Ad Agency Awareness: Who’s Conscious About Their Clients?

Ad agencies often work both sides of the spectrum, creating campaigns for the greenest companies as well as the biggest polluters.

While there are some advertising agencies that carefully select their clients based on a certain vision, like social good or environmental friendliness, most simply follow the money. What else but financial motivation could lead to a single agency crafting advertising campaigns for both Monsanto and one of its biggest detractors – Greenpeace?

Let’s take a look at five of the biggest advertising agencies handling some of the world’s top clients, noting the good – campaigns that work to protect the environment or promote social welfare, and the bad – ads for companies that tend to be irresponsible.

Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett’s mission statement focuses on the effects that its advertisements can have on the world at large. “Creativity has the power to transform human behavior. This is the core belief of what we call HumanKind. It’s not about advertising or brand propositions or selling products. It’s about people and purpose. It’s an approach to marketing that serves true human needs, not the other way around. That’s why everything we do for brands is designed with a human purpose in mind… A brand with a true HumanKind purpose can change the world.”

    The Good

  • WWF’s Earth Hour Campaign – Leo Burnett won Best International PR Campaign at the Cannes Lions in 2009 for its work with WWF for Earth Hour. The agency set a goal of reaching over 1 billion people across 50+ nations, and managed to turn Earth Hour into the largest social movement in history.
  • Amnesty International’s Tyrannybook – Leo Burnett’s Lisbon, Portugal office created a campaign based on a social network dedicated to naming and shaming the world leaders who violate human rights.

    The Questionable

  • McDonalds  – Leo Burnett is one of three agencies currently working on international campaigns for the fast-food giant.  While McDonald’s isn’t an egregious polluter or human rights violator, they’re not exactly promoting health and environmental responsibility either.
  • Proctor & Gamble – The world’s largest producer of consumer packaged goods, Proctor & Gamble is aggressively greening its operations. However, its product range is full of junk food, toxic artificial fragrances and other products that aren’t exactly eco-friendly, so whether this account belongs under “Good” or “Questionable” is anybody’s guess.

R&R Partners

The CEO of R&R Partners, a Las Vegas, Nevada-based advertising agency, was also an adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. But Billy Vassiliadis’ partner at that same agency, Pete Ernaut, is a staunch Republican. The combination has created a political monster of sorts – a message machine that pits one side against the other in a fight wherein, for R&R’s bottom line at least, there is no loser. Maybe that explains how they can simultaneously promote both human rights and “clean coal.” Tellingly, their “philosophy” reads simply, “We just love to win. Almost as much as we hate to lose.” Their most successful campaign is the now-infamous “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.”

The Good

  • Human Rights Campaign – Working to establish civil rights protection for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in Nevada, the HRC’s advertisements are managed by R&R Partners.
  • Flip the Script Anti-Bullying Campaign – This campaign encourages teens to “flip the script” on bullying by pledging to speak out and address the problem in their own schools and communities. The campaign was inspired by the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, a victim of cyber-bullying.

    The Questionable

  • The Clean Coal Campaign – R&R is the agency responsible for the entire ‘Clean Coal’ spin on the polluting, health-draining coal mining industry. Funded by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), which includes big mining and utility companies like Peabody Energy, the multi-million-dollar campaign spreads disinformation about the effects of coal.
  •  Utility and mining companies galore – R&R handles advertising campaigns for BP America, Couer D’Alene Mining, Johnson Utilities, the Nevada Mining Association, Newmont Mining and Ridgeway Oil.


The “Most Awarded Agency Network in the World” for 5 consecutive years, BBDO is one of the biggest players in the industry with an extensive list of clients including PepsiCo, FedEx, Chevrolet and Nike. They’re the creative folks behind those super-weird Skittles “Taste the Rainbow” ads. BBDO is an international conglomerate with individual agencies located on nearly every continent.

    The Good

  • General Electric’s Ecomagination Campaign – BBDO New York spearheaded the interactive ads for GE’s Ecomagination, a portfolio of eco-friendly innovations that meet environmental challenges while also driving economic growth.
  • Doppelganger Human to Canine Pairing Software – BBDO is responsible for a fun campaign for Pedigree, Doppelganger. The Doppelganger website connects homeless dogs to their human “doubles” using face-matching software.
  • PETA – Say what you will about this controversy-loving animal rights organization, but at least we know that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is looking out for the non-human creatures of the world. BBDO actually aligned with PETA to create an internal awareness program that advocates for the humane treatment of animals in the advertising industry, winning a PETA award for its efforts.
  • Greenpeace – BBDO Moscow produced a series of ads for Greenpeace called “Do You Know What You Eat?” The ads are a direct challenge to Monsanto, advocating the labeling of genetically modified ingredients.

    The Questionable

  • ExxonMobil – Are the conscious, world-improving campaigns that BBDO produces canceled out by its involvement with one of the world’s most notorious polluters? In November 2011, BBDO won the bulk of ExxonMobil’s global creative business including the management of its corporate image. It’s a highly profitable account that will inevitably require some creative spin and damage control.
  • Monsanto – Interestingly, in addition to the Greenpeace ads, BBDO has produced a number of ads for Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. Roundup has been found to kill human cells and seriously damage the health of all of those animals that PETA cares so much about.

Ogilvy & Mather

With an agency this big, perhaps there’s always bound to be some overlap between smart, conscious advertisements and promotions for some of the world’s most frighteningly unscrupulous corporations. Ogilvy & Mather has 450 offices in 120 countries with more than 18,000 employees and helps craft public personas for companies like American Express, Ford, IBM and Unilever.

    The Good

  •  Greenpeace – Ogilvy & Mather has spearheaded a number of campaigns for this renowned environmental organization including “Save Our Seas,” “Disposable Forests,” and a heartstring-tugging ad depicting sinking polar bears in place of glaciers in the Arctic.
  • – This global initiative to support climate change action at Copenhagen in 2009 was created for the United Nations, in the hopes of creating a movement. While we all know how little was actually achieved at that summit, the campaign was quite striking.

    The Questionable

  • Monsanto – In the past, Ogilvy & Mather has created ads for the Monsanto-owned Equal and NutraSweet artificial sweeteners. Granted, the ads were produced by a small Ogilvy & Mather office in the Philippines, and sweetener ads are not quite the same as promoting the agricultural monopoly’s ads for genetically modified foods and toxic Roundup herbicide. But it’s still Monsanto.
  • Nestle – Ogilvy & Mather handles international marketing for Nestle, a brand mostly known for its slave-labor chocolate. Nestle also produces bottled water by exploiting and monopolizing pristine springs in rural communities. The company’s pumping has significantly added aquifers in a number of cities including Mecosta, Michigan.


Another one of the world’s largest advertising networks, Draftfcb is perhaps best known for its many fast food and junk food advertisements for brands like Oreo, KFC and Taco Bell. It also handles the promotions for a number of massive pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

    The Good

  • The Shelter Pet Project – Created for the Ad Council in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States and Maddie’s Fund, this campaign aims to encourage the adoption of pets in shelters.

    The Questionable

  • Dow – How can anyone make a notorious polluter look good? Draftfcb is charged with that daunting task, and has produced a number of advertisements that attempt to brand Dow as a scientific innovator. Dow Chemical is responsible for toxic environmental pollution in a number of communities such as Midland, Michigan, where rivers downstream of its plant are contaminated with chlorinated furans and dioxins. Plus, Dow has refused to take any responsibility for the health and environmental effects of the deadly Bhopal gas disaster after acquiring the Union Carbide company.
  • Merck – This pharmaceutical company may just balance itself out in the long run. Though it recently had to pay a $1.5 million penalty for violations of federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, and paid a $20 million penalty for polluting drinking water in Philadelphia, it’s also gaining a lot of positive attention for its efforts to green itself internally and make its operations more sustainable.
  • Pfizer – This pharmaceutical giant has come under fire for keeping its HIV/AIDS-related drugs out of reach of the world’s poor, violating the Clean Air Act and allegedly testing its drugs on poor, critically ill Nigerian children.
  • Nestle – Draftfcb is another ad agency handling ads for this food and bottled water producer.

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.