Madison Ave. Warms to Climate Change

Shops Vie for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection Biz

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Not too long ago, a premier ad agency wouldn't touch a campaign warning about the effects of global warming, fearing backlash from the automakers and oil companies that keep Madison Avenue's lights on. But now one of the most hotly contended pitches out there is for the Alliance for Climate Protection, the organization formed last year by Al Gore.
Al Gore has helped create a climate in which his business is hotly contested.
Al Gore has helped create a climate in which his business is hotly contested. Credit: Nancy Kaszerman

Four elite agencies -- Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the Martin Agency and Y&R -- are squaring off for the business and are expected to present to the former vice president himself early next month, according to executives familiar with the review. The budget for the "historic, three-to-five-year, multimedia global campaign," as the request for proposals puts it, is contingent on how much money the alliance raises. Media spending will likely be more than $100 million a year.

That elite shops aren't scared off from crafting environmental messaging that could be tacitly critical of big business's sometimes unsustainable ways is yet another sign of the mainstreaming of green thinking within the corporate world at large. And within the ad community it points to newfound willingness to embrace hot-button social causes. The alliance account, some are saying, could even lend some luster to the winner's roster, given many major marketers' recent embrace of sustainability throughout their value chains, from product development to manufacturing to marketing communications.

Formerly taboo
Many agencies do high-profile and often award-winning work for causes such as smoking cessation, drug-use prevention and disaster relief, but they typically steer clear of more divisive issues and political campaigns, making executives who want to work on them do so outside the auspices of the agency.

Until very recently at least, global warming would have been seen as such an issue. Long accepted by the scientific community, research suggesting human activity is raising the earth's temperature with dire environmental consequences has been disputed by many in the business community, especially automakers and other sectors with big industrial outputs.

But corporate America has begun an about-face in the wake of a groundswell of popular interest, having seen what developing an environmentally friendly product such as the Prius has done for Toyota's reputation and its bottom line. July's Live Earth concert, whose proceeds are going to the alliance, was loaded down with corporate sponsors, among them Microsoft, whose MSN division had web rights to the show.

Chris Becker, chairman-chief creative officer of DraftFCB's New York office, said blowback from less-than-eco-friendly marketers is unlikely. "It's such a loud issue and so accepted that no one can get away with that," he said. "There's already such a broad platform for agencies."

Y&R, for instance, was involved in promoting Live Earth, despite counting oil giant Chevron as a client. Y&R CEO Hamish McLennan even appeared with Mr. Gore at this year's Cannes Advertising Festival. A Chevron spokesperson couldn't be reached for comment. And as more evidence of just how comfortable agencies are with the issue, DraftFCB last week sponsored an auction of global warming-inspired art created by employees at the agency that benefits an environmental nonprofit organization.

Doing something
The Alliance's RFP is, as you might expect, part inspirational -- quoting Gandhi, M. Scott Peck, Erik Erikson, and of course Mr. Gore -- and part detailed description of the task ahead for the winner. That will involve convincing people to making the climate issue, which already has high awareness, a more actionable priority.

"The world probably doesn't need much more meek communication on the issues of climate change," said David Hessekiel, founder and president of the Cause Marketing Forum. "Anybody with a pulse probably now knows that there are serious environmental issues facing us, but that doesn't mean there's been a huge sea change in consumption of energy."

A winner likely will be chosen shortly after the final pitches, given that the Alliance wants at least a soft launch online in September, with test-market advertising beginning later in the fall. A spokesman for the Alliance declined to comment, as did agency representatives.

Despite the big media budget attached, agencies eager to change the world shouldn't expect to get rich in the process. The winner won't be expected to work on a pro-bono basis, but the RFP cautions that most of the Alliance's partners are working "at below their regular market rates."
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