How the UK Ad Industry is Acting on Climate Change

Jonathan Wise
Published in
11 min readAug 23, 2019


“The desire to take part in the healing of our world seems to be just below the surface, waiting for an opportunity and outlet for expression.”

Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, from their book, Active Hope

This quote kicked off the Climate Crisis Summit at the Royal Institution in London on June 25th 2019. A group of us from across the industry were compelled to organise an event which asked How can the advertising industry help limit global warming and address climate change? We were bowled over by the response.

It has become clear that many people in advertising have a strong desire to help heal the world. They want to use their skills, smarts and professional powers to help solve the climate crisis and the Summit represented an outlet to express this.

Standing room only at the Climate Crisis Summit, June 25th 2019

Here’s how the Summit came about, what happened at the event, and what’s happened since.

If, like us, you are interested in helping solve the climate crisis, you might be considering questions like these:

· How do I find others in the industry who want to help tackle the climate crisis?

· How do we agree what to do and form supportive communities to take action?

· How can we ensure that the action we take will help to address the global climate crisis?

These were the questions we considered when designing the Summit, and this blog post will help to answer them.

To ensure you don’t miss out on future events please join our mailing list HERE. We are running a second Climate Crisis Summit on September 16th, 13.00–17.00. Tickets are available HERE.

How the Climate Crisis Summit came about:

The event was hosted by the ‘Purpose Disruptors’, founded in 2018 by a group of advertising insiders from competing agencies, united in our desire to help address the climate emergency. Our goal is to create a visible, large scale, bottom up movement within the industry that will act in solidarity to meaningfully tackle climate change.

First off, we needed to be confident that enough people in advertising would want to act.

We needed to build an evidence base, so we started with ourselves.

Purpose Disruptors members have all experienced the difficult emotions: the fear, panic, guilt and despair, that comes with understanding the science of climate change and the terrible environmental destruction we are causing. We are vividly aware that consumerism is a primary driver of this environmental catastrophe, and acknowledge that advertising is a primary driver of consumerism. We accept that what we do is part of the problem. Our desire to make amends for the damage we have caused comes out of that heightened awareness and deepened emotion. As mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, what can we do, from where we stand, to help heal the world?

As Managing Partners, Strategy Directors, Client and Partnership Leads and Leadership Programme facilitators, we are working internally and with clients to raise awareness of climate change, shift the conversation to include it and encourage action because of it.

Initially we asked ourselves, ‘Are there others like us?’. We went to the pub to find out. Purpose Disruptors started out as a monthly Tuesday night upstairs in the Crown Tavern in Clerkenwell in the summer of 2018.

An early Purpose Disruptors Pub night, at the Crown Tavern

Each month we asked a question on the invitation, such as: ‘What actions can we take to make the communications industry more purposeful and responsible?’ or ‘Brand Purpose: Can it evolve from ‘doing good’ to include ‘doing less harm’?’ Each time more people turned up. Each session started with the question: ‘Why did you come this evening?’. Common responses were “I want to work out how can I do more good in my role”, and “I want to meet like-minded people and learn from them”. These people showed a strong desire to heal the world. People like us.

In May 2019, following their high-impact shutdown of parts of London, Extinction Rebellion (XR) wrote a letter to the ad industry with the wonderfully menacing headline ‘You didn’t think we’d forget about you?’.

Extinction Rebellion letter to the industry, May 17th 2019

In the letter, XR called for the advertising industry to declare a climate and ecological emergency and act accordingly. The Purpose Disruptors witnessed poor responses in the industry press and wanted to do something useful. We weren’t in a position to represent the industry and declare a climate and ecological emergency, but from the pub nights we were learning to host events together and knew people wanted to do more good. We also knew, from our experiences from the ‘Reclaiming Agency’ leadership programme, how important and impactful it was to face in to the climate emergency, acknowledge the emotion, and decide on what action to take. We wondered if we could organise a larger event, along these lines. This could be a contribution we could make, but, given that we were virtual unknowns, how could we raise the profile of the event to ensure enough of the right people came?

We penned the following letter, inviting people to the first ever ‘Climate Crisis Summit’ and sent it to contacts and friends in the industry:

Dear Advertising,

The science is clear. We’ve only got 10 years to transform society to limit climate change to 1.5°C. This will require commitment from all sectors of society, including the advertising industry. Given that as an industry, we are unclear what actions we need to take, we’re inviting others who share our concern and desire to help to an event on June 25th.

We are aware that as an industry, we have at times been complicit, knowingly or unknowingly, in exacerbating our current climate crisis through promoting unsustainable consumption on behalf of our clients. Yet, the very skills that have been used to shape the values, attitudes and behaviours of consumerism can also be used to help shift society to more sustainable ways of living. What do we need to start, stop and continue doing? What does industry leadership look like in the face of the climate crisis? Our choices now as an industry can help make the difference to the future of life on earth.

On June 25th, we’re going to be convening industry leaders in London to get practical about how we can tackle the climate crisis together. ​Join us​. Can the industry come together and mobilise to stand up for the climate? Let’s tackle the biggest and most exciting brief we’ve ever been given. Let’s choose which side of history we want to be on.

The Purpose Disruptors

Within 4 days we had 50 signatures sign the letter in support, including 41 CEO’s, founders and members of management teams. People like Bill Scott, CEO Droga5, London; Helen McRae, UK CEO and Chair of Western Europe, Mindshare; and Iain Tait, ECD, Wieden + Kennedy.

We shared the letter with the trade press and it was picked up in key titles including Campaign, as far afield as Australia.

Somewhat ambitiously, we booked a large room to seat 120 at the venerable Royal Institution, and we released tickets for the Summit. They sold out in 10 days, with a wait list of 50.

These events took us totally by surprise. What was happening here?

The speed of support for the Summit were a release of pent up desire and yearning to help. Our pub nights, letter, and Summit were channels and opportunities for people to express their desire to heal the world. Just like millions of young people marching with Greta Thunberg. Just like hundreds of thousands of people involved with XR. Same thing, different context.

It’s one thing to turn up, however it’s another thing to take action.

What happened at the Summit?

The Summit was designed to follow on from the experience we offered on the ‘Reclaiming Agency’ programme, i.e. learn the facts, acknowledge the emotion, move to action. Speaker, Jeremy Mathieu, gave a hard-hitting talk on climate science, making it patently clear what happens if we choose not to change and that advertising is part of the problem. People talked about how they felt: admitting it first to themselves, then in pairs, then in circles of ten. Acknowledging the difficult emotions that arise is a critical part of acceptance. Through this process we consider that we have a duty of care for all in the room. Circles were facilitated by members of the Purpose Disruptors and others who had previously experienced Jeremy’s powerful talk, so those who had just heard it for the first were in safe hands.

Sitting in circles at the Climate Crisis Summit, June 25th 2019

Once people had shared their feelings in their circles, they were invited to generate ideas of what the industry can do, to address the challenge of limiting global warming. The answers are impressive in their scope and range:

1. STOP WORKING on briefs from clients that aren’t committed to Net Zero global emissions

2. STOP MEASURING only growth and sales as metrics of success

3. STOP AWARDING work that damages the planet

4. STOP DOING things that have a big carbon footprint

5. STOP TALKING -using language like ‘sustainability’ and ‘consumer’

6. STOP LYING to ourselves and our clients and take responsibility

7. STOP PROMOTING unsustainable values and lifestyles

1. START CHALLENGING clients to change their practices — or resign them

2. START CREATING industry-wide metrics

3. START EDUCATING on the scale and urgency of the crisis

4. START CHANGING our own lives and saying no

5. START BUILDING an industry movement based on mass collective action

6. START WRITING an industry code of conduct around climate

7. START PROMOTING sustainable values and lifestyles

N. B. this was an industry level event, demanding an industry level response. Ideas such as ‘STOP USING plastic straws’ or ‘STOP SERVING beef and lamb in the canteen’, are much easier actions to implement and can be done in agencies everywhere without CEO intervention. By sitting in the emotion that comes with acknowledging our climate reality and accepting our contribution towards it, people were able to open their hearts and minds to the more fundamental, strategic changes that are required.

Engaging meaningfully with climate change can be demanding and draining. The press reflected this in its reporting of the Summit:

Headline for article on the Climate Crisis Summit in Campaign, June 27th 2019

What’s happened since the Summit?

A key challenge is creating infrastructure for change, and creating the spaces and support for people to convert ideas into action. At the end of the Summit, we announced a follow up event where attendees could work up the ideas generated. The first ‘Action Studio’ was held at Conway Hall on July 16th and attracted 40 people from the Summit. Five groups emerged, each taking forward an idea that jumped off a STOP or START thought. These included creating

a mass education programme on climate change, engaging and supporting people who are conflicted about working on high carbon clients and a pan-industry initiative to always respond to a client brief with a solution that shifts audiences towards more sustainable behaviours.

Group developing ideas at the Action Studio, July 16th 2019

A second ‘Action Studio’ was held on August 15th that supported people in the development of their ideas. We also discussed creating a placard competition to support the youth movement behind the upcoming Global Climate Strike. Another Action Studio is being organised in September.

We are excited to say that a lot is happening across the industry. Following their letter, XR have done many presentations in agencies, including the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). This resulted in the IPA’s Director General, Paul Bainsfair, penning a letter announcing the creation of a ‘Working Party on Climate Change’. Sustainability agency Futerra launched its ‘Creative Climate Disclosure Project’, inviting agencies to be transparent and commit to disclosing the percentage of turnover from high carbon clients. They have over 100 agencies signed up who will produce a report. At the Summit, Dan Burgess from Good for Nothing asked people in the room to help the UK Student Climate Network mobilise a million people to go on Global Climate Strike. The founders of Glimpse were at the Summit and answered the call. Together, they hosted a sprint on July 26th where over 50 ad professionals worked on 7 different challenges to get people out in the streets. Nice and Serious agency has made available a beta version of their ‘Moral Compass app’. This enables all employees of a company to decide which incoming briefs they want to work on, or not.

The Global Climate Strike is on September 20th and 27th, XR will be back on the streets in October, and we are only 14 months away from the UK hosting the global climate change conference, ‘COP 26’, in November 2020. These events, combined with the fact that weather patterns will increase in volatility, causing more and more damage, will increase people’s desire to act.

How can the industry respond appropriately?

As stated, the goal of the Purpose Disruptors is to create a visible, large scale, bottom up movement within the industry, that will act in solidarity to meaningfully tackle climate change.

Climate change will become more present in people’s awareness and direct experience. They will want to do something to help. Our simple belief is that if people are given the facts and allowed to acknowledge the emotion that arises, they will want to move to action. It is only through active, emotional engagement with an issue can we hope to change it. As James Baldwin, the American novelist and activist said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

People want to help heal the world and take action from where they stand. The challenge is creating the opportunities to to do this. Our contribution includes hosting the second ‘Climate Crisis Summit’ on September 16th 2019. Tickets are available here. We will also host subsequent ‘Action Studios’.

Addressing climate change is difficult because the changes required, personally, and as an industry, will be hard to make (just look at the STOP / START list generated at the Summit). As the Purpose Disruptors, we are committed to being a vehicle to enable the industry to transform from being part of the problem to helping address it.

If this strikes a chord with you, please join us at the next Climate Crisis Summit on September 16th HERE and join our mailing list HERE.

We are the leaders we have been waiting for.

The Purpose Disruptors

The Purpose Disruptors are:

Ben Bleet, Client and Partnership Lead, MediaCom

Helen Brain, Strategy Director, MediaCom

Rosie Kitson, Joint Head of Strategy, Mindshare

Rob McFaul, Client Lead, Mindshare

Lisa Merrick, Strategy Director, Nice & Serious

Pauline Robson, Managing Partner, MediaCom

Ella Saltmarshe, co-founder, the Comms Lab

Tim Whirledge, Strategy Director, Droga5

Jonathan Wise, Co-Founder, the Comms Lab

For enquires, please contact