How to make sustainability more creative - and creativity more sustainable -

How to make sustainability more creative – and creativity more sustainable

In his previous role as Associate Creative Director at New York-based creative agency Mustache, Adam Lerman built a decade of experience crafting content that communicates complex issues in actionable, easy-to-digest ways, having worked in the past with top brands like YouTube, PepsiCo, Neutrogena, and Sony.

Now as global creative director of sustainability at Accenture Song, a subsidiary of global heavyweight consulting firm Accenture, Lerman applies these same skills to create campaigns, services, and products that speak about sustainability in a compelling way.

Lerman shares what led him to the role, the realities of moving from agency to consulting, and why empathy is a cornerstone of ESG’s compelling creative content.

Shannon Hoody: I’ve been with Accenture Song for a little over a year now. Tell us about your current role. What does it entail?

Adam Lerman: Accenture is a global consulting giant that employs approximately 732,000 people in 120 countries. It is basically a nation for a company. I’m part of a “Mod Squad” called Sustainability Studio, which is kind of the “Mission Impossible” group, where they took all these mavericks and put them together.

Half of them are creatives and the other half are sustainability-focused professionals. So, a mix of sustainability strategists, business and product designers, growth leaders, as well as writers, art directors, designers, brand strategists, communication strategists, and so on. We alternate between functioning as individuals and as a hive mind.

Our goal is to make sustainability relevant and actionable for everyone, whether they are colleagues, customers or individuals. Internally, this means using our rigor and creativity to communicate and embed sustainable thinking on a larger level – and to partner with Sustainability Services and other teams within Accenture to more effectively and creatively sell sustainable products, services and capabilities to customers.

But we also work with our clients to build creative content for their sustainable products and services in ways that may be overt, or in ways that may be very subtle. Many notions about sustainability are manufactured by a minority of elite individuals whose terminology and worldview are irrelevant to most people. Our latest research project, The Human Moment, is examining exactly this problem. If the word “sustainability” is so divisive to the global majority, how can you encourage participation using all the tools of human connection, business and product design without feeling alien, different, or kind of imposing?

Hody: And I moved into this role from an unsustainable background. Can you tell us more about this process?

Lerman: I’ve been creative for the better part of a decade and have always been interested in science communication, but it was something that was going on beneath the surface, not something I had considered early in my career. Then I worked with a major climate organization as a client. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with them, but I also thought it was preaching to the choir and not really moving the needle. It made me realize that I was interested in how to communicate these ideas more engagingly. I really started working on how to be better creative, while building my knowledge of climate and sustainability through self-education.

Then at the end of 2019, I decided to take things up a notch and joined the NYU Stern Corporate Sustainability Program. At the same time, I got involved with Clean Creatives, a global network of professionals trying to get fossil fuels out of advertising and PR. I was also talking about the VPs of Sustainability and asking them, “What is the role of creative communication in your organization’s sustainability?” They’ll say, “I don’t understand this question.” And I just thought, “Oh, that’s cool. This is white space.” All this pushed me forward.

I’ve built a network, worked with projects like Clean Creatives, and through that network we were tipped for a job at Accenture Song which for me was a perfect match for creativity and sustainability. By this point, I had completely overhauled my resume, personal statement, and the entire way I spoke about who I was and what I was focused on. I did a few interviews and got hired.

Hoody: How did you find the transition from agency to consulting?

Lerman: Agencies tend to start from the ground up as it takes more time to think of solutions. This is a challenge in a consulting environment. But I think it helps teach the people we work with how to think differently, maybe in a more creative way, and maybe in a way that has more impact on the humans they’re talking to.

Hoody: Given your focus on thinking carefully about how to create creative content to reach everyone in a way that resonates, what are some key lessons that you gleaned from that?

Lerman: I don’t think there is one message. You’re not solving climate change, you’re solving a trillion other things on top of that. Thus, you diversify your efforts and focus on things that are meaningful to people.

Everything must stem from empathy. If you don’t take yourself out of the equation, and put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re talking to, your work won’t matter. And I think this applies to every industry, but it’s often forgotten for the sake of business efficiency or social cohesion.

We just finished working on the “What is circular?” campaign. To help potential customers sell circular transformation to major global companies. We created this 20-page stack of never more than a few sentences and a lot of great human design to get people to go, “Oh, I get it, it’s not theory, it’s actions I can do.”

We just completed a multi-sensory VR-driven experience called Forager that debuted at South by Southwest, where a person wearing a headset becomes part of the life cycle of a fungus. It starts as a spore floating on the ground and spreads in the underground mycelial network that connects the trees, then germinates as a mushroom, then a spore again… The point is, you can’t protect something you haven’t fallen in love with. You need them to go, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And then you can go into all the ways that these ecosystems support us like old growth forests.

Hoody: When it comes to communications and creativity, how do you and your clients measure behavioral change as a result of these projects?

Lerman: I think if you set up your initiatives to be measured by the metrics you already use, or you can adopt them, it’s really worth doing. If you’re rolling out a circular service, the general business success metrics are already there. You’re looking at sales, you’re looking at PR metrics of how much things are being talked about, you’re looking at how those products or services appear to be in the zeitgeist.

I am not a behavioral psychologist. I don’t know exactly how to do it. I think it may change from product to product, or from service to service. There are an infinite number of variations. If Netflix wants to offer more sustainability-oriented entertainment, they can gauge that by seeing their viewing metrics for a movie, like “Don’t Look.” Eating behavior of climate icons like this is on the rise – so they can measure behavior change in this way.

Howdy: For someone looking to follow in your footsteps, how important are educational certifications when it comes to entering an impact field like yours?

Lerman: Both educational programs that I went through were valuable in different ways. The NYU program lasted several months and allowed me to gain a very deep understanding of corporate sustainability. The CSE experience was more than a quick follow-up that covered the headlines of what I’d already learned at NYU, but it was very relaxing from a chronological perspective. It was also more focused on networking and connecting with the other participants, so I was able to hear a lot of different perspectives and learn about other people’s experiences, and get to know more people pretty quickly.

Everyone’s journey is different, and everyone’s needs are different. I always recommend Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s Climate Action Venn Diagram. I guess it’s just a matter of asking the question, what are you actually good at? Do you anticipate that you will, but perhaps with a greater focus on sustainability? And do you really need to pay for any kind of education to help you do that? This is not a question that anyone else can answer but yourself.

This article was updated on July 21 to correct several factual errors.