It might seem paradoxical to care passionately about climate change and sustainability and yet work for an advertising agency. But as Head of Strategy at Dentsu Creative France, Alexandra Servant-Rony sees her job as an opportunity to help drive change.
“You know of course that advertising is one of the most detested professions in France,” she says, with an ironic smile, “precisely because it’s linked to hyper-consumption and the depletion of resources. So I think in the first place there are an enormous number of things we need to change about the way we approach our profession, the way we talk about it, and the way we carry out our mission on a daily basis.”
She points out that advertising and marketing are simply tools made available to brands and organizations; the way of wielding those tools can change. If since the post-war years they’ve been used to drive consumption and acquisition – extolled as the keys to happiness – they can also be used today to promote more virtuous and sustainable lifestyles.
“This change has only taken place over the past three years,” says Alexandra. “We’re evolving from a vision that was extremely mercantile to one that’s more societal. If our job is to communicate to the public, then we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what kind of messages, or what kind of narrative, we want to send.”
This can begin as early as the brief. At Dentsu, each brief is interrogated to determine whether, among other things, the subject is not only genuinely helpful to the consumer, but useful to society too. “It helps us steer clear of messages that are too superficial or which might encourage wastefulness.”
Individuals, not "consumers"
Defining a person purely as a “consumer” is also a constraint, she adds. People should no longer be defined solely by what they buy, but by their interests, their convictions, their profession, their cultural influences – elements that the agency’s strategists are urged to bear in mind as they envisage a more rounded view of individuals.
These attitudes are impacting the commercial images around us. If the core of an advertising strategy is a film or a poster, these must demonstrate diversity and responsibility. For example, if a family member opens a refrigerator, should it still be brimming over with food and soft drinks? That too sends the subliminal message that plentiful is good. Behaviour change is in the details.
Another example of this is the way we receive messages. Digital advertising burns up a lot of energy; in fact Dentsu has put in place a system that measures the carbon footprint of its campaigns. Intrusive advertising is also out as the agency seeks not to “target” people, but to accompany them in a way that may have a positive impact on their lives. Increasingly, Dentsu is playing the same role with its clients.
“We’re advising them on their purpose, their societal engagement, their environment impact, their working methods, acting as consultants because a CSR strategy must transform a business from within.”
The often unspoken challenge of behaving sustainably in business is that most brands and companies want to increase their sales and market share – which means consuming more resources. “It’s a dilemma that companies face, but they know they must change – if only because there are competitors coming onto the market that are ‘sustainable natives’, and can already propose an alternative. So, yes, perhaps they feel obliged to grow, but they can decide to grow less….There are no quick fixes: our job to accompany them on long-term strategies rather than proposing short-term solutions.”
One tool to aid this process is La Fresque du Climat – rather awkwardly translated as The Climate Fresk in English – a three-hour workshop that explains “the fundamental science behind climate change” and empowers participants to take action. Dentsu Creative France is giving its employees and clients the opportunity to experience the workshop.
A number of Dentsu clients in France have already embarked on wide-ranging transformations. Auto repair and servicing chain Midas, for example, is adapting to a world in which electric vehicles are far more common. It’s retraining staff, changing the configuration of its garages, and offering servicing at accessible prices to electric vehicle owners. The garages themselves are evolving into community hubs where people can pick up “click and collect” packages – cutting out the wasteful “last mile” of deliveries.
Meanwhile Pilot Pen, maker of ballpoint pens and other writing tools, has launched a range of eco-responsible products made of recycled plastic, plus the ability to recharge pens rather than throwing them away.
Similarly, chocolate brand deNeuville is rethinking the way it sources its ingredients and packaging, working more closely with local artisans while at the same time reducing waste. “An entire CSR strategy from top to bottom,” as Alexandra puts it.
Needless to say, Dentsu Creative France is behind the messages that alert consumers to such changes. “We always advise our clients not to communicate on the changes until they’re complete, in order to remain transparent and authentic. We communicate genuine results.”
With inflation rising and household budgets getting tighter, isn’t there a danger that saving the planet might take second place to saving money? Alexandra is not convinced.
“The consumer should no longer have to choose between economy and ecology,” she says. “In an inflationary context, in the first instance individuals will perhaps be more vigilant with regard to the price, but the crises that we have been going through for years have also brought about changes that have structurally changed our consumption patterns and redefined our priorities. New uses offer opportunities to reconcile economy and ecology, by promoting circularity, use for ownership, second-hand, repair... This is also a great opportunity for brands to develop more virtuous businesses.”