Thought Leadership

Sustainable Advertising: A rewarding choice of career?

The Advertising Association’s Communication Director Matt Bourn and Ad Net Zero’s’ Chair Sebastian Munden on why embracing sustainability is crucial to attracting and retaining talent

Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden

Co-Authors Sustainable Advertising


The advertising industry is addressing how best to respond to the climate emergency. People working in the industry are caught in the middle, but there is a way to align personal imperatives with professional fulfilment. This extract from the new book Sustainable Advertising, authored by the Advertising Association’s Communications Director Matt Bourn and Ad Net Zero Chair Sebastian Munden, shows us how.


Research by UK advertising thinktank, Credos, commissioned during the development of Ad Net Zero, identified real concerns among advertising professionals about climate change. It found that 71 per cent of UK ad professionals were worried about the negative impact of the industry on the environment while 91 per cent agreed that knowing their organisation was taking climate action would improve their job satisfaction.

During the research and writing of this book, we have come into contact with many people from across the industry and spoken at length about the challenges and opportunities in creating a truly sustainable advertising industry. Many people are frustrated with the slow pace of change, while others are finding ways to deploy their skills on more sustainable projects and defining new standards and ways of working. Some people are anxious about what might be coming, and others are energized and challenged by the opportunities in the belief that their professional skills align with their personal purpose to make a difference.

This sits at the heart of Sustainable Advertising - harnessing the connection between the strategic, creative, and technical skills possessed by hundreds of thousands of advertising and marketing professionals around the world and the objective of helping to secure a sustainable future for us all. Doing meaningful work, there is true fulfilment in seeing the combined power of sustainable and commercial results.

How could anyone be in any doubt that the long-term success measure is a planet in balance where people can live well, and the economy can thrive?

Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden, authors of Sustainable Advertising

What are the main impediments? Beliefs that there is a choice or trade-off between business success and environmental success come near the top of that list. How could anyone be in any doubt that the long-term success measure is a planet in balance where people can live well, and the economy can thrive? Actually, this takes reflection, awareness of the facts, conversations, and the time to make sense of it all, ask questions and find credible answers. This is about how leaders are developed in business and society more widely, and how everyone learns and is prepared for their role. And then there is the think-do gap. What holds us back even once we are clear about the situation?

Helping people unlock the motivating connection between advertising and sustainability

Training and people development are key, of that there is no doubt, to make the type of system change we are aiming for to make our industry a sustainable one. This change can be led by the learning and development programmes of the major players and their learning and development providers across the industry, as they invest in the skills we will need for a sustainable future.

The following is an example of just this taking place at one of the major agency groups, Dentsu. It has recently launched a dedicated learning and development programme on sustainability to upskill employees globally, including accredited training from the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership. This is specifically about putting team members through an eight-week online training course called Sustainable Media, Marketing and Creative. The Dentsu team is not alone in this approach. More and more brands are investing in educating their people on sustainability, for example Chanel, a major brand advertiser, is investing £3 million in sustainability training with Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership.

This type of training is necessary as, according to the World Federation of Advertisers, only 10 per cent of marketing teams have the sustainability skills they need and 7 per cent of board members are climate competent. Speaking with the dentsu team, the motivation for training as widely as possible is two-fold. Firstly, the increasing amount of legislation around greenwashing means employers need to upskill creatives and marketers to know enough to be aware of potential pitfalls and avoid unintentional greenwashing. Secondly, the more confident a team is in their sustainability knowledge, the more likely they are to confidently communicate a brand's sustainability story, and so less likely to "greenhush”?

Training courses about sustainability and advertising will grow in importance and profile over the coming years. The Ad Net Zero Training Course is an entry-level course that anyone can take online, requiring around 6-8 hours of your time to complete. More than 1,500 advertising professionals have completed that training at the time of writing and there are now UK, Global and US versions of the training available for people to access. The #ChangeTheBrief approach includes detailed, tailored training for teams across all kinds of advertising and marketing services businesses.

Use your company's sustainability credentials to attract the best talent

Grace Blue, the global executive search firm, joined Ad Net Zero in summer 2022, becoming the first talent-based company to embed sustainability so visibly this way in its business. Matt spoke with Sarah Skinner, CEO EMEA and Global MD, Grace Blue, about how the issue of sustainability was shaping talent recruitment for employers in the marketing and advertising sector.

Pressure is coming from talent - and is one that we anticipate will continue to grow. Where employer brands demonstrate a positive commitment and action around sustainability, that can make a business more attractive. At more junior levels, and for up and coming talent this is becoming a more important area they look for in businesses. It's worth recognizing too that the pressure is coming from the end consumer - talent will want to work more on accounts that can demonstrate a positive contribution to climate action.

From an employer perspective, we are seeing growth in briefs for NED work where candidates are needed who can demonstrate contribution to and impact on ESG, which has become a key criterion for boards. An increasing question we are starting to hear at the leadership level is "sustainability is important, but I have no direct experience in this - how do I gain this?".

Going forward, businesses need to practice what they preach - commitment to sustainability and real behaviour change are different. The latter is what is most important, and it needs to be championed across an organization including the C suite.

This shift in employee expectations isn't unique to Grace Blue's experiences. In Spring 2023, Matt spoke at an event for AdForm and had a follow-up conversation with recruitment consultants who specialized in the adtech space. They shared how an employer had been surprised when recruiting for a graduate role that 8 of the 10 candidates had asked to see the company's sustainability policy and plans. This is going to become standard for talent entering our industry - any company looking to recruit the best and brightest new stars will make sure that what they are doing in this area gives them an advantage against their competitors.

So, what's your motivation to help make sustainable advertising a reality?

Tim Munden, former Chief Learning and Development Officer of Unilever, HR professional for more than 30 years, and now director of leadership development company, Kairon, talked to Matt about why it is beneficial when the organization's purpose and the individual’s purpose align. He explained that all the research shows that people motivated by purpose are generally happier, more productive, and more effective. Tim put in place the purpose training at Unilever which helped employees to identify and articulate what was important to them and how that could align with their work. Tim and Matt discussed how achieving this alignment of purpose might help to accelerate the sustainable and net zero economy, through the work people do in the advertising industry.

Tim suggested considering a simple framework of questions as you reflect on how your role and the contribution you make can help to address the concerns and questions that most motivate you. This reflection can take many forms: some people like to reflect alone, while others need to hear what they think by speaking to others. And it may take a bit of time over several sessions. The questions to ask yourself are as follows:

What do you love?

What concerns you? And why?

How do you build your experiences to put you in the place where you can do something about this?

What will you do at work to answer your purpose?

How will you respond to things that happen to you in the workplace day-to-day?

Which things might get in the way?

We hope every reader of Sustainable Advertising can find an opportunity to deploy their talents in a way which is in support of a positive, sustainable outcome, speeds up the shift to sustainability in our industry, and aligns with their personal purpose. For those that can achieve this, the personal rewards are abundantly clear.


This extract from Sustainable Advertising by Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden is © 2024 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Bronac McNeill

Matt Bourn in conversation with Sarah Skinner, Grace Blue at the Sustainable Advertising Book Launch. Credit Bronac McNeill[11].jpg
Seb Munden at Sustainable Advertising launch. Credit Bronac McNeill[77].jpg


Matt Bourn is Director of Communications for the Advertising Association and Ad Net Zero, based in London, UK. With 25 years' experience, previously he was Managing Director of Braben, working for companies such as Sky, Channel 4, Disney and Sony. Sebastian Munden is a strategy and communications adviser, based in London, UK. He is also Chair of WRAP (The Waste & Resources Action Programme) and Chair of Ad Net Zero. He worked at Unilever for 30+ years applying the principles of business as a force for good, lastly as CEO of the UK and Ireland business.

Related Tags

Sustainability Talent