Anna Lungley

Chief Sustainability Officer, dentsu international

These days, we’re accustomed to seeing companies make bold commitments on issues like the environment, diversity, employment and communities. But do these pledges really reflect what businesses’ stakeholders want? In other words, do the leaders understand what’s important to the people their organisations depend on?

They should. Businesses today are under scrutiny for their behaviour and impacts as never before. To show they’re striking the right balance between people, profit and planet, they need to know what people are looking for. And the first step is to ask one basic question: What matters to our stakeholders?

Pinpointing the top issues

Fortunately, help is at hand. The Media Materiality 2022 report from the Responsible Media Forum (RMF) draws together detailed desk-based research and interviews across the media and Environmental, Social and Governance(ESG) fields to highlight the issues that matter to stakeholders.

Three issues top the list. First, climate change and other environmental impacts, including encouraging sustainable consumption. Second, people, including skills and diversity & inclusion. Third, digital responsibility in areas like content, and data privacy.

What have these issues got in common? They’re all material to achieving sustainable growth in the media and advertising sectors. Interestingly, while we’re always hearing about sustainability, the word “materiality” is hardly ever used. But in reality it’s pivotal. Far from being just a techy phrase, materiality provides the foundations on which to identify not just risks – but opportunities.

This is why the RMF’s work is so important. It’s a partnership of over 25 companies who’ve been collaborating since 2004 to accelerate and co-ordinate action on climate and sustainability issues, including through its stakeholder materiality index. We at dentsu are proud to be a long-term supporter of the RMF, supporting with the production of the 2022 report.

Driving insight through a materiality assessment

We also helped the RMF’s research this year by sharing our own deep experience of defining materiality, built up in developing dentsu’s 2030 Social Impact strategy – which defines our ambitions for transforming how we do business and redefining the value we create for society.

What did this involve? To inform our strategy development, we conducted a 360-degree materiality assessment: a comprehensive engagement programme clarifying how all stakeholders view both our business and society – and the relationship between the two. This assessment included key investors, clients, NGOs, activists and over 300 dentsu colleagues ranging from our Chairman to our newest recruits, as well as drawing on leading thinking and analysis including WEF Global Risks Report 2020, the WBCSD, RMF’s work and Consumer Vision - our own thought leadership on trends for consumers to 2030

Mapping out our sustainability journey

The insights we gained into our stakeholders’ expectations and relationships with us are now the bedrock of our social impact and sustainability strategy, guiding our journey and choices every day. No two organisations’ sustainability journeys are the same – yet equally no-one can avoid undertaking it: that’s why understanding materiality is the first and most important step for any organisation planning and executing its sustainability strategy.

Crucially, our materiality assessment enabled us to challenge our own beliefs, biases, and ambition with fresh eyes. And it identified three strategic sustainability priorities, all reflecting our evolving role in society and stakeholders’ changing needs and expectations:

  • Climate Action – going beyond reducing our operational footprint to recognise the true value we create in society – our ability to accelerate the shift towards sustainable lifestyles.
  • Diversity and inclusion – creating diversity and opportunity within our workforce, and recognising the role we play in challenging perceptions, helping to create a fairer, more inclusive and equitable society.
  • Responsible Media – recognising that a healthy world needs a healthy media and increasing our focus on digital empowerment, wellbeing and responsible content, including eliminating fake news and hate speech.

If these priorities sound familiar, that’s hardly surprising. They’re closely aligned with the RMF materiality findings I highlighted earlier. Above all else, the RMF report, informed by our own experience and approach, underlines the vital importance of clarity on what matters to all stakeholders. It shows how issues across sectors, business areas and regulations connect, for example on responsible media, ethics and free speech.

Turning materiality into action

Having defined the material issues for dentsu, what actions have we taken? We’ve translated the priority areas into three strategic pillars: Sustainable World, A Fair and Open Society, and Digital For Good. And we’ve developed a strategic roadmap – with board level governance – to guide how, over the next decade, we’ll effect wider positive change across our value chain, in collaboration with our employees, clients, industry and business stakeholders.

Work has already begun. We are proud to be one of the first companies to have our net-zero target validated by the Science Based Targets initiative; we’ve set new targets to achieve gender parity at all levels of leadership by 2025; we’re mobilising 10,000 young creatives to help cut food waste in a global collaboration with  our clients; and accelerating our industry leadership with strong progress on our wider environmental and social targets. 

Continuing the journey

In a complex and fast-changing world, our sustainability journey started with understanding stakeholder materiality. It’s a journey that’s constantly evolving. As new material issues emerge, we’ll continue to address them. Because we know that’s what our stakeholders want and that’s where the opportunities lie – for our industry, for our business and for society.

You can read the Responsible Media Forum’s Materiality Report on the link below.