OgilvyEarth: is this what a future communications agency looks like?

Schaefer, CarmenRed & Yellow



Media & Communications Design


  • ethics, accountability, good citizenship, human-centred design, misleading advertising


Viktor Papanek, in his seminal book about ethics and design, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology  and  Social  Change (1971,  revised  1984)  declares  that  designers  share  responsibility  for humankind’s environmental mistakes, by all the products and tools that they have sold and created, either by bad design or by turning a blind eye (1984, p. 56).

He is very critical of design that only measures its success against market growth. He talks for example about designers who create – and then win industry awards for – beautiful intricate packaging in order to sell what he calls ‘worthless’ goods at inflated prices (1984, p. 223). However harsh this may sound, the truth is that the definition of an advertising agency is that they offer a service: that of creating, planning, and handling advertising and other forms of promotion for its clients and their products and services (BuisnessDictionary.com), and in the past this has mostly been done indiscriminately. But in recent years it can be argued that many advertising agencies have become more socially and environmentally aware and responsible.

One such an agency is the WPP-owned Ogilvy group, which a couple of years ago launched OgilvyEarth, to focus on issues of sustainability. In 2009, just after the election of President Obama, OgilvyEarth published its white paper to launch what they call “The Dawn of the Age of Sustainability.” Their website claims that they “believe sustainability is the growth opportunity of the 21st century, but it’s not just about being green. It’s about aligning revenue goals with responsible operations, to create an organization that better serves all of its stakeholders, from shareholders and employees to customers and others influenced by its progress.”

This paper is a case study of the Cape Town branch of OgilvyEarth, based on personal interviews. The study will investigate whether they have been able to stand by their beliefs in their dealings with South African clients, what strategies they employ to drive the sustainability agenda and what their challenges and successes have been so far. The paper will use the OgilvyEarth case study as a framework to investigate the changing role of advertising and more specifically of a designer working in advertising today.

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