Green Technology

How to make sustainability more creative — and creative more sustainable

In his previous role as associate creative director at New York-based creative agency Mustache, Adam Lerman built up a decade of experience in crafting content that communicated complex issues in actionable and digestible ways, working in the past with top brands such as YouTube, PepsiCo, Neutrogena and Sony.

Now as global creative director of sustainability at Accenture Song, a subsidiary of global consultancy heavyweight Accenture, Lerman is applying these same skills to creating campaigns, services and products that talk about sustainability in a compelling way. 

Lerman shares what drew him to the role, the realities of transitioning from agency to consultancy, and why empathy is the cornerstone of compelling creative content in ESG. 

Shannon Houde: You’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 giant global consultancy of nearly 732,000 people in 120 countries. It’s essentially a nation of a company. I am part of this “Mod Squad” team called the Sustainability Studio, which is really kind of a “Mission Impossible” group, where they’ve taken all these mavericks and put them together. 

Half are creatives and half are sustainability-focused professionals. So, a blend of sustainability strategists, business and product designers, and growth leads, as well as writers, art directors, designers, brand strategists, communication strategists, etc. We toggle between working as individuals and as a hive mind. 

Our aim is to make sustainability relevant and actionable for everyone, be they colleagues, clients or people. Internally, that means utilizing our rigor and creativity to communicate and embed sustainable thinking at a larger level — and to partner with sustainability services and other teams within Accenture to more impactfully and creatively sell sustainable products, services and capabilities to clients. 

But we also work with our own clients to build creative content for their sustainable products and services in ways that might be overt, or ways that might be extremely subtle. Many concepts around sustainability are manufactured by a minority of elite folks for whom their terminology and worldview is irrelevant to most people. Our latest research project, Our Human Moment, examines exactly this issue. If the word “Sustainability” is divisive to the global majority, how do you encourage engagement using all of the tools of human communication and business and product design without ever making it feel alien or different or sort of imposed upon? 

Houde: And you transitioned over to that role from a non-sustainability background. Can you tell us a bit more about that process? 

Lerman: I was a creative for the better part of a decade and always had an interest in science communication, but it was something that was just happening below the surface, not something that I had thought of early on in my career. Then I worked with a major climate organization as a client. I enjoyed the chance 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 attractively. I started really working on how to be a better creative, while building my knowledge on climate and sustainability via self-education. 

Then at the end of 2019 I decided to kick things up a notch and joined NYU Stern’s Corporate Sustainability Program. At that same time, I got involved with Clean Creatives, a global network of professionals trying to get fossil fuels out of advertising and PR. I had also been cold-calling VPs of sustainability and asking them, “What is the role of creative communication in sustainability for your organization?” They’d say, “I don’t understand that question.” And I just thought, “Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s a whitespace.” All that pushed me forward.

I built up a network, working with projects like Clean Creatives, and through that network was made aware of a job at Accenture Song that was the perfect match for me of creativity and sustainability. By that point I had completely overhauled my resume and my personal statement and the entire way that I spoke about who I was and what I was focused on. I had a handful of interviews and I was hired.

Houde: How have you found the shift from agency to consultancy?

Lerman: Agencies tend to start from the ground up as it takes longer to ideate solutions. And so that’s a challenge in a consultancy environment. But one that I think is helping to teach the people that we work with how to think differently, and perhaps more creatively, and potentially in a way that’s more impactful for the human beings that they’re speaking to.

Houde: Given your focus on thinking so carefully about how we construct creative content to reach everyone in a way that resonates, what are some of the key learnings you’ve built up from that?

Lerman: I don’t believe there’s one message. You don’t solve for climate change, you solve for a trillion other things that add up to that. And so, you diversify your efforts and you focus on things that are meaningful to people.

Everything has to be rooted in empathy. If you are not taking yourself out of the equation, and putting yourself in the shoes of the person to whom you are speaking, none of your work will matter. And I think that’s applicable to every industry, but often forgotten for the sake of business efficiency or social cohesion.

We just finished working on a campaign of “What is circularity?” to help client account leads sell circular transformation to major global businesses. We created this 20-page deck that never has more than a few sentences on it and lots of great human design to get people to go, “Oh, I get it, it’s not a theory, it’s actions that I can take.”

We also just completed a VR-driven multisensory experience called Forager that debuted at South by Southwest, where a person in the headset becomes part of the life cycle of fungi. You start as a spore that floats down onto the ground and spreads into the mycelial network underground connecting trees, and then sprouts up as a mushroom, and then a spore again.… The point of it is you can’t protect something that 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 these ecosystems like old growth forests support us.

Houde: When it comes to communications and creative, how do you and your clients measure behavior change as a result of these projects? 

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

I’m not a behavioral psychologist. I don’t really know exactly how you do that. My guess is that it might change from product to product, or service to service. There’s an infinite number of variations. If Netflix wants to make more sustainability-oriented entertainment, they could measure that by seeing their viewership metrics for a movie, like “Don’t Look Up.” The behavior of ingesting climate allegories like that is on the rise — so they can measure behavior change in that way.

Houde: For someone looking to follow in your footsteps, how important do you feel that education certifications are when it comes to entering an impact field like yours?

Lerman: The two education programs that I went through were both valuable in different ways. The NYU program lasted multiple months and allowed me to get a very deep understanding of corporate sustainability. The Center for Sustainability & Excellence experience was more of a fast follow-up which covered the headlines of what I had already learned at NYU, but was very convenient from a time perspective. It was also more focused on connecting and communicating with the other participants, so I was able to hear a lot of different perspectives and learn about other people’s experiences, and just meet more people very 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 think it’s just about asking the question, What are you already great at? Do you anticipate that you will be doing that, 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? That’s not a question anyone else can answer but yourself.

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