Rachel Smy, Group Environmental Manager, Ogilvy UK

“We want to have a voice.” Rachel Smy explores Ogilvy’s commitment to lessening the effect the agency’s business has on the environment while highlighting industry initiatives making a real difference.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


“We [Ogilvy] want to have a voice,” says Rachel Smy, Group Environmental Officer at Ogilvy UK as she discusses how she set about developing the agency’s environmental management structure. First up came running the ISO 14001 process alongside a consultant, with the ultimate goal of implementing change effectively.

ISO 14001 is a global environmental management certification, and something Ogilvy recognised they needed to undertake. For Smy, as she explains, “It was very much about accepting [that] what had gone on before may not have been good, but it was going forward.” She recognises that time is of the essence when it comes to the climate crisis. So, that forward-thinking attitude is essential when it comes to furthering the environmental agenda. Otherwise you run the risk of dwelling for so long on the perhaps damaging behaviour that came before, that you lose sight of the effect that imminent positive changes can have on the future.

Smy has seen attitudes towards the environmental debate shift considerably in the last few years. As she says, “It wasn’t a hot topic then; it wasn’t particularly cool. Culturally things have changed.” Where once no one took the environmental problem seriously, now it’s culturally and financially sustainable to do so. In reality, the beauty about the conversation around the environment is that everyone can be a part of it.

We can only drag ourselves as an agency so far. We are reliant on full cooperation from the industry to do something.

Rachel Smy

Raising awareness

Before action can take place however, there needed to be a cultural shift; a moment where discussing, and prioritising, the environment was normalised. For Smy, Extinction Rebellion (XR) provided this moment: “Their timing was spot on…it struck a chord.”

While organisations like Extinction Rebellion and individuals like Greta Thunberg are raising vital awareness of the climate crisis, what happens next, explains Smy, is down to the businesses themselves. She adds, “Quite rightly it’s now over to us to form our plan and no one knows our business better than we do.”

Smy highlights the letter XR wrote to the ad industry in May 2019 as a pivotal moment in bringing about change. “There is that momentum at the moment,” adds Smy. But what needs to happen now is that the industry comes together; it can’t just be singular agencies standing up. Smy explains, “We can only drag ourselves as an agency so far. We are reliant on full cooperation from the industry to do something.”

Collaboration is key

This collaboration is something the advertising industry hasn’t always been particularly successful in executing as tussles for the best creative idea mean those ideas are often kept under lock and key. But, says Smy, the time for keeping cards close to the chest is over: “This is about something so much bigger; this is about climate change. You can’t do it alone; it won’t be effective.”

This collaborative approach is the only way that the industry can bring about change, believes Smy. In an ideal world, she explains, “I’d like to see trade bodies, or us, create an alliance which is cross is the time to leave egos at the door...we actually need to just come together...and start sharing ideas.”

What needs to happen, Smy explains, is something along the lines of developing a collective consultancy when it comes to the environment. We’ve seen this happening across the industry with movements like the Purpose Disruptors and the Comms Lab launching. Smy adds, “They’re saying, they know they can’t do it on their own.”

It is the time to leave egos at the door...we actually need to just come together...and start sharing ideas.

Rachel Smy

Judged by an external standard

Alongside working collaboratively, Smy believes that more agencies should be looking into, and signing up to the ISO 14001 that helps a business to build an “environmental management system.” This system means businesses must look at their impact across everything from their office building to production, filming to even the effect a fire in the building would have on the environment.

“We were one of the first agencies to get it [ISO 14001 certification] and we are by far the biggest,” says Smy, as she explains the auditing process that the agency has to undergo. She acknowledges the difficulty of this, but also highlights the positive effect it’s had across the business: “It has given us a bit of confidence with our clients because a lot of our clients want us to have from a new business point of view, it’s been very important.”

Smy also believes that their ISO standard is something that appeals to both current and future employees who want to be part of a purpose-driven business. As part of the ISO, the agency sets between 10 and 12 environmental business objectives each year. This year has seen Smy engage the agency in monthly beach clean-ups on the banks of the Thames; two hours of volunteering that both engages employees and educates them. As Smy says, it’s all about “passing it on”. 

Actionable change

Part of the beauty of passing it on is that it fosters a sense of community and encourages people to feel like they are part of something bigger. This sense of environmental community within the industry is something that several new initiatives launched in 2019 have set out to harness.

Create and Strike bottled up that desire for change in the lead up to the global climate marches. Led by Ben Essen, Chief Strategy Officer at Iris, it encouraged ad agencies to sign up and march, to demonstrate their commitment. Smy believes that around 120 agencies signed, including Ogilvy, and the sense of community was palpable. Smy adds, “I spoke to more people cross agency that week than I’ve spoken to in my whole career.”

She also highlighted Change the Brief, created by Marco Rimini, Chief Development Officer at Mindshare, as “a real game changer.” It is, Smy believes, “a powerful tool if implemented successfully” to create change right at the beginning of the pitch process. It is yet another step towards normalising sustainability within business, to promote it to make it more mainstream and to influence people in turn.

[Clients] want to align themselves with businesses who have got ISO 14001, who are working with Change the Brief, who are working with AdGreen, who want to be part of this change.

Rachel Smy

What can an agency do?

Smy has more specific advice when it comes to specifically what agencies can do to shift the environmental debate. One of those is working alongside AdGreen, an organisation set up by Jo Coombes and backed by the APA to enable more environmentally sustainable production methods. Smy worked alongside Coombes to develop a set of sustainable guidelines.

Smy reveals that in fact, many production companies were already operating sustainably; they were just relieved that someone was drawing direct attention to the problem, because “it wasn’t really talked about.”

Taking steps like these and getting involved with initiatives will inevitably benefit agencies, believes Smy: “They [clients] want to align themselves with businesses who have got ISO 14001, who are working with Change the Brief, who are working with AdGreen, who want to be part of this change.”

Looking to the future

When it comes to business, and especially its impact on the environment, Smy doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past; it’s about what happens next that is important. Next steps for Smy include the development and production of a “carbon calculator” like the one used by TV companies; specifically, an initiative known as Albert run by Bafta. Only then can you start setting targets and start mapping a business’s progress.

What’s essential is that there is one unifying code and standard that brings agencies together and allows for a collaborative shift in attitude and behaviour. Smy suggest something like a Green Code of Conduct, a Green Awards for the industry to harness that competitive spirit for good, or even, she says smiling drily, legislation that would just help “speed things up.”

For Smy, she is passionate about lessening the effect Ogilvy’s business has on the environment. She acknowledges that everyone can do better but for her, “it’s more than just where you work; it’s about our children’s future and our grandchildren’s.” As we enter the next decade, these future-facing words provide the degree of optimism and inspiration that the industry so needs.