Sam Wilson, CEO of Syntiro Associates, and Dale Parmenter, CEO of DRPG, discuss sustainability in the creative industry.
Where did your passion for sustainability stem from, and why such a focus on the events, creative and advertising industries?
Sam: “I’ve always had ties to the creative industries, and behind the scenes I was building a background in environmental management, social biology, psychology, research methods and statistics. At first, I had no idea what to do with those credentials but what really interested me is what happens between the facts, the raw data, and what people see, think and do in response.
“Something happens in between the science and people’s behaviour, so it really excites me to be in the middle of all of that, which is creative communications. The scientists have their job. They tell us the scientific facts about global heating and related implications, timelines, and targets. But it’s up to the creative communicators to amplify the behavioural and attitudinal change that is essential if we are to meet them.”
How did DRPG’s partnership with Sam begin?
Dale: “I saw Sam take part in the ‘Green’ panel at an ‘Events 100’ awards in 2007. The discussion was on sustainability, which 15 years ago was pretty new in our industry.
“Sam was so passionate about the moves we needed to make, and I was captivated. She said one thing I’ll never forget: ‘If we don’t act now, when it comes to the tendering process, you will be excluded in the future’. It’s taken a few years to happen, but it’s a reality today.
“Afterwards I invited her to speak to our team, and it went from there. I wasn’t quite sure what we were going to achieve, but I’ve always been passionate about business being part of the community. We had always supported our local community, but there was a lot more to do.
“We had no agenda, so it was just an exploratory few weeks and Sam convinced me that we should weave sustainability into everything through ‘systems thinking’ and gain certification to BS 8901 (British standard for event sustainability management) and ISO 14001 (international standard for environmental management). We were the first PR agency to achieve the BS 8901, and then went on to be the first to achieve ISO 20121 (international standard for event sustainability).”
What have been your biggest challenges working in the creative sectors?
Sam: “What I have seen repeatedly is that companies either have all strategy and no tactics, all tactics and no strategy, or they have both but there is a disconnect between them.
This is where a system works, because it ensures everything is working together to take you to where you want to be… your vision: from strategy and governance to policy and operational controls, to data analysis and continual improvement.
“We take organisations on a journey from risk management (how we ensure we meet all compliance obligations), to operational objectives (how we reduce our activity-related impacts), to being purpose-driven (how we amplify the potential for positive change through our client relationships and the creative experience).
“DRPG’s recent focus on B Corp certification means it is actively working towards purpose-driven objectives. Our new app actually measures the ‘potential for positive change’ across environmental as well as social dimensions. This will be an integral part of the score given to clients.
“Also, by incorporating systems thinking with B Corp purpose-driven criteria, you are building on strong foundations. This enables a brand to deliver on its sustainability promises and communicate these authentically. Without this, there is a huge risk of reputational damage, particularly given the recent publication of the Green Claims Code. The gap between promise and delivery (what audiences see, experience, and feel) is where a brand lives or dies! I am not sure people see sustainability in this light just yet.”
Dale: “The first challenge for DRPG was to get the team onboard because we had countless books of policies (not great looking back!), and I think we overcomplicated it. The team didn’t get it and they thought we were solely trying to save the planet.
“We changed the narrative and began making tiny little changes that build up to a big thing, starting by individual objectives for every department to see what would make a difference. I’ll never forget the print team rolling the vinyl back slightly, so it saved 29cm every time they did a print run, which of course saved hundreds of metres by the end of the year. That’s when the team got it. We simplified all their systems and made it practical.
“My concern from the beginning was that this was nothing more than a tick-box exercise and we wanted to create tangible, real actions and changes. That’s got to be done with small actions – small things that will make a difference. We’ve adopted that all the way through and we carry on with that now.
“Syntiro has developed a performance tool that we are helping to code into an app for project teams. This app is different from a carbon calculator because it focuses on tactical carbon reduction plans as part of a wider sustainability lens that includes biodiversity controls, access and inclusivity, and the ‘potential for positive change’ metric. We can also adapt it to ensure we are delivering upon our own ESG strategy plus any specific client requirements, meaning that it becomes part of the client ROI in a way that is evidenced and therefore defendable.
“We are not saying that carbon is not important – but it is only part of the picture. There is also a risk that people can get stuck in ‘carbon tunnel vision’ and focus on granular data collation and offsetting rather than actions to reduce identified carbon hotspots. Offsetting, at best, is a distraction, and at worst, can be damaging to the environment. We are very clear that we are all about action – not offsetting!”
What are businesses’ biggest misconception about sustainability and ESG strategies?
Sam: The separation of approaches either in terms of trying to separate the three dimensions of people, profit, planet or sitting solely within risk management, operational or purpose-driven categories. The fact is that everything is connected and understanding the nature of these connections is where meaningful change happens.
“There is a huge misconception about ISOs (international standards) and the value of ‘systems thinking’. Done well, this ensures sustainability is integrated into the heart of a business model and acts as a vital business enabler. The certification is merely an output of this. Most companies just don’t think about it in terms of business modelling like DRPG does.
“The other thing, specifically for agencies, is how to think what a responsible client looks like. This is the elephant in the room, as we could be promoting services or products that cause more harm.
”We have developed a ‘Responsible Client Decision Tree’ that lists potentially high-risk industries and encourages companies to consider the associated risks and opportunities of working with clients who operate within these. There are many variables that need to be weighed up so it is far more complex than ‘we just can’t work with them.’
“For example, do they have an audited ESG report or verified net zero target, are you being asked to promote alternative sustainable solutions and do these comply with the Green Claims Code. Do you have any control over decisions, what do your staff think? Of course, if you do decide the opportunities outweigh the risks, you also need to ensure you have the mechanism in place to deliver upon the opportunities, like the app we are developing.”
What’s your advice for businesses starting their sustainability journey?
Dale: Don’t be afraid of it. You will not get everything right because we still don’t get things right. You will mess up but have a go and involve your team. That’s the big one. Don’t sit this in a little department on its own; while you might need somebody to measure and lead, all the team need to own it and be part of it. Research shows that will make for a better workplace and will help to build you a purpose that people can relate to.
As far as Syntiro is concerned, what does the future look like?
Sam: “I’m fiercely optimistic. We don’t live in an inert system, and everything is connected. So, the more positive action we take, the more that’s going to amplify these positive feedback effects. But we must make sure we are measuring what matters so we can make meaningful change through our actions.
“I agree with making sure that the team are onboard to take action, but businesses also need to accurately assess their company-wide hotspots and develop meaningful KPIs that include, but are not limited to, kg of carbon and the collation of granular data that is often unreliable and difficult to get. Otherwise, my fear is we’re just going to be measuring our poor behaviour better, and we don’t have time to do that. We’ve got to have an accelerated transition, creative communicators and brave courageous daring leaders to achieve this.”
Dale: “Right now, I’m concerned the acceleration in sustainability may start to stall in the current situation. If we go into recession, the priority shifts to profit over people and planet, and businesses feel forced into it because they think they can’t afford it. Another misconception is that being sustainable means spending more money, which of course it doesn’t have to, it can actually save money. It can be much more effective. We must watch our momentum and deceleration here.”
What’s next for DRPG’s sustainability goals?
Dale: “There’s no destination. It’s a continual journey that keeps going on to another level. We’re proud to have been recognised for our efforts, specifically this year with The Queen’s Award in Sustainable Development, as it keeps that momentum going for us as a team.
“It would be great to get B-Corp for 2023, but you don’t say: ’Right, we’ve done that. Now what do we do?’ It just keeps rolling forward and there’s always going to be another challenge because nobody can stand up and say they’ve completed it.
“No organisation on the planet can absolutely say we’re 100% there and there’s a beauty in that. The journey will lead us to a more sustainable future with innovations and creativity along the way.”