Werbach Sells Out to Saatchi

Those still on the fence about the sellout status of our September coverboy Adam Werbach—the youngest ever Sierra Club president who's now doing sustainability work for Wal-Mart—are about to be taken for another surprise twist. This morning Werbach announced that his San Francisco sustainability consultancy, Act Now, has been scooped up by none other than the lovemark-man himself: Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts. The new company, called Saatchi & Saatchi S, in which Werbach will remain CEO, plans on bringing sustainability to the ad agency's clients, which include A-listers like P&G, Toyota, and Visa.

To be frank, I was shocked. The gut reaction: well, clearly Werbach has sold out. Pairing up with Wal-Mart was painful enough for the environmental establishment to swallow. Now Werbach will be owned by The Mad Men of Madison Avenue, the one place where greenwashing is most feared and excessive wastefulness still runs rampant.

Of course, a cynical take is easy. If you look at the decisions Werbach has made throughout his career, they may seem counterintuitive, contradictory, even hypocritical and lost. But in fact, the one thing that has stayed constant is his environmenal convictions—it's just the methods he's exploiting that have changed. (At least he believes). Instead of continuing to throw rocks at a company like Wal-Mart, he switched from outsider to insider, deciding that he needed to be inside the system to provoke change. Now with Saatchi, he's embedded himself in the fourth largest communications holding company in the world that holds the key to influencing the behavior of some of the most powerful global brands.

Werbach told me he sold to Saatchi because his little 50-person company was too small to reach the global scale he wants to impact. For example, in developing economies like China and India, he wants to be on the ground shaping consumer behavior with a built-in sustainability ethos. Publicis's ad shop has an army of 7,000, with over 150 offices around the globe—which means within a couple of months Werbach will have instant offices in New York, Chicago, London, Beijing—and don't forget Wal-Mart country's Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Like most of his moves, Werbach's latest experiment can be criticized for is being too optimisic, too idealistic, too ambitious. He can also be criticized for being too impatient—impatient to not allow his company to grow organically on its own terms not beholden to the pressures of a huge public company. It's a criticism he's received countless times before. But it's that very impatience—he believes—that's necessary if we ever want to make a dent in this thing called the climate crisis.

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6 Comments

  • Lewis

    Well,lets see how much Werbach is able to be influencial in both Walmart and Saatchi. He may well be correct in pushing things forward rather than waiting for his company to grow. I know a successful marketer called James D. Brausch, who doesn't worry at all what people think of him or his actions, yet he is successful and followed by many. Let's see

  • Giselle

    I had to admit that I kind of chuckled (laughed hysterically) when one of the CEOs from Saatchi was talking about how they could make a big impact within their company, like not drinking so much bottled water and going "digital" without printing and copying. Gee, that's brilliant, and so innovative. Let's videoconference and show the world what a green organization we are!

  • Martin Bishop

    One interesting thing to consider is how far Saatchi as a corporation will have to change its ways for the new company to have credibility. The Act Now organization is staffed with true believers, people who really live a green life.

    If the rest of Saatchi doesn't adopt any of these same behaviors, the new Saatchi S will have its reputation damaged by association, even if it continues to operate just the way it did before.

  • Joseph Allan

    Well,lets see how much Werbach is able to be influencial in both Walmart and Saatchi. He may well be correct in pushing things forward rather than waiting for his company to grow. I know a successful marketer called James D. Brausch, who doesn't worry at all what people think of him or his actions, yet he is successful and followed by many. Let's see

  • Joseph Allan

    I had to admit that I kind of chuckled (laughed hysterically) when one of the CEOs from Saatchi was talking about how they could make a big impact within their company, like not drinking so much bottled water and going "digital" without printing and copying. Gee, that's brilliant, and so innovative. Let's videoconference and show the world what a green organization we are!

  • Joseph Allan

    One interesting thing to consider is how far Saatchi as a corporation will have to change its ways for the new company to have credibility. The Act Now organization is staffed with true believers, people who really live a green life.

    If the rest of Saatchi doesn't adopt any of these same behaviors, the new Saatchi S will have its reputation damaged by association, even if it continues to operate just the way it did before.