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Adland doesn’t have the tools to properly measure media’s carbon footprint... yet

As we run out of time to save the planet, how can marketers play their part in reducing emissions?

First wave of media carbon calculators are “imperfect“, but can they help industry meet the unmissable climate deadline and decarbonize supply chain?

Media agencies are racing to determine the immediate environmental impact of distributing billions of ads across opaque online platforms while on-stage execs detail suspiciously neat ambitions of evolving into sustainable, net-zero carbon businesses.

Cop26 protests prove that the public can differentiate greenwashers from legitimate changemakers. Some marketers, likely stung by accusations of hypocrisy, hope to help scale the sustainable enterprises that will help save the world. However, as WFA chief executive Stephan Loerke tells The Drum: “These agencies need to put their own house in order first.”

Media agencies deliver ads to the public for clients, and are now funneling 70p in every £1 into digital advertising in the UK. A majority of these ads are delivered via programmatic buying (where brands auction for your attention in any given inventory). In the last decade, the process has become way more energy intensive.

Good-Loop estimates that programmatic tech handles 2,000 times more bids than the New York Stock Exchange on any given day – 8tn transactions all in the name of targeted advertising. Speaking at Cop26, strategic planner Jonathan Wise pointed to estimations that advertising added an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK in 2019. That was more than 186m tonnes of CO2e, weighing slightly less than all the coal India imported in 2020 (India still uses a lot of coal to power its economy).

Research from Cavai estimates that the average online ad impression emits carbon equal to:

Driving an electric car between 0.4 to 9.65m

Watching a 40” OLED TV on 4K between 1.5 to 35 seconds

Having a LED light bulb on between 30 and 700 seconds

WPP, one of the world’s largest ad networks, found that 55% of its carbon emissions came from the media it was distributing ads on, be it social networks, CTV, billboards or the longtail of the web. Its 100,000+ staff and offices to house them only accounted for 1.7% of said emissions.

Agencies have come around the table and are now in consensus that it’s best to start tackling this problem by measuring the carbon cost of every ad impression. With internet emissions set to double in the next four years, the issue will only worsen. It is unlikely that the next wave of sustainable marketers will want to be marketing in an unsustainable manner.

In the UK, ad bodies including the Advertising Association (AA) and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) launched Ad Net Zero, a climate charter, tools and tuition to help signatories hit net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Loerke tells me: “It is the right thing to start with [carbon] ... but this is only the beginning.”

[Guide: why agencies picked net zero carbon and how they intend to measure it]

The carbon agenda

The industry faces a threat, though there’s no consensus on whether it is merely a huge threat or an existential one. Will the angry consumer in the flooded home blame the 100 companies that contributed to 71% of the global greenhouse gas emissions since 1998? That would be a reasonable place to start. Sustainability is the battleground that will determine the biggest brands in the decades to come.

Hamish Nicklin, executive director of media, UK & Ireland at Dentsu, speaking at an AA Cop26 event boasted that it was “the first holding company to set a net zero [carbon] target” and said it intends to help one billion people make more sustainable choices through its work by 2030.

He made the bold claim that these goals require a “fundamental rethink” of advertising’s role in society. But to do that, we must first measure its environmental impact.

Laura Wade, vice-president of content and innovation for Essence EMEA, tells me she has been “wheeled out more” to talk about sustainability in advertising, which is a good thing. Discussions lead to action. She’s among the execs pushing hard to better measure the carbon cost of media. And there’s been positive signs.

A new levy funded the creation of AdGreen’s carbon calculator in 2020 encompassing all elements of production. The IPA’s Media Climate Calculator has been embraced as part of a wider charter and is the go-to tool for the industry.

Pauline Robson, head of Blink consulting at Mediacom, in the IPA explainer video admits there is a lot of work to do. She explains: “This is the first iteration of this calculator and there are limitations ... like understanding the full impact of the digital media supply chain.” It also dig into buys on a media owner basis, but some are well ahead of others in changing that, she teases.

Wade discloses: “Carbon calculators are a bit of gateway drug. It’s really about starting the conversation with clients. There are lots of assumptions made [in the tool]. You wouldn’t you bet your house on [the figures] or change your media planning at this stage, absolutely not.” But that’s not inherently a bad thing, she says, just the start of a journey.

She wants everyone at the table: “This is an open-source subject, people want to solve this.”

Tony Mattson, head of strategy at Havas Media UK, says it made no sense to delay the launch of the carbon calculator, even if it's still in its infancy. “No one thinks it’s perfect, but it’s a great step in the right direction.”

Billions of pounds of billings have now been run through such calculators, which can only be a positive thing. And we approach the supposed point of no return in global heating as laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there’s little time for delays.

However, Mattson passionately rhymes off a Christmas list of features the IPA calculator needs to be best implemented on an operational level.

He says the tool is finding good use during annual planning season, where entire multimillion pound budgets are allocated to channels, but it’s dangerous to go deeper. “But when you go into more detailed campaign planning, I’d be wary of making some supply load decisions because it’s just not there, it’s not set up to do that.

“This is better than doing nothing ... we could have delayed the launch of the calculator until [all of these features were added] but I think it was right not to.”

Carbon auditing regulation is toughening around the globe, in no small part due to Cop26. That will follow through into media buying. Clients will pressure agencies, and agencies that dish out the ad spend can pressure platforms for greater transparency – although the seemingly bi-annual Facebook brand advertiser boycotts show the limitations of such pressure.

Carbon output has to be measured then in a standardized manner across all channels and media too, which will require consensus.

There’s demand for this inventory, even at this stage. Some clients want to move spend to greener sources. Others, themselves incapable of offering low-carbon solutions, have little interest in offsetting their carbon. But encouragingly Mattson guesses that 100% of new clients are demanding sustainability information from agency partners.

As Wade says, marketers are having to come to terms with the fact that endless growth was unsustainable. Meanwhile, Mattson questions whether billings are the way for agencies to be renumerated if sustainability indeed becomes a focus. These questions have billion-dollar answers.

Oliver Joyce, chief transformation officer at Mindshare, says agencies don’t think the calculators alone “move us toward decarbonization of the supply chain.” He shares a five-step plan to hit at least 50% absolute reduction in carbon footprint by 2030:

  • Offsetting carbon could cost the group $1.2bn annually (its 2019 billings are $45.1bn). “This could go much higher if the cost of carbon credits increases further.” He says the cost of inaction has to be quantified to make this investment look like a saving.

  • Joyce urges media companies to cut out ineffective media buys. Why offset when you can reduce your output first?

  • Next, he says the industry will need to move investment to lower-carbon media. This has “been said quietly [by execs], but now needs to be said loudly.”

  • The carbon calculators need visibility at the vendor level. “This is complex, but is starting to be enshrined in contracts.”

  • Make carbon another optimization factor in campaigns. He concludes: “This can’t be manual or time-consuming. Media planners need to know carbon impact as quickly as reach, and this ability will be built into media planning tools.”

The industry is focused on carbon as it is the currency of sustainability, but as Wade concludes: “We could create a net carbon wealth of solar panels and it still wouldn’t be sustainable in the sense of ensuring justice, equality, a planet where people can thrive, biodiversity loss. We can’t just be about ticking boxes and measuring carbon.”

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