only a few months old, stepped up its events from meetings in pubs to the first Climate Crisis Summit in June 2019.
Since that summit, the industry’s response has been more tangible. Initiatives born from that day include Ad Net Zero, the IPA Media Climate Charter and Purpose Disruptors’ own Advertised Emissions and ChangeTheBrief Alliance. Four years on there are dozens of groups in the UK ad industry alone putting together commitments, tools and frameworks to help the ad industry change. When the next summit comes around in 2027, he invited us to imagine how much more progress will have been made.
The crisis is more urgent than ever. We have missed our chances to keep global warming down, Jonathan underlined. Humanity is now way off the required reduction according to the IPCC’s reports. “It will take the creation of a different story to get us down the curve,” he said. And for the advertising industry, that must be more than encouraging people to “buy the green option.” As a word of warning, he said the industry must “beware of those that advocate climate change that seek to maintain the status quo.”
“Advertising drives consumption and consumption drives emissions,” he laid out, hitting the audience with the reality that “the better we do our jobs, the more damage we cause.” He went on to stress the gravity of the question we’re facing: “Do we as an industry have the strength of character to recognise that we are a massive part of the problem?”
To give this question context, he referred to the Berkana Institute’s ‘Two Loops’ model, which tries to capture how systems change or paradigms shifts can happen at the level of whole societies. It shows the curves of the old system dying and the new system rising to replace it. The ad industry contains people who can hold many roles in this transition, from helping the old paradigm to die quietly, to protecting those who are shepherding in the new or connecting the people who can help each other to build it.
Brian Eno and Jon Alexander’s Visions of a Citizen Future
After Jonathan’s introductory speech, the day’s second session turned to a creative legend to offer inspiration from outside the world of advertising: Brian Eno, who’s worked on 40 albums over his musical life, as a founding member of Roxy Music, soloist in many genres including ambient – the genre he practically invented – and collaborator with other icons including David Bowie and the Talking Heads. He was joined on stage in conversation with Jon Alexander, author and consultant who helps organisations involve people as citizens, not consumers or subjects. He wrote ‘Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us’ with a foreword by Brian Eno. They were hosted by Lisa Merrick Lawless, one of Purpose Disruptors’ other co-founders.
Brian began by outlining, as he sees it, the ways that people are responding to their knowledge of the climate emergency. Firstly, with panic, and a sense of “use it all up while you can” – a sentiment that he noted is oddly being expressed both by the apathetic youth and by billionaires. Secondly, there are people responding with the realisation that “we’re in a revolution and we can take part in it. And it could actually be fun.”
Jon sees people’s responses in the three ways he outlines in his book: as either subjects, consumers or citizens. And while he originally drew up his theory thinking that the way humans saw themselves progressed neatly in that order throughout history, he said that right now “I think all three are in play”. The panic that Brian mentioned is lending promise to the ‘subject story’ as he put it, as authoritarian forces look to exert power through the chaos. Meanwhile, it’s also “turbocharged consumerism”, as Brian alluded to, leading to the idea that we need to make the most of the world while it’s still habitable. But there is a citizen’s future emerging too, he noted.
The current level of climate activism is profoundly inspiring to Brian, who called it, “possibly the biggest movement in social history.” Noting that while the “media radar is always about what’s wrong,” people are organising in ways like Purpose Disruptors are, in communities, industries and countries around the globe. The world is “on the cusp of seeing a huge revolution take place,” said the father of ambient music, noting that while the scale of the change is huge, “a lot of it has already taken place in our minds.”
The revolution of imagination was a theme that repeatedly figured in the day’s debates. Modelling a vision of the future, co-founder Lisa noted. And this is why artists and creatives in general are important. Art allows us to “try on” new stories, said Brian (“Here’s another way things could be. What do you feel about it?”). People need to be able to judge their actions against various outcomes of the climate crisis, which is something the advertising industry, as a mass communications discipline, could do well to see as one of its primary roles.
What can advertising do about it? Brian observed that while there are more brains and therefore more creativity in the world, there is also more distraction too. His mission for the ad industry then is “to shepherd our attention successfully”. Advertising deals with “manipulating attention,” he observed. The decision is “What do we want that attention for?”
Jon answered that with: “We don’t know and that’s OK” Or at least we don’t have the full answer imagined quite yet. He invited the audience to consider the concept of ‘safe uncertainty’ – “Not knowing together is definitely OK” because taking agency is collective, not individual.
He did note there are some obvious things the industry can do. Not advertising fossil fuels, for a start.
Brian is encouraged that he feels most people know what’s wrong now. “I think we’re headed for catastrophe,” he said. But “we will have some choices about the kind of catastrophe we have.”
Imagining a Good Life in 2030
Lisa remained on stage to tell the story of Purpose Disruptors’ ‘Good Life 2030’ campaign, which highlights visions, imagination and creativity and the role they can play in creating the future that we need. Future is in the mind first, she said, reiterating a central theme again. More connection to each other and to nature is a key theme from ‘Citizen’s Visions’, a report for which people from the ‘middle of the UK’ were interviewed – people who are aware of the climate emergency but are not “totally on the bus” – about hat ‘a good life’ really looks like in 2030.
The morning was broken up with a chance for the summit attendees to remember they were at the Tate Modern by enjoying the Good Life 2030 Exhibition of the Future - which features a further 22 ‘Ads for the Future’. 200 entries were submitted from individuals via a coalition of creative partners, including purpose-driven social app WeAre8, creative network Creatives for Climate and Bournemouth and Falmouth Universities. Submission highlights include a poster which jumps ahead in time to an exhibition held in June 2712, an artwork which celebrates the power of community and connection, an emotive thank-you note from the perspective of the year 2030 and a reinterpretation of Matisse’s ‘The Dance’.
After reflecting on that, guests were invited to collaborate to help build a manifesto for the future of our industry, which will be published in the coming months.
Climate Colleges, Reimagining Futures and Nature on the Board
‘Building the future we want through action today’ was the theme of the morning’s final panel session, which included Alexandra Pimor, founder of SoaNoia and director of nature governance at the Earth Law Center, Laura Dexter, group brand capabilities specialist for BT and Owen Sheers, poet, playwright, author and professor in creativity at Swansea University.
Hosted by the third Purpose Disruptor co-founder Rob McFaul, the discussion kicked off with reflections on the exhibition from each panel member, which largely revolved around the visions of the future and systemic change that they allow us to imagine. As Owen noted, the NHS came into being in less than two years and right up until the last minute there were loud voices warning it would be a disaster. Suddenly it became a normal part of the UK system.
Owen has used his narrative talents to depict the ecological crisis, but said that the most radical action he’s taken is co-founding the world’s first “climate college”, Black Mountains College, to rethink higher education for the revolution we need to stop the crisis. He noted that what we value in education says a lot about our values as a society. “We need to move towards an ecologically focused society where ecological cost is the first question in every individual choice, every business choice and every governmental choice,” he said.
Laura found a small detail of the exhibition very moving – a card that reminded her how many microbes are in the human gut and, consequently, how each of us is part of nature. She also found the potential futures presented for brands in the Good Life 2030 exhibition inspiring, such as a Shell service station for electric vehicles, completely powered by renewable energy. Which she noted was “totally achievable” for any of the brands it reimagined.
BT Group had science based targets on its footprint since 2008, she said, but said it was “far removed” from the day-to-day action in brands’ marcomms when she joined. Then in 2021 one of the group’s brands made an ad that required it to lease two aeroplanes, at the same time as the company was proudly promoting that its network was powered by 100% renewable energy. By the time pointed criticism from leadership got through, the investment in the campaign had gone too far to stop it. At that point, Laura realised that the company needed help to live up to its promises. This led to working with Purpose Disruptors and the ChangeTheBrief Alliance and learning how to educate people across the group on sustainability.
For Alexandra, the exhibition was overwhelming and with all the people to have conversations with as well as all the reading involved, she found it difficult to know where to direct her attention – a useful analogy for anyone educating themselves in the climate. It’s key to understand the importance of knowing where to direct your attention.
For her, that journey came during the covid-19 pandemic, when she found herself “thinking about what I want to experience in this lifetime”. Having built a successful career lecturing in law, she made the decision to be a parent full time. Life didn’t feel meaningful anymore, she said. In 2022 she left academia to set up a business, SoaNoia, whose mission is to collaborate with and offer assistance, support, coaching and guidance to people, communities and organisations whose goal is to embed humanity as part of an ethical solution in the co-creation and care of a sustainable living world.
“Sustainability isn’t high enough up the agenda in the corporate world,” said Laura. There’s too much time pressure. She also noted the perception of sustainability as a single issue that needs a particular team to focus on it. Instead, she feels responsibility and knowledge should be shared. She advised anyone who wants to change the business they’re in to find sensible people, share what they’ve learned and get them on board. That’s how she’s been able to get various stakeholders at BT Group on board with her mission.
As a storyteller, Owen reminded the ad industry audience again of their power. “I genuinely feel that you as a group of people have the potential to have more of a positive impact on my children's lives than most audiences who I speak to, because it's all about culture, and it's about storytelling.” That’s something he agrees with Brian Eno on, although he admitted he thought that earlier conversation was overly optimistic about people knowing how bad the problem is. People don’t know what a 1.5 degree increase in temperatures is, he said, and added that even talking about 1.5 as if it’s still possible seems detached from reality. This conversation is in echo chambers, still and not in mainstream conversation and culture. Advertising should have the power to change that.
Alexandra works in one of the most pioneering business roles when it comes to the climate. She is a ‘proxy for nature’ on the board of the beauty company Faith in Nature – the “human representative of nature as director” so explained the radical shift in corporate dynamics an act like that provokes.
We have a lot of knowledge but we need wisdom, she considered. “There is hardly any wisdom in what we do. And how we do what we need to do with the knowledge we have,” she said. Then to the ad industry: “It’s your job to tell the story of a more beautiful future.”
How to Talk About Elephants
The Earth Day Advertising Summit’s afternoon took the morning’s inspiration and empowered the guests to find ways to take action for the climate. Jonathan Wise kicked off by introducing ‘How to Talk About Elephants’ – reminding everyone of the elephant in the room when talking about advertising and the climate, referring to the IPCC graph of global temperature saying: “The better we do our jobs, the more damage we cause.”
‘How to Talk About Elephants’ is a set of five ‘gentle disruptions’ to help people in our industry make a big change:
From ‘provide answers’ to ‘ask questions’
From ‘always doing’ to ‘invite being’
From ‘be competitive’ to ‘build community’
From ‘fit the hierarchy’ to ‘practise democracy’
From ‘leader as hero’ to ‘leader as host’
The next panel was dedicated to hearing from people who are putting these tools into action at their companies.
Jeremy Mathieu, head of sustainability at UK broadcaster ITV doesn’t provide answers, but continually asks a ‘north star’ question of his colleagues: “How do we transform the business so it can exist in a zero-carbon economy?” That’s more inviting, open ended and more exciting than telling people in the company how they need to change their practices, he reflected.
Lucy Usher, UK sustainability lead at Oliver looked back to her start at the agency, when AdNetZero had been committed to and not put into practice yet. She remembers storming into her role being a ‘hero’ style leader. She quickly recognised that she needed to create space to host. Finding tools like ChangeTheBrief allowed her colleagues to hear sustainability action from people who weren’t her, then encouraging teams to discuss the subject among themselves rather than listening to a lecture got people more invested in it and gave them a chance to find their own reasons to be involved. Simply asking “what’s advertising’s role in the climate crisis?” can be a north star, especially when applied to briefs and discussed as a group.
Caroline Davison, interim CEO at Elvis admitted that she had in the past been ‘leader as hero’, but on sustainability she realised that “we were all doomed if they were relying on me”. In a similar style to Lucy, she once asked everyone in the agency to read a piece by Laura Costello and come to a session where she just asked what they thought about it.
She spoke about the value she’d found in community rather than competition. Having met Iris’ global chief strategy officer Ben Essen (nominally a competitor) at a Purpose Disruptors event, both realised that there was valuable thinking to be done around ‘eco effectiveness’
. With different experiences, they found they had more value to bring to the subject together: “More brains, more resources, and therefore more impact out the end,” she said, adding that if there’s no one where you work to discuss climate action with, there are places to find allies in the broader industry.
Laura Costello, strategy director, purpose and planet at THINKHOUSE began her professional climate action by going to ‘therapy chats’ with people in the Irish industry, discussing the problems the industry faced in transforming itself and sharing frustrations. This led her to set up Purpose Disruptors Ireland to create a forum for these conversations in Dublin. And it snowballed. Sustainability experts and government figures eventually started arriving and expressing amazement that the ad industry is talking about this. The latest moment Purpose Disruptors are involved with the Irish government to advise on how policy should be developed. Building community creates change, Laura asserted.
‘Inviting being’ has been part of Laura’s process at THINKHOUSE too. She notes that creating spaces for silence is sometimes welcome, as well as bringing art and poetry in for inspiration, rather than ensuring that all time is focused on making tangible progress.
Shifting the Purpose of Advertising
The remainder of the summit was spent quietly reflecting and then discussing in groups how each audience member can put the five gentle disruptions into action wherever they feel they can make an impact.
Finally, Laura Costello created a space that invited being by reading this letter by Nick Cave about love
, because ultimately fighting for humanity’s future on this planet is a powerful act of love, she said. It absolutely floored most of the audience, emotionally.
In her summing up of the day, Purpose Disruptors’ Lisa Merrick Lawless reflected on the future the advertising industry needs to imagine, promote and build. She finished on the imperative that to do so, we must “completely shift the purpose of the industry.”