Operating across borders without costing the earth: How Iris created the Carbon Kickback scheme

Iris’ Global CSO Ben Essen and Global ECD Grant Hunter explain why the agency is working to encourage its agency partners to be part of the change when it comes to sustainability.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


As the industry looks to build back better in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, sustainability is at the very top of the business agenda. For Iris, and its senior leadership team, putting the climate crisis at the heart of its agenda is vital. Not only does that mean in the way that it acts, from agency travel to sustainable office space but also in the way that it behaves with its clients.

The launch of a new scheme, The Carbon Kickback, sees the agency incentivising change, inviting its clients to sign up to a new climate charter that brings the climate crisis to the very top of their marketing agendas.

Here, Iris’ Global Chief Strategy Officer Ben Essen and Global Executive Creative Director Grant Hunter talk about why they decided to launch the initiative now, the importance of going digital-first and why the message they’re spreading is for everyone.

Ben Essen

Ben Essen.jpg

Global Chief Strategy Officer


Can you tell us why you decided to launch this initiative now?

BE: Last summer, we created a campaign with the Purpose Disruptors called ‘The Great Reset’. The insight driving it was that the 7% emissions reductions forced upon us by 2020’s global pandemic was, coincidentally enough, exactly the emissions reduction the IPCC say we must make, year on year until 2030, if we are to have any hope of keeping global temperature increases close to 1.5 degrees.

Right now, we have a choice: seize this opportunity to reinforce the positive behaviours we discovered in the past year or go back to how we did things before. We’re terrified that that the reductions we’ve seen in 2020 will turn out to be a blip. In the competitive environment of a post-pandemic recession, the pressure to return to business as usual will be massive.

We have a really short window of opportunity to shape which pathway we take, and at Iris we want to do everything we can to seize it. As a return to some kind of normality appears on the horizon, it felt like a crucial moment to set out our agenda on how we think we should be working in a post-pandemic future.

Why was it important to you to invite clients to be part of the change?

BE: Ultimately, we’re trying to change culture, to make acting sustainably easier and more desirable for everyone. But culture change can only happen when everyone is on board, our people, our clients AND our competitors. If we’re trying to change what’s expected and acceptable, we need to do that collectively.

And of course, while reducing our own emissions can have some impact it’s nothing compared to the impact we can have helping our clients do the same.

The Carbon Kickback is about us saying to our clients ‘let’s share the responsibility, but let’s also share the benefits’.

Digital tools are strong enough that pitches can be won, workshops can be run and creative can be made across borders without costing the earth.

Ben Essen

Do you think that companies going digital-first is a vital step to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint?

BE: We’ve just undertaken a carbon measurement programme across all our 14 offices around the world and used it to set ourselves an ambitious science-based target of reaching Net Zero emissions by 2025. The truth is we’re a service company, so there’s no reason we can’t do it that quickly. We don’t need to transform our entire logistics operation like some companies; most of our emissions reductions will come from behaviour change.

Our analysis shows that global air travel represented 55% of our total emissions in 2019, people flying to meetings and on production shoots. From our work supporting the creation of Ad Net Zero, we know that this figure is relatively consistent across the industry. So as an industry, this is clearly the area we must most urgently address.

We’ve been asking ourselves how many of these journeys really need to be made? And how many do people make because that’s what’s expected of them? £1tn was spent globally on business travel in 2019, but 2020 has shown us we can work smarter to save time, money and the environment.

Last year our Future Strategy team ran ‘Covid Contingency Sprints’ for our clients around the world, fast-tracked digital workshops to help businesses pivot their pandemic response at pace. In one example, eight specialist strategists supported the Starbucks leadership teams in the US, Europe and Latin America in a single day and with less than a week’s notice, an experience that was then repeated several times over the following weeks. In the old world, this would have taken months to plan, and both the financial and carbon cost would have been astronomical. Going ‘digital first’ can have disproportionate benefits.

Of course, face to face collaboration will still be a massive part of our industry’s future. Our London office opens this week, and I can’t wait for our return. But we need to be more responsible about ‘analogue’ collaboration, particularly when working across the globe. Digital tools are strong enough that pitches can be won, workshops can be run and creative can be made across borders without costing the earth.

Grant Hunter

Grant Hunter 2020.jpg

Global ECD


Explain how you plan to drive sustainable behaviour in the way in which creative work is produced?

GH: Our approach to our creative output is really geared around two key areas:

1. On the creative concepting front we are looking at how we incorporate positive eco-friendly behaviours into the scenarios we depict. We are being mindful of the food people consume in our narratives for example featuring vegan food instead of promoting red meat. We’re looking at highlighting low carbon modes of transport like electric vehicles or cycle school runs. And thinking about the home energy consumption and recycling behaviours, such as showing LED filament bulbs rather than energy intensive, incandescent bulbs or showing creative ways of not wasting food.

By normalising these behaviours, even if they are taking place in the background of our stories, we are using our influence to promote them. This makes them less like ‘tree-hugging outliers’ but positions them as positive behaviours we all need to adopt for the good of the planet.

2. When it comes to the production of those ideas, Amy Eagles who heads up our production arm, has championed a new sustainable way of us looking at our productions. The whole agency is going through AdGreen training, an advertising industry initiative based on TV’s Albert sustainable production code, and we are creating carbon budgets for our shoots. Using a carbon calculator, we are looking at how we can reduce the carbon impact of our productions.

This includes weighing up how many people really need to travel to location or looking for alternative local locations or studios; finding alternative electric-powered options for transport to set and on set; using studios that are powered by renewable sources and utilise LED stage lighting; going vegetarian on the catering and recycling/reusing props and art department items. Using existing case studies, we’ve looked at we know we can reduce our carbon consumption by between 50 -75% without impacting the creative output.

Sustainable transformation can’t just be achieved incrementally; it needs a few giant leaps.

Grant Hunter

What does the sustainability agenda look like for the agency moving forwards?

GH: When it comes to the output we create for clients, we have a big mission to drive adoption of the Ecoffectiveness methodology we have developed with Purpose Disruptors and the IPA. This methodology helps us measure the climate impact of the campaigns we create. Using this data, we can identify opportunities for improvement from switching the product to optimising the pricing to shifting the service model. Like with ROI, the goal is to improve each campaign’s ‘’Return on CO2’, by maximising the profit generated for every ton of CO2 emitted.

What would your message be to businesses who say this kind of initiative isn’t for them or they can’t make this kind of change happen?

GH: First of all, I’d say, you’re not alone in feeling that way. What we’re talking about, transforming entire global organisations on a Net Zero pathway in a matter of a few years, is going to be really, really tough. It will make the digital transformation we’ve experienced over the last decade seem trivial in comparison.

Secondly, I’d say, we’re here to help. How to make this kind of change happen is a question we’re getting asked a lot by clients. We’re currently helping Pizza Hut, Starbucks and healthcare company Convatech on their sustainability transformation. Because in truth, companies like ours are perfectly placed to help businesses drive this change. What sustainable transformation needs are all the things our industry does well: visionary thinking, exciting leadership, simple messages, clear roadmaps, establishing new behaviours. And of course, big ideas. Sustainable transformation can’t just be achieved incrementally; it needs a few giant leaps. 

Which brings us back to the Carbon Kickback. On the one hand it’s a big, challenging idea that we hope can drive real change across our industry. On the other hand, it’s simply a request for our clients and the industry to carry on what it’s been doing already for the last 12 months.

So, my third message would be, you’ve got this. This pandemic has made us all into accidental climate heroes and the most achievable behaviour change is the one we’ve already made. Let’s just keep going.

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