Close-Up: Live Issue - Are green agencies really necessary?

Do big brands prefer the relative safety of traditional agencies for ethical work, Noel Bussey asks.

Not too long ago, caring about the environment, saving the planet and having an ethical conscience about a product's origins was the bastion of tree huggers and hippies.

However, as consumers become ever more enlightened and empowered, they are asking more questions about sustainability and ethics. And because of this, there has been a rise in the number of businesses with purely green or ethical offers.

Alongside this, bigger existing advertisers are also realising that not only do they need to ensure that their systems and processes are changing, but also that their communications strategies are falling into line as well.

And waiting to offer these sorts of services are agencies which specialise in creating green and ethical communications for companies which want to target the right people in the right way.

Jonathan Rosenthal is the chief executive of Oke, an ethical brand in the US that is attempting to sell Fairtrade bananas across the country, while also highlighting the horrors of the banana trade. He says that his specialist agency - the UK-based Host - helps his brand "punch above its weight".

"Host understands that business as usual is not sustainable for companies like ourselves. It takes the whole communications strategy and turns it upside down to create a new business model and deliver a massive amount of return for a small amount of investment," he says.

Agencies such as Host and Feel, another UK specialist in green and ethical advertising, are chosen by many clients because they have the ability to use deep customer insight, and a passion for the cause, to take a small advertising budget (generally because they are working with small clients which don't work for profit) and turn it into effective advertising (see box).

However, despite the growing consumer interest, agencies are generally small outfits with only a few dedicated staff.

Robin Smith, the chief executive of Host, says a lot of the time it's the agency's own choice of who they work with: "We only work with change-maker clients. M&S and Tesco are doing a lot of fair trade marketing, but don't have ethics at their core. We turn down work from companies that aren't going to make a change in something. We'd love to do much more than we do, but the interest isn't there at the moment."

The agencies also struggle because many bigger clients will also pass up on the specialist offering because they already have agency partners which they believe can handle the task.

Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R is the agency of record for Marks & Spencer and has created numerous green and ethical campaigns for the retailer, such as the "look behind the label" concept for its Fair Trade food range.

Richard Exon, the agency's chief executive, says: "We weren't appointed by M&S as its green agency, but we're its preferred partner so were handed the brief.

"To me, that means the question for green and ethical agencies is where does that leave them in the future? The idea that only specialist agencies can do ethical and green advertising does feel a bit outdated."

However, Rosenthal argues: "Bigger agencies have developed the expertise to take any concept forward and create a compelling brand, but they don't have the bandwidth to take a small budget and create the potential to change the world. This is what we need."

There are many within the green and ethical sector who believe that bigger companies don't actually want a truly green or ethical approach - but realise that they should make some form of effort.

Chris Arnold, the chief executive of Feel, says: "A lot of big clients don't take ethics and being green very seriously. They paint over it with greenwash, which damages a brand's credibility.

"Research points to a massive amount of misunderstanding of ethical communications. It's a specialism that needs extremely deep consumer insight. If you make a green claim, and don't live up to it, it will come back and bite you on the arse."

He adds: "A lot of bad advertising is being done by big creative agencies in the green and ethical sector. We do get big brands coming in to chat with us, but they don't know how to handle it with their current contracts."

Another reservation many have over the concept of the specialist green or ethical agency is that the creative quality isn't up to that of an established agency because they can't attract the talent.

However, Arnold retorts: "We have got the same standard of talent here. Everyone we employ or use comes from the top agencies.

"We say to clients 'we won't write shit. We don't do cliche. It has to be creative, it has to engage the consumer, has to be a truthful sale and be a product that is good and ethical.' Clients are more interested in consumer strategy and insight than they are in creative."

Despite these proclamations, the average green or ethical agency will still only have a small number of staff and rely on a network of freelancers, especially on the creative side.

However, this isn't just a consequence of a difficult recruitment task, but of the inherent "financial peaks and troughs" that come with working with clients that don't have much spend, or constant need for communications.

As consumers become increasingly conscious of green and ethical issues, more and more clients are realising that their businesses, and their advertising strategies, have to keep up with the step change in public opinion.

So this would seem like the perfect time for specialist agencies to start picking up briefs from bigger clients. However, this may still not be the case. Through a mixture of agencies not wanting to work with big clients which aren't ethical or green at the core, and big clients trusting their existing agencies more than they feel the need for the specialist approach - the real winners in the rush for ethical credentials may well be the traditional creative agencies.

However, Arnold warns against taking the issue lightly. "You cannot just jump into this space. Agencies will find it hard to catch up," he says.

"The consumer has radically changed - they have an ethical agenda, but the consumer is more empowered. Clients still aren't sure, but they're slowly waking up to the fact that it's a specialism."

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