Cone and OgilvyEarth lead the U.S. market for sustainability communications agencies, according to a new report from independent sustainability analyst firm Verdantix, following a four-month study comparing 18 U.S. agencies. The survey found “a yawning gap” between the evolving needs of Fortune 500 firms to communicate sustainability performance and the “lackluster ideas, strategies and frameworks” offered by most of the agencies in the study.


“Rising interest in sustainability performance with employees, investors and customers has forced corporate sustainability marketing out of the “green ghetto” of CSR reports targeted exclusively at environmental NGOs and socially responsible investors” says Jim Nail, principal analyst at Verdantix, who authored the report. “The shift from old style, tactical CSR reporting to the new wave of strategic, sustainability communications has caught agencies off guard. According to our detailed analysis, only Cone and OgilvyEarth offer breakthrough sustainability communications strategies, frameworks and advice in tune with the needs of leading firms.”


The Verdantix report, Green Quadrant Sustainable Communications US 2010, compares firms on 41 criteria, including sustainability communications frameworks, defining the sustainability-brand connection and communicating to employees, customers, investors and suppliers.


The survey says that Cone and OgilvyEarth lead the sustainability communications market. “These agencies lead the U.S. market due to a clear sustainability vision supported by processes and methodologies specifically designed to address sustainability communications challenges. They go beyond promoting current initiatives and create brand platforms that are catalysts for change.”


Cohn & Wolfe, Context America, Edelman and Ketchum follow close behind the leaders, according to Verdantix. “These agencies demonstrate a strong sustainable business perspective and investment in their sustainability practice,” although Edelman scores lower on the sustainability readiness assessment and in communicating sustainability to investors, while Ketchum has lower scores in communicating sustainability to employees and in defining the sustainability- brand connection.


All agencies flunk the test on their own sustainable business strategy. “Across the board, the agencies failed to impress with their own sustainability strategies, commitments, reporting and communications plans. To earn trust from potential clients, agencies must demonstrate they can ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’ on sustainability by implementing innovative, transparent and authentic sustainability communications strategies that connect with their brands.”


 “In this nascent market, even leading agencies need to broaden their capabilities to deliver the strategic sustainability advice that corporate clients require” says David Metcalfe, director of Verdantix. “Firms face risks and opportunities created by sustainability performance rankings, SEC climate change risk disclosure guidelines, water scarcity issues, scrutiny of conflict minerals in the supply chain and ill-defined eco-consumer trends. Agencies urgently need to respond with deeper domain expertise and engagement from senior communications advisers that reflects the need to delve into the long-term impact of sustainability trends on brand equity.”