Half of top advertising board members linked to polluting industries, research finds

New research has revealed that nearly half of the board members at the world’s six largest advertising and public relations companies have affiliations with polluting industries, posing a conflict of interest amidst mounting pressure from green groups to cease promoting and protecting climate-damaging companies.

Half of top advertising board members linked to polluting industries, research finds

The six firms have collectively held at least 163 contracts with fossil fuel clients over the past two years.

This is according to research conducted by DeSmog and campaign group Clean Creatives, both of which are research initiatives focused on clearing the PR pollution that obscures scientific understanding and solutions related to climate change.

The study uncovered that among the combined 64 board members across the six PR companies, including Omnicom Group, WPP, Interpublic Group (IPG), Publicis Groupe, Dentsu and Havas, 32 members have substantial expertise in carbon-intensive sectors.

These sectors include fossil fuels, fossil fuel financing, plastics, utilities and aviation, with 22 board members currently holding positions within these industries.

According to the research, the six firms, with combined revenues of $67bn in 2022, have collectively held at least 163 contracts with fossil fuel clients over the past two years.

Although all six companies have publicly pledged to reduce carbon emissions, the analysis suggests that they are reluctant to prioritise long-term sustainability over short-term profitability, particularly in relation to contracts with oil companies.

The research also highlights that each of these companies is part of Ad Net Zero, a voluntary industry initiative where members commit to voluntarily decrease in-house greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Nevertheless, Ad Net Zero’s five-step action plan does not urge members to evaluate the broader climate consequences of their activities, such as the possibility that creating campaigns to improve the reputations of heavily polluting clients might reduce pressure to reduce emissions.

An Ad Net Zero Spokesperson said: “Our five-step action plan provides a clear roadmap for action to measure and reduce emissions from advertising production.

“Action 5 specifically calls on the industry to harness their power to lead the way in sustainable behaviour change, and for the Campaign Ad Net Zero Awards, we specifically ask for evidence of real-world impact, whether that is reduction in food waste, reduction in GHG emissions or shifts in behaviour away from unsustainable practices.

“All Ad Net Zero supporters, global, and at a national level, are required to set public science-based net-zero targets and measure and report progress annually.”

An in-depth look at the firms

Out of the six firms analysed, the study highlights that Omnicom’s board stands as the most ‘climate-conflicted’, with seven of its 11 directors having direct affiliations with polluting industries.

Since the beginning of 2022, Omnicom has held 54 fossil fuel contracts, including three with Exxon, the third-largest oil and gas company in the world by revenue.

Earlier this year, ExxonMobil initiated legal action against two of its investors that proposed a non-binding resolution urging the company to reduce its carbon emissions and include Scope 3 in its emissions measurements.

In its annual report for 2022, Omnicom revealed that approximately $286m, equivalent to 2% of its revenues, originated from the oil, gas and utilities sectors.

An Omnicom employee involved in staff-led climate groups said: “When you’re in a position like I am, trying to make change at an agency to make it more climate-minded, and you see this research, it makes you wonder whether it’s all a bit of a waste of time.

“It helps you understand why we’re continuing to see agencies and holding companies like Omnicom take on fossil fuel briefs. It’s pretty disheartening.”

In DeSmog’s analysis, New York-based Interpublic Group (IPG) closely trailed behind Omnicom, with six out of its ten board members possessing experience in industries associated with pollution, including natural gas, shipping and plastics.

At Havas, the analysis reveals that three out of nine board members have connections to polluting industries. In 2023, Havas secured a significant contract with Shell to oversee the management of the company’s global advertising spots, which was met by a “die-in” protest from climate activists at its London office.

The analysis further reveals that five out of nine directors at Dentsu have affiliations with polluting companies or sectors. Additionally, nearly half of the 13 directors at Publicis and 12 directors at WPP have similar ties to ‘climate-damaging’ companies.

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