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The Greening Of Agencies: Lessons Via MAP’s Marc Alt

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Meet <bMarc Alt who owns Marc Alt + Partners (MAP), a design, research and brand strategy agency dedicated to sustainable innovation. Marc Alt is involved in developing and speaking at a variety industry conferences on the topic of sustainability and is quoted frequently in media. Marc is also involved with several initiatives that are helping designers and companies come together to accelerate understanding of sustainable design principles, including the The Designers Accord and the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design.

1) How do you think agencies can best serve their clients who want to go green?

Well, let’s start off with the word green. Agencies and companies are beginning to reconsider the word green for a variety of reasons. The idea of “going green” is a highly charged and incredibly complex topic that often does not solely relate to environmental performance (i.e. green) and can encompass a very large set of variables.

Many traditional, large companies are finding themselves paralyzed about sending any kind of green message out into the media these days for fear of being labeled as greenwashers by a whole host of critics waiting in the wings – environmental and social NGOs, reporters, journalists and bloggers. The potential brand damage that can be caused by environmental mishaps, toxicity and health issues, hidden skeletons in the vendor, labor and supply chain closets, past wrong-doings and other nastiness coming to light is tremendous. In this day of instant, ubiquitous, socially networked information transfer, a brand disaster is literally just a blog post away and is not easily remedied via traditional PR or media efforts. The agency world (advertising, brand strategy or PR) is in the midst of coming to terms with this dynamic and these converging forces. So, as you can imagine, “going green” is not something to take lightly if you are worried about preserving intangible brand value.

To answer your question, though, the way that agencies can best serve their clients is to help them get back in touch with traditional business values. Those values I consider to be honesty, transparency and accountability…old fashioned values that should be the absolute north star of any company that is hoping to build trust with their customers as a “green” company.

2) What are the common mistakes agencies make when dealing with the greening of their clients?

The classic definition of greenwashing is highlighting some small environmental attribute or improvement that essentially hides much deeper systemic problems. That is about as clear and simple as it gets. There are endless examples and more and more by the day.

3) Can you name an agency who is currently doing great green work?

A number of large agencies are approaching this topic in a public way and I think that some of their competitors are intently sitting on the sidelines watching very carefully. Saatchi/Publicis have been very aggressive with their positioning on this, most recently by acquiring Adam Werbach’s consultancy and creating the new division, Saatchi S. Adam, who I know, has recently gone public with what he is deeming the “Birth of Blue” and a strong position on advocating for the power of making sustainability personal to the consumer, targeting a goal of creating awareness among 1 billion individuals over the next few years.

I personally feel that individual action on the part of consumers will be a huge and necessary part of the discussion, but certainly not enough. Big companies and industry “going green” in meaningful, measurable and accountable ways is truly the area where the rubber hits the road when you actually look at the numbers. Things like energy efficiency in buildings, reducing packaging and waste, investing in renewable energy, treating employees well, shifting to sustainable sourcing, protecting ecosystems and practicing good global citizenship…things that are mostly behind the scenes and invisible to the consumer. Consumers can definitely “vote with their dollars” by supporting companies that are making strides in the right direction, but those companies need to be truly making a deep and meaningful effort. The good news is that many are. Agencies like my own are endeavoring to tell the story of these companies.

There is also a growing communal intelligence and discussion that has spread beyond the traditional green “movement” to the larger public, which is great sign and an important trend that should guide the strategy of all agencies and companies in a big way.

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