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Ben Essen, Chief Strategy Officer at Iris and one of the founding members of the industry's Create and Strike movement outlines what the last year has taught him, and what needs to happen as we go into the next.
On 20th September 2019, something unprecedented happened. The UK advertising industry went on strike for the first time in their history, in support of the 7 million strong global climate strikes organised by young people around the world.
160 agencies from across all the major networks signed a letter committing to support the climate strikes and use their creative resources to amplify the young people’s message, under the banner of Create and Strike. The impact spread across the country and into Europe through local agency activations and space donated by media owners, and into culture. But most importantly, people across our industry showed up on the streets, and powerfully expressed their personal belief in the need for drastic action.
The momentum has continued, with many of the agencies involved supporting the unprecedented drive to get young people to register to vote, in the name of the planet. Here’s what we learned.
It’s not easy for agencies who make millions of pounds a year out of clients associated with fossil fuels to sign a letter that says ‘we support the young people demanding an end to the age of fossil fuels’. No one wants to come across as hypocrites.
But the truth is we’re all hypocrites; there is massive, irreconcilable tension between what we get paid to do and what we need to be doing to limit the impact of the climate crisis. If organisations wait until we have ‘our own house in order’ before we become vocal about the climate, we continue to skirt around the issue and avoid any kind of meaningful action. The first step is to face into our hypocrisy and be more open and honest about the uncomfortable collision between advertising-driven consumerist culture and the climate crisis. The 20th September strikes were a first step in this journey.
Our industry states that the route to creativity is to find tensions and conflicts that need resolving. And there are no greater tensions than in our industry’s own relationship with the climate crisis. Imagine the creativity that could be unleashed if we started embracing these hypocrisies and conflicts head on.
There is massive, irreconcilable tension between what we get paid to do and what we need to be doing to limit the impact of the climate crisis.Ben Essen
Despite the success of the strikes, many organisations declined to support them, on the principle that striking for the climate is a matter of individual choice and conscience, not corporate allegiance or that the company already had its own climate initiatives underway. These both come down to the same principle, that individual actions will be enough to help us combat the crisis. But as Naomi Klein says in her excellent new book On Fire, “a collective problem demands collective action. Based on collective priorities not just individual profits.”
Create and Strike worked because it was a competition that pandered to our natural inter-agency competitiveness and egos. But in tapping into this competitiveness, it also reinforced the idea that tackling the climate crisis is something you can ‘win’. In truth, to tackle this challenge we have to come together not just within our agencies, but between them.
The IPCC have told us the crisis requires “unprecedented change”. Perhaps one of the best forms of unprecedented change we could embrace as an industry is unprecedented collaboration. Where we leave our personal and agency egos at the door and work in service to a higher purpose.
Because if our end goal needs to be to change the entire culture and system of advertising, this has to be something we do together. Not something we’re competing to ‘win’
Perhaps one of the best forms of unprecedented change we could embrace as an industry is unprecedented collaboration.Ben Essen
In a world of online petitions and digital campaigning, Create and Strike was from start to finish a real, physical experience.
It began with a creative workshop at the Tate Modern, that involved paint, wood, materials, rolling up sleeves and getting hands dirty in a shared creative space. Attempts to convince some of the major advertising agencies to support the strikes succeeded in part because the request came in the form of analogue, hand delivered letters.
Participation could only happen by taking part in the strikes themselves where people were surrounded by real people and real passion. And it was the very physicality of the best ideas created that most captured people’s imaginations in a way that a social post never could. This realness matters.
Climate change has become climate emergency because have collectively failed to grasp the reality of the situation. Because our lifestyle choices are so distanced from the reality of their consequences and greenhouse gases are reassuringly invisible out of sight, out of mind. To quote Naomi Klein, “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by technological triumphalism, we lack many of the tools we need to convince ourselves that climate change is indeed an emergency”
The climate strikes help us to step outside the day to day reality of business, technology, society and the economy and remind ourselves that there is a deeper, more fundamental reality underpinning our existence.
This is an exciting moment for anyone working in our industry who cares about the planet. The science is there. Many of the solutions we need are out there. What the world now needs are experts in driving necessary behaviour change, at scale, in a hurry. This is what we do.
Joanna Macy in her book Active Hope says, “The desire to take part in the healing of our world seems to be just below the surface, waiting for an opportunity and outlet for expression. Whenever we bring the desire for the world’s healing out into the open, whether through our individual actions or through the groups we are part of, we help others to do this too. The power of example is contagious. This is how cultures change.”
This is what the climate strikes achieved. Now our industry needs to do this through everything we do.
As Chief Strategy Officer, Ben leads a diverse team of strategists across 17 offices for global creative innovation network, Iris. Ben is responsible for strategy and planning, helping some of the world’s most exciting brands like Samsung, adidas and KFC to take a bold leap forward and reimagine how they connect with people and culture. In his time at Iris, Ben has worked side by side with CMOs to change their approach to marketing, spent weeks in the field trying to unlock the insights that will drive truly breakthrough work, produced global intelligence studies outlining the new marketing fundamentals and been a driving force behind Iris' uniquely 'For the Forward' culture. He is now on a mission to turn consumers back into citizens.
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