The end of Purpose Washing

The advertising industry can and should play a role in combating the climate crisis

Patricia McDonald

Global Chief Strategy Officer Dentsu Creative


What did you do in the climate crisis?

I imagine a bleak future sometimes. A future where each of us is asked “What did you do in the climate crisis?”

I imagine that the meagre resources we have left as a society are shared out among the most deserving, those who polluted least, those who fought for a better future. And I wonder how our industry will be judged.

As an industry, we have come under unprecedented scrutiny in recent months over our role in purpose washing. A series of high profile campaigns have been banned for greenwashing in recent months: analysis by the Independent newspaper identified 16 campaigns that had been banned by the ASA over misleading environmental claims.  Meanwhile, ironically enough, a hard-hitting poster campaign has taken agencies all too publicly to task. Whoever said broadcast was dead….

The power of a pivot

So what will we tell people when they the ask what we did (or didn’t do) to help? That we encouraged people to carry on consuming and discarding while covering the wounds with the sticking plaster of “purpose”? Or that we used our power, our platform and our influence for good?

What will we tell people when they the ask what we did (or didn’t do) to help?

Patricia McDonald, Global Chief Strategy Officer, denstu creative

Our recent Dentsu CMO survey showed a growing consensus on the role of brands as a force for social good. 95% of those surveyed agree that it is a brand’s responsibility to change behaviour and to change society. 87% agree that brands have an urgent responsibility to drive action on climate change.

Perhaps most profoundly, 85% of CMOs say their business needs to undergo a “fundamental pivot” in response to climate change, up 4 percentage points on our 2021 survey. It sounds at first glance like an amazing opportunity to engage our clients in building new business models and platforms for behaviour change, and of course we see some interesting commitments emerging. British retailer John Lewis has committed to roll out a “Buy back or Take back” scheme across every category by 2025, while Selfridges department store has an ambition to achieve half of all sales from resale, rental, repair or refills by 2030.

Belief lags behaviour

Yet when we ask about the specific changes clients are making-embracing sustainable commerce or design, developing circular marketplaces, switching to renewables- among most CMOs we see limited progress, even in some cases a step backwards versus last year’s study. Action trails significantly behind intent for most.

When we dig into why that might be, we see very real barriers: complex logistical issues (57%), ineffective collaboration between the private sector and public policy makers (53%), and of course the ever-competing demands of short term commercial pressures versus sustainable change (50%).

From side project to systemic change  

To truly make a difference we must move beyond these competing imperatives, eliminating the tension between purpose and profit, growth and good. It is only when businesses grow through good, not in spite of it, that they will pursue sustainability as a strategy not a side project.

I was recently lucky enough to judge the Creative Effectiveness awards at Cannes. (Another industry event disrupted by climate protest….)  What I saw in the best of the best work we do as an industry, was a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of a new model. A model where brands and businesses create fly wheels for growth; where what works for communities works for the planet and works for the business.

Work like “Contract for Change”; where the business, the planet, and the community are all equal stakeholders in creating a flywheel for growth through good. Work like “Not just a Cadbury ad” where big business and small stores create another such virtuous circle. This feels like a new model for effectiveness; where we aim not simply to grow one brand or business but to create platforms and ecosystems for growth.

The power of we

The other thing that’s striking about those examples is that they work by giving every individual the tools to make a difference. Because there’s another glimmer of hope.

A recent study by Gregg Sparkman, Nathan Geiger and Elke U Weber showed that most people significantly underestimate how supportive their fellow citizens are of green policy making. 80-90% of Americans under-estimate the prevalence of support for climate change mitigation, and the level of climate concern among their communities.

If we can mobilise that hidden majority, we can create a wave of urgent social proof. Showing businesses, consumers and governments alike that climate concerns are not niche behaviours or minority opinions, but drivers of mainstream commercial success.

Sounds a lot like a job for an industry that creates culture and shapes tastes. But it’s time to commit. No more purpose washing, no more green washing, no more tinkering in the margins, no more sleight of hand. It’s time to link our growth, and our clients’ growth, inextricably to good.

Guest Author

Patricia McDonald

Global Chief Strategy Officer Dentsu Creative


Pats McDonald, is a multi-award-winning global strategist who has led the strategic and creative development for brands from Levi’s to Unilever to Sony and Kellogg’s. Patricia’s career spans over 20 years at many of the UK’s top agencies – including BBH, CHI & Partners, Weber Shandwick and Isobar. In her role of Global Head of Strategy and Consulting, Pats is responsible for working to support the delivery of world-class capabilities and services to dentsu’s clients. 

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