Ogilvy’s Andy Wilson, Senior Partner at Ogilvy Consulting, talks to WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo about how marketing can influence sustainability and why creativity is a big opportunity for strategists to explore systemic solutions. 

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

WARC: How have you seen brands responding to the call for more sustainable transformation in the last few years? And where do agencies fit into this? 

Andy Wilson: In general, organisations have been very focused on integrating sustainability into their operations, which means two different functions – operational transformation (e.g. decarbonising the supply chain and manufacturing processes) and measuring and disclosing their sustainability performance to the capital markets via sustainability reports and investor engagement. Neither of these areas are the natural space for marketing and traditional communications agencies to play into. 

So where is the opportunity for agencies to contribute to sustainability transformation? 

At an upstream level, we are finding that the more sustainability-progressive organisations view sustainability as more than an operational imperative, where the efforts and progress they are making can often get lost in their internal operational silos. For example, they might be making great progress in shifting their manufacturing energy sources to renewables, but few people outside that initiative would know about this or connect it positively to the larger mission of the company.  

The more progressive organisations see an opportunity to use their sustainability vision as an organisational lever for transformation, which requires them to articulate their sustainability strategy for themselves and their external stakeholders in more compelling ways.  

As a strategic partner to these organisations’ leadership teams, we are finding opportunities to help them clarify, sharpen and integrate their sustainability strategy within their organisation. This brings two high-value benefits to organisations: 

  • Clarity on how the organisation’s chosen sustainability strategy drives and supports their mission and long-range business strategy (the “why?”).
  • Clarity on how their sustainability can inform and inspire meaningful action across the organisation and deep into their divisions, and – ultimately – into their marketing strategy and their consumer brands (the “how?”).

This more enlightened approach of “sustainability as organisational transformation” is gathering momentum among MNCs in Europe and we are seeing some signs in other regions.  

What other areas of sustainability do you think marketing and advertising can credibly influence? Where does the ambiguity sit?

Creativity has a super-power that can aid many different sustainability efforts: namely insights into people; behaviour change; innovation and storytelling. Many sustainability commentators are pleading for this extra dimension to convert the existing science of climate change into mainstream action.    

But first, we have to be clear that different sustainability efforts are focused on different stakeholders, so agencies need to broaden their focus beyond consumers. For example, the goal of the ESG report is to impress on your investors who are increasingly sceptical of the integrity and commercial returns associated with ESG scores. On the other hand, employees, especially the younger generation, are constantly evaluating their employer’s vision and track record on sustainability, and whether that matches their own values and priorities. Each stakeholder will have a different view and agenda, which is why it’s important to map out the key stakeholders. 

What could the agency agenda be?

Well, it depends on the relationship you have with your clients. I see three obvious opportunities to make real change:

  1. It could be an activist/consultant role, where the mission is to rally the client to become more sustainable. The challenge here is to ensure we have sufficient credibility and technical know-how.
  2. Another agency opportunity can be around innovation. How can we persuade clients that their current and planned innovations are not sufficiently radical or far-reaching? How can we bring more imaginative and commercially viable new business models, new partnership models, and new customer propositions to the client that step-change their progress to sustainability? This also requires considerable technical capabilities and know-how. 
  3. On a more business-as-usual level, agencies can and should be supporting brands with their communications agenda, including reputation management, crisis management and messaging so that brands can communicate their sustainability agenda and progress in an appropriate and responsible way, without risk of greenwashing.   
Our survey shows that 83% of strategists in Asia agree that it's important for brands to take a stand on environmental issues. But the survey results show that sustainability objectives rarely, if ever, appear in client briefs. Despite the push towards sustainability in recent years, why do you think this is still the case? 

This is another version of the “intention-action” gap that defines sustainability, this time in the marketing/agency space. Yes, we all want to make a positive difference as companies and brands, but how many of us are actually doing so and in ways that involve market-facing propositions that will move the needle (versus cleaning-up operations mentioned earlier)?   

My hypothesis is that legacy companies are only delivering incremental improvements in their consumer-facing propositions, such as moving towards recyclable packaging or producing products that use water more responsibly. Important as these improvements are, it is questionable as to whether they will shift consumer preference. The question is whether they warrant scarce marketing and communications resources – will retailers and consumers care? Is it a good use of marketing dollars vs proven tactics that drive category performance or preference? 

Briefs can come from the client or can be proactively created by the agency. What types of ideas should agencies be thinking of bringing to their clients? 

Agencies need to be very clear on whether and how they can credibly add value to this agenda.  

Marketing companies are incredibly good at operations, procurement, manufacturing and material design. It would be naive for an agency to try and drive those conversations. 

Rather, agencies are excellent at human insight and behaviour change and imagining the future, so I think innovation is a legitimate space for an agency with the right capabilities to play in and can bring the greatest value to clients. 

I have found it helpful to think of creativity as offering seven different ways to create positive change: 

  1. Reveal a truth or problem that requires urgent action  
  2. Protest a situation that needs solving, using the mechanics of peer group pressure
  3. Educate an audience about a positive path to change
  4. Nudge people and policy makers into making a positive change
  5. Entertain people about the improvements that are to be enjoyed once change is achieved
  6. Accelerate adoption of new technologies and sustainable solutions
  7. Engineer more sustainable outcomes by connecting one sector’s waste with another sector’s value resource.  
Even if agencies pitch green ideas, what are some of the barriers in the way of getting them over the line?  

Marketing and sustainability are like oil and water – they serve different goals (growth and life respectively), and these are in many ways incompatible.  

Most frequently I hear cost as the main barrier, such as the cost of material change, the manufacturing process and packaging. Usually, they don’t have the access to the long-term capital and financial decisions required to effectively transition to sustainability. So, agencies need to be clearer on how these efforts unlock value, from employee value to customer value. 

There is a need for strategists to have a broader systemic view of how to unlock that value, such as understanding different business models, distribution models, packaging solutions, new consumption solutions, new consumer experiences, etc. 

These are tough challenges because they are systemic in nature. It’s really hard for legacy companies to disrupt their own model and cashflow sufficiently to drive those changes. 

How much should brands be integrating sustainability into all aspects of their marketing? 

Sometimes, if brands lean too explicitly on their sustainability story, it might only attract a niche audience at best. 

Let’s take the example of alternative proteins. If you do vegan meat, then at most you might achieve 15% trial of the market with that message... One of the executives of a major alternative protein brand went on record recently to say that in retrospect, he might have positioned the brand with a broader category narrative around health, such as low cholesterol meats. Low cholesterol appeals to more people than “vegan”. This is an example of how to integrate the sustainability story into the brand proposition that makes sense for the category and the business. 

However, it’s not one size fits all. In some situations it will make sense to integrate sustainability into the overall proposition; in others it will make sense to keep the sustainability story separate and discrete. 

How can strategists more effectively unlock the power of creativity to solve these systemic problems? In what ways do we need to change our behaviour or mindset? 

Creativity is agnostic, it does not always have to be used as a tool for growth. If you remove those assumptions, you have more of an open field to apply creativity as a way of creating positive and lasting change.  

And if we redeploy the role of creativity to solve systemic challenges, you now have new applications of creativity. 

Can you give examples? What type of creativity do you think is underutilised to solve for sustainability challenges in APAC? 

I see the biggest opportunities coming from creativity that unlocks systemic solutions. The amazing Piñatex work is a testament to that kind of creativity, using the by-products of pineapple agriculture to create a sustainable alternative to leather.  

Then there are other areas that drive change from the perspective of the consumer. How can you make it easier for consumers or retailers to make greener choices? Can we help to create new markets of green growth for clients, using incentives, design and branding in new ways? 

Think of how Airbnb and Grab created new markets to connect consumer demand to underutilised supply. What if we could do that for sustainability: connecting solutions with demand across sectors?  

What skills should strategists develop to help them take on sustainability challenges more effectively? 

One specific answer would be to learn systems thinking, as this is one massive interconnected system we need to change. 

Within that would be to push ourselves and understand radically different models of economics, business, innovation and cultural demand. As one commentator said, “there is no scenario that is not radical”.