Creative agencies: who’s got the balls to colour outside the lines?

It’s interesting to see that my chums over at SAS are running an event on sustainability tomorrow night, in conjunction with the Conversation Society (sadly I can’t make it, as I’ve got my brother-in-law coming round to measure up for a new kitchen!).

Of course, having worked closely with Kevin Keohane for several years now – both as a freelance consultant to his Brand & Talent practice and as partners-in-crime on CommScrum and the 55-minute guide series – I know very well that he (at least) gets the much more progressive take on sustainability I’m always spouting off about – i.e. sustainability understood in the context of fundamental, long-term business viability, rather than peripheral greening.

But – and it’s a very big but – I still have considerable doubts over the willingness and capability of most creative agencies to really get with the programme in terms of the implications of all of this.

Taking my definition of sustainability as, “a perspective on brand/business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose,” what we’re ultimately talking about is sustainability-led business transformation – the re-design of core business in pursuit of shared value.

I know there are plenty of creative agencies that do an outstanding job of helping the already-converted, not only to report transparently on their own progress, but also to encourage other businesses to follow suit by offering compelling stories of the value those actions have generated (witness M&S’ Plan A update and How We Do Business Report, produced by Oliver Dudok van Heel, Ben Richards and the sustainability team over at Radley Yeldar, for example).

Likewise, as illustrated by Puma’s clever little bag posted about the other week, I know there are plenty of designers helping organisations to take promises of a much more authentic and material approach to sustainability (ones that so often end up as empty rhetoric) and give them tangible form in terms of core products and services.

And that’s great.

Really, it’s fabulous progress.

And yet…

I can’t help feeling that this is predominantly downstream execution for the minority of organisations that already get it.

What about those who don’t?

Let’s imagine that Company X, which doesn’t exactly have a stellar record on sustainability, approaches a bunch of brand/comms agencies for help.

How many would have the balls to front up and say words to the effect of…

Sure we can help you with your sustainability communications, but you know what? Communication alone isn’t going to overcome negative perceptions and deliver tangible value for your business.

Perhaps we could share some of our insights on what it takes to build a relevant and credible story on sustainability and, on the back of that, develop an initial programme of work to really understand what that means in the context of your business strategy.

…versus how many would immediately leap at the chance to flog some neatly ‘productised’ offering around building sustainability campaigns or sustainability reporting that, in completely failing to address the underlying issues of strategy and culture, will end up achieving absolutely nothing other than the short-term feelgood factor of having created some nice, glossy materials?

Not many, I’d wager.

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