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.