DeSmog

Exclusive: Havas Eyes New Shell Global PR Contract, Further Undercutting the Agency’s Climate-friendly Claims

Staff fear that the growing relationship with a longtime greenwasher could “wipe out” Havas’s work on sustainability.
Ellen Ormesher
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The climate action group Extinction Rebellion protested at Havas London headquarters in January 2024, following a tip that the agency was pursuing more work with Shell. Credit: Extinction Rebellion

Paris-based communications giant Havas is putting itself forward for another major contract with one of the world’s biggest oil companies — despite CEO Yannick Bolloré’s years of positioning the company as committed to climate action.

Insider sources tell DeSmog that several Havas agencies are in the running for Shell’s global public relations account, including London-based H/Advisors. While it is unclear how much Shell has spent on this account in recent years, the company spent an estimated 41.9 million euros ($45 million) on advertising in the United States alone in 2023, according to MediaRadar. 

Securing the PR account would be the latest significant contract between Havas and Shell, following the acquisition of Shell’s lucrative global strategic media buying account in 2023. In 2022 Shell spent around 220 million euros ($240 million) on this type of advertising, according to AdWeek.

As previously reported by DeSmog, Bolloré, the CEO and president of Havas Worldwide, spearheaded  that deal, giving the company’s UK leadership little say. The rank and file staff only learned of it when the news leaked to the press. It is not clear whether Bolloré is leading the current pitch.

While rumors have swirled for months about a new bid for work with Shell, the internal unpopularity of last year’s deal appears to have registered with Havas leadership. The company has been maintaining a “culture of silence”, according to insiders — just as it did with last year’s media pitch. 

“There has been zero internal communications,” said one insider, who asked not to be named for fear of professional repercussions. “People are normally aware when big pitches are going on — there is an overt energy about them.”

The leadership has been “intentionally vague” regarding new work for Shell, said a second insider who also wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the press. 

By contrast, the company is always keen to recognise its climate-friendly achievements, they said. “We had huge celebrations around achieving B-Corp status,” said the second insider, referring to Havas London’s attainment of a significant ethical business certification, and company leaders “constantly sent around all staff emails about new sustainability initiatives and carbon tracking programs.” 

In the second insider’s view, taking on Shell’s global public relations “would wipe all that work immediately.”

The first insider said that H/Advisors — the London-based agency involved in the pitch —aspires to work with Shell on its PR strategy around public affairs and crisis management.

The agency lists strategic advice on shareholder activism among its services — which may be just what Shell’s board of directors is looking for as it faces a shareholder rebellion: Twenty-seven significant investors, including the UK’s largest pension scheme, the National Employment Savings Trust, have backed a resolution (filed by the Dutch organization Follow This) calling for Shell to align its medium-term targets for reducing carbon emissions with the targets set in the Paris Agreement. 

H/Advisors’ work is “kept under wraps” inside Havas’s London offices, said the first insider. “They have their own sealed off area and they don’t massively integrate with the rest of the consumer communications group,” they told DeSmog. “They are like a shadowy, covert unit. Their work is that of lobbying, influencing government and policy. All done with a super low profile.” 

The second insider confirmed that H/Advisors is pitching for the account.

Havas declined to comment.

Deal Threatens Havas’s B-Corp Sustainable Business Certification

Currently Shell’s public relations are shared across several agencies: New York-based Edelman, which has a long track record of representing the fossil fuel industry; WPP’s Hill+Knowlton Strategies, which has also worked for ExxonMobil, Chevron and Saudi Aramco, as well as with the Egyptian government on the PR strategy for the 2022 COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh; and IPG’s Weber Shandwick, which has worked with household brands like H&M and Coca-Cola. 

Each has a history of working with Shell, as reported by the non-profit Clean Creatives and confirmed by DeSmog. It is not currently known whether any of these agencies are contending for the new global PR contract. 

The Bolloré family controls both Havas and its parent company Vivendi.

In response to a tip that Havas was seeking to expand its relationship with Shell, the climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion protested outside Havas’s London offices in January. It was the second time in four months that the group has targeted Havas London over its ties to Shell. 

In September, following the news that Havas had won Shell’s strategic media buying contract, Extinction Rebellion and Indigenous activists with the Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People staged a die-in inside Havas London’s reception area, triggering an evacuation of the building. 

Havas’s growing relationship with Shell has thrown into question the eligibility of the group’s four B Corp certifications — a credential awarded to companies that demonstrate the highest social, environmental, and corporate governance standards. In October, a group of 22 other B Corp-certified PR agencies called for stripping Havas London, Havas Lemz in Amsterdam, Havas New York, and Havas Immerse in Malaysia of their B Corp status. 

B Lab, the organisation which oversees the certification, confirmed to DeSmog in January that it has launched a formal investigation of whether Havas’s deal with Shell has led to “breaches of the B Corp Community values”, including “whether the addition of new clients in controversial industries impacts Havas’s compliance with limits on such clients”.

Staff Fear Speaking Up Amid Industry Layoffs

Following the media account win in 2023, some Havas employees attempted to start a dialogue with leadership, the second insider told DeSmog, “to ensure no other agencies within Havas would be exposed to working with Shell.” 

“But they refuse to engage with us”, the second insider said, “let alone make those promises.”

This individual added that the dour economic climate and recent layoffs in the advertising and PR sector have made workers fearful of speaking out about working with the fossil fuel sector.

“There is a petition going around asking all of the global agencies to promise dialogue and solutions. It hasn’t had as many signatures as hoped, because people are genuinely afraid of being made redundant if they sign it.”

The potential of an intensifying relationship with Shell has already been met with disappointment by staff, said the first insider.

“There are many internally who are saying this is strategically shortsighted and naive,” they said, “a cash grab from a client whose business model is in terminal decline, at the expense of meaningful action on climate change.”

For decades, fossil fuel companies have used PR firms like Havas to polish their images and protect their reputations — and revenues. A series of investigations in recent years has revealed that the oil and gas industry knew for decades that burning coal, oil, and methane gas would destabilize the climate, even as it promoted climate denial and blocked meaningful action on climate change.

DeSmog recently revealed that the fossil fuel industry funded climate science as early as the mid-1950s.

Ellen Ormesher
Ellen is a reporter with interests across climate, culture, and industry. She was previously a senior reporter covering sustainability at The Drum. Her work has also been featured in The Guardian.

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