Summit 23 — Redesigning the future: a circular economy showcase
The Foundation's flagship event.
How can we use storytelling to get people to move away from the problems of a linear economy to explore the solutions offered by a circular one?
In this episode, we’ll hear from Sam Sutaria, chief executive of streaming platform Waterbear, and Hannah Harrison, Chief Sustainability Officer at WPP, about the opportunities around sharing experiences from the circular economy.
Pippa Shawley 0:03
I’m going to take a wild guess that if you’re tuning into the Circular Economy Show Podcast, you’re already interested in learning more about the circular economy. But what about everyone else? How can we use storytelling to get people to move away from the problems of a linear economy, to explore the solutions offered by a circular one? I’m Pippa, and in this episode, we’ll hear from Sam Sutaria, chief executive of streaming platform Waterbear, and Hannah Harrison, Chief Sustainability Officer at WPP. The pair spoke to my colleague Seb at this year’s Summit 23, an event that gathers together the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s network. Seb began by asking Sam to explain what Waterbear is.
Sam Sutaria 0:47
Thanks, Seb, we were once called the Netflix for nature. I hope everyone here knows what a Waterbear is. But if you don't, it's a tardigrade and microscopic organism. It's one of the most resilient animals on earth. And we've quickly learned that storytelling at scale linked to action can really create tangible impact. So we're a media platform and streaming network dedicated to the future of our planet.
Seb Read 1:07
So you make content, you have a platform you distribute it on, how does it work?
Sam Sutaria 1:11
Exactly. We are a creative studio impact lead, creating beautiful stories from around the world. We work with hundreds of creatives and storytellers and creators from the global south. We also are then distributing that content around the world on our platform for free, which is the best part.
Seb Read 1:28
And Hannah, WPP, probably slightly better known as a massive organisation. And actually, I want to share a story with you the other day, someone said to me, oh Seb, you're a good marketer. And I didn't know I actually had to react to that. I feel like there's this dual side to how we view the world of marketing. On one side, there's this creativity and imagination much like some of the conversations we just had on stage. There's another side of it's kind of part of an existing system as part of perpetuating something that exists. So what do you perceive to be the role of an organisation like WPP, large marketing organisations, in the transition to a circular economy?
Hannah Harrison 2:07
Well, I think marketing communications they've always been about changing the way people think, changing the way people feel. And ultimately, we hope, changing the way people behave. And if you apply that to the transition that we need to go through, I think it becomes the ultimate creative brief. How do we make regenerative circular lifestyles desirable, and the opportunity is huge, because the IPCC estimates that by 2050, between 40 and 70%, of emissions reduction, will be derived from behaviour change. And so this industry, I think, has to be right at the heart of that.
Seb Read 2:51
And I guess that leads, you know, the follow up question to that is, you know, sometimes this gets articulated as how do we harness the power of existing marketing communication strategies, but is marketing part of the problem, and how can it become part of the solution?
Hannah Harrison 3:06
Well I think there's a disconnect, I think the way a lot of marketers, a lot of businesses, a lot of brands, talk about sustainability, and regeneration is not the way consumers think about it, or talk about it or connect with it. And there's a big problem there, because that leads to cynicism. So some research from Ogilvy recently said that 63% of people around the world are cynical about the motivations of brands when they're taking action in this space. Now, why does that matter? Because if you're cynical about the actions people are taking, it leads very quickly to feelings that this is misinformation. And we've seen a big rise in the concept of greenwashing. And in fact, people are five times more likely to see to feel that conversations about sustainability are misinformation. And so we've got to, I think, combat that disconnect.
Seb Read 4:17
And I saw you nodding vigorously there Sam, I take it you agree?
Sam Sutaria 4:22
I do agree. I think one of the things that we always tried to talk about is the idea of telling stories, but not telling your story. And I think that links to greenwashing, of course. And I think lots of brands, particularly those in this room, need to obviously be bolder and more creative with their storytelling. And I think that idea of communicating amazing things that are happening around the world, so many of which we've heard about today, can really start to move away from this idea of scepticism and trust in audiences.
Seb Read 4:49
Bring that to life for us a little bit. What does it mean to tell stories, but not your story if you're an FMCG brand, for instance?
Sam Sutaria 4:57
That's a great question. I think one of the things we always tried to do is have an ever evolving slate of incredible films from around the world. So we are constantly scouring the earth for the best and most relevant pressing stories of our time, that could be stories of inspiration of hope, from any country in the world. And what we're doing is that we're working with our partners, the brand partners that we work with, and making those stories possible. So we're really trying to embody the values of the brands, and turn that into compelling entertainment formats that can really be a Trojan horse for impact and the messaging that that brand really wants to get through to an audience.
Seb Read 5:29
And I guess that resonates with what we heard on stage from Es and Francesca, that kind of role of not preaching, but amazing and entertaining in film, because documentaries have the same background in some ways, right? They've been very much effective articulations of problems and challenges. Sometimes we're sort of five minutes reserved, at the end where they, you know, give you a glimmer of what could be possible. How do we move to formats that genuinely engage people in a way that what you described as a Trojan horse, Sam?
Sam Sutaria 6:00
Yeah, I think still, the average American watches about three hours of TV a day, which if you think about working and sleeping, and watching TV, there's not much left for anything else. So if we're trying to get the...
Seb Read 6:11
You're saying, we just work, sleep, watch TV.
Sam Sutaria 6:13
I mean, that's my life, Seb. Yeah, we have an opportunity there to turn that content time to turn that viewing time into impact. And I think to do that we need to find formats and media that can really start to engage people in that Leanback entertainment zone. And that's through being really creative with formats, as you say.
Seb Read 6:32
Eat, sleep, TV, repeat.
Sam Sutaria 6:34
That's actually our mission statement.
Hannah Harrison 6:37
I think format is key. I think it's also about finding the issues that really matter to your audience. And in the case of brands to your consumers. And we talk an awful lot in marketing about a value action gap. And when it comes to sustainability, that gap is huge. So around the world, around 90% of people say they want to live a more sustainable lifestyle, and around 16% change their behaviour. Now what if we were to see that gap as a market failure, there are our unmet needs there? There are underserved audiences there. What if we could better serve them and really hone in on what matters to them. So for the circular economy, cost of living crisis is a real issue that's keeping people awake at night, that's a great route into talking about a circular economy to tackling issues like food waste is about meeting consumers where they're at. But that's not enough for brands to be credible in this space. It's not just about finding an issue that matters to consumers. It's also about telling stories that connect to your most material impacts as a brand, that tackling that elephant in the room. And I don't think it's just about telling stories. It's about living them. It's about backing it with action, because action speaks so much louder than words.
Seb Read 8:08
And I was gonna ask that question, actually, like, a cynic, obviously, not me. But a cynic in the room might say, well, that's not a storytelling gap. That's the kind of like solutions gap. What's your response to that?
Hannah Harrison 8:20
Well, I think I've worked in the sustainability space for longer than I'm going to disclose. And I think more now than ever before, we're connecting the dots across the business, this can never be a marketing platform, you've got to connect to what the business is really doing. And so I think you've got to go out into the business as marketers and find where are the, you know, where are the real actions you're taking? Where are your strengths? Where can you credibly lead by example, and bring consumers on that journey with you? And I think, you know, if we go back to the topic of greenwashing, brands are getting caught out where the consumer brand, and the corporate strategy are disconnected. And so I think, connect the dots and have conversations.
Seb Read 9:10
And some of this comes back to Sam, the metrics that guide what we define as success, how we define success, whether that's in marketing campaigns, or it's in film and media, Waterbear have a big effort around metrics that matter? What do you mean by metrics that matter?
Sam Sutaria 9:27
The industry, I think, is now awash with evidence that really shows that some of the digital advertising kind of paradigms of old are really not delivering results either for the business themselves, or for the industry, or particularly for the planet, you know, there is an almost a vortex of clicks, impressions, views and media value, that's not actually delivering on either side. So what we're trying to do with metrics that matter, is introduce a new category of metric, a metric that's really dedicated to real world impact, which of course, can mean many different things and is hard to measure. And we're working on that as well. But it's really about being able to track and show the cultural shift, the behaviour shift, the mindset shift that the media campaign we're working on is actually creating.
Seb Read 10:11
And you know, the the inside of the heart of that, right is that, to some degree, the industry is in a bit of a self fulfilling virtuous circle, the only way out from not generating more impact with the current metrics is almost to invest more in trying to push those metrics even harder, where there's impressions or media views, whatever it might be. And I guess that comes back to one of the problem statements we were talking about earlier, where, you know, do we not have the right metrics? Or are we using metrics as an excuse not to act? And I think both of you had the excuse not to act cards up when we asked that question earlier. Is that fair, Hannah?
Hannah Harrison 10:46
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I spend more and more of my time crunching numbers to disclose. And sometimes I think the pendulum is swinging back away from innovation towards compliance. And that disclosure is really important. And it's, it's incredibly important that people can look at two different brands or two different businesses and compare them like for like, and so I'm a big fan of disclosure, but not at the expense of innovating and catalysing this transition. So I think it's really important we get the right metrics into the right people's hands at the right time. So for example, when we started looking at our own carbon footprint, I had no idea media buying is half of our carbon footprint, the hidden cost of placing media is enormous. And there was no way of measuring that. We had to go away and build a methodology to track the carbon emissions associated with different channels and media buying. And so we've now built a carbon calculator that enables our clients for the first time to understand channel by channels. So whether it's out of home or print, digital, what the carbon emissions associated with an ad campaign might be, so that they can start factoring that into decision making, and until you've got information at your fingertips when you need it. You can't act.
Seb Read 12:19
I guess, at the heart of the wider conversation we're having here is, in some ways WPP wants these briefs, right, the briefs that allow us to have more sophisticated communication around some of these topics. What's the one thing that WPP needs to do differently to support businesses and brands in creating those better briefs?
Hannah Harrison 12:42
Well, I think, whether you're writing the brief or receiving the brief, I think, for me, the one thing I want everyone to do differently is, you don't need to have sustainability or circular economy or regeneration in your job title for it to be part of your day job. And it doesn't need to be written explicitly in the brief for you to read it in. I think we all need to step up, need to start having conversations, and we need to be future-proofing brands, brief businesses, so this becomes mainstream. So for everybody out there, the thing I say to people is start having conversations, get curious, build your knowledge of this space, but lean in. Get started. Yeah, don't wait. Don't wait for it to be in the brief.Well, I think, whether you're writing the brief or receiving the brief, I think, for me, the one thing I want everyone to do differently is, you don't need to have sustainability or circular economy or regeneration in your job title for it to be part of your day job. And it doesn't need to be written explicitly in the brief for you to read it in. I think we all need to step up, need to start having conversations, and we need to be future-proofing brands, brief businesses, so this becomes mainstream. So for everybody out there, the thing I say to people is start having conversations, get curious, build your knowledge of this space, but lean in, get started. Yeah, don't wait. Don't wait for it to be in the brief.
Seb Read 13:31
And Sam, I want to sort of get to the close here by going a bit meta for a moment. I think everyone in the audience is ready for something a little bit meta. The Foundation and Waterbear have announced a strategic partnership...
Sam Sutaria 13:43
Today, big news.
Seb Read 13:46
And to some degree, some of Waterbear's work has a familiarity to it right. It's content that's designed to drive actions that might be familiar, petition sign ups for instance. To another degree, what we need to do is much bigger than that; it's not a single behaviour change or any individual action. It's a kind of whole mindset shift and whole redesign of the economy. So the meta question to you is, Can Waterbear do that?
Sam Sutaria 14:16
Yeah, by tomorrow, I think Seb actually. No, it's obviously a massive task. Our fundamental belief is that stories can change the system. And I think it's not about one campaign or one film it never has been. It's about a constant wall of noise strategy through entertainment, as we've talked about reaching audiences where they are, as we've talked about a lot, Hannah, and trying to offer people the ability at scale to engage with this topic. And trying to, as I said before, disguise some of the key messaging through this entertainment Trojan horse. So we're really excited today to kick off the partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a huge thank you to Andrew and Ellen and Seb yourself, and now actually on Waterbear, you can access our EMF and Waterbear channel Full circle. And the real idea is that over a long term partnership, we can start to really see these stories, these entertaining stories that really embody a common voice for the regenerative design approach across the world to audiences in over 194 countries. So we're really excited about that.
Seb Read 15:17
To more creativity, better metrics, and bigger ambition for the power of storytelling in shifting the system.
Hannah Harrison 15:24
And optimism that, you know, I think we can paint a picture of how the world could be that people see and experience and open up their eyes to what's possible.
Pippa Shawley 15:40
As we’ve heard, storytelling can play a hugely important role in creating ambition and demonstrating the possibility of a circular economy. If you’d like to explore more stories, we’ve got a back catalogue of over 100 podcast episodes, or why not check out the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s channel on Waterbear, which you can find in the show notes of this episode. We’ll be back next week with more from Summit 23. See you then!
WaterBear has joined our Network as a Strategic Partner.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. We develop and promote the idea of a circular economy, and work with business, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally.
Charity Registration No.: 1130306
OSCR Registration No.: SC043120
Company No.: 6897785
Ellen MacArthur Foundation ANBI RSIN nummer: 8257 45 925
The work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is supported by our Strategic Partners and Partners.