Creativity isn’t carbon neutral: How complicit are agencies in the climate crisis?

Tom Tapper, founder of Nice and Serious, discusses our industry’s “brainprint”, the negative impact campaigns and ads can have on the broader environment.

8 November 2022

Let’s take a look at two ad campaigns, which both launched in October. British Originals by Uncommon for British Airways and I came by train by Mother for The Trainline. Both are brilliant. They employ a similar strategy, celebrating the many reasons why we might choose to travel. The print ads even share a minimal, copy-led aesthetic. But there’s a jumbo difference. One ad promotes the most carbon-intensive form of transport on the planet, the other is promoting one of the cleanest. One ad appeals to our self-interest as consumers, the other to our conscience as citizens.

These ads demonstrate how the creative industry has the power to push society in two very different directions. And as it stands, we’re flying very fast in the wrong direction.


Uncommon Creative Studio / MG: British Airways, A British Original (Copyright © Uncommon Creative Studio / British Airways, 2022)

A startling report, released by the UN last week, warned us that greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise by over 10 per cent by 2030, in stark contrast to the 45 per cent reduction needed to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. As world leaders come together in Egypt for the COP27 climate negotiations – questionably sponsored by Coca-Cola – it’s time for us to reflect on the response and responsibility of the creative industry.

Last week, I shared a spoof of the British Airways ad as a provocation to our industry. Perhaps unfairly, it pointed the finger at the ad, the agency and the airline. Because in reality it’s a systemic issue. Most big agencies have lucrative accounts with heavily polluting clients to pay the bills – whether it’s automotive, fast food or faster fashion. And the aviation industry is only a small part of a bigger problem. But the post sparked a heated debate.

There were many, like me, who had swooned over the ad because of its brilliance, only to later realise the unsustainable choices it was promoting. There were those who rightly pointed out that aviation only accounts for 2.5 per cent of global emissions. While others asked whether an airline could ever be expected to run an ad asking people not to fly. Most of the arguments were reasonable, apart from a handful of climate deniers and some bewildered onlookers who thought the ad was actually real (I later discovered Poe’s Law).

I think the reactions were so heated and polarised in part because we’re only just coming to terms with the true impact of our work and what it might mean for the future of the creative industry. For us to begin to process this inevitable change, I think we need to start by acknowledging three truths:


Mother / Stink Films / Golden Wolf / BYTE/DEPT®: Trainline, Better Days (I Came By train) (Copyright © Trainline, 2022)

The creative industry drives hyperconsumption

The creative output of our industry has linked smoking to sex appeal, cars with success, fast food with joy, and flights with escapism. It’s why agencies are often referred to as the “architects of desire”. Over decades of relentless campaigning, we’ve developed a culture of consumption where problems are seemingly solved by buying more stuff. And it’s the creation of that stuff that’s led to so many of the environmental crises we face – from deforestation to climate change.

Our footprint isn’t the problem

You’ll find agencies very forthcoming in pitch meetings, flaunting their effectiveness at influencing culture, starting movements and driving sales. But when it comes to acknowledging our environmental impact, we prefer to focus on our carbon footprint. Ironically, a term coined by BP in the 90s to shift responsibility from industry onto individuals, the carbon footprint of the creativity industry is comparatively tiny. Other than the energy use of our East London offices and an obligatory flight to Cannes once a year, we tread lightly on Mother Earth compared to more industrial sectors. But our real impact is what’s now being referred to as our “brainprint”. Ad campaigns are usually measured in terms of their effectiveness at increasing sales of a product. But industry network Purpose Disruptors are proposing a new measurement framework called “Advertised Emissions”, which also accounts for greenhouse gas emissions that result from an uplift in sales attributed to a campaign. For example, if a campaign to promote an airline results in a 5 per cent increase in flights, it will also increase emissions. Whereas, if a campaign to promote travelling by train results in a 5 per cent increase in rail journeys, it will decrease emissions by shifting people away from higher-carbon modes of transport.

Some businesses can’t grow

I’m under no illusion that an airline will ever tell its customers to fly less. But given the speed at which we need to decarbonise our society, some sectors like aviation simply can’t grow, as low-carbon long-distance flight is decades away from being feasible. And no matter how you spin it, the job of an agency is to grow a client’s business. So in my mind, it’s entirely counterproductive for an agency to promote a heavily polluting industry if we still want half a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

At my own agency, Nice and Serious, we democratically vote on every brief we receive using a tool we developed called the Moral Compass. It’s not perfect, but it helps us to focus on briefs that will create the most positive impact, whether it’s working on Rainforest Alliance’s first global brand campaign to remind people of the power they have within their household to create change; or designing a new visual identity for Cogo – a tech company that uses open banking data to enable people and businesses to accurately measure and reduce their carbon emissions. It does mean we say no to some clients, but it’s my belief that saying no is perhaps the most powerful signal we can send. As no matter how much influence we think we have, we’re not hired by our clients to reduce their carbon emissions.

But rather than focusing on what we can’t do, let’s focus on what we can. Both these ads demonstrate the powerful influence creative ideas can exert over human behaviour. So just imagine the impact we could have if the best creative minds and agencies in the world collectively decided to stop working for high-carbon clients? And instead only to focus on work that moves us forward.

It’s time we recognise that creativity isn’t carbon neutral.

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About the Author

Tom Tapper

Tom Tapper is the founder of Nice and Serious.

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