Carbon Emissions Sustainable Transformation Media Planning and Buying

After 'insufficient progress' GroupM's now ready to decarbonize its dirty media supply


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

July 19, 2022 | 8 min read

Marketing giant WPP estimates that more than half of its overall emissions come from media production - and it's not alone. So it has tasked its media buying arm, GroupM, with providing a granular breakdown of omissions so it can finally address the industry’s biggest pollutant – the ad inventory.


Agencies are still guessing media supply pollution - GroupM shares its plan

For years now, media agencies have estimated the carbon footprint and emissions of their ad supply chain to offset its impact and make better choices while the public turns against the world’s biggest polluters. Right now, the carbon calculators are lacking nuance and real-time data. The industry is struggling to understand the extent of its impact on the environment.

This is an issue because WPP is committed to net-zero across its owned operations by 2025. As a result, its media supply chain won’t be ready until 2030. A report released Tuesday, July 19 by execs Krystal Olivieri and Oliver Joyce detailed a new measurement framework and global carbon calculator aligned with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

Reflecting, the report says the industry has made ”notable progress... in estimating the climate impact of advertising,” but that “progress has been insufficient, and the scale and urgency of the situation demand that [GroupM] redouble [its] efforts”.

Current calculators aren’t plugged into real-time data from supply chains. There isn’t enough collaboration with platforms and publishers.

That must change.

Through schemes like Ad Net Zero, the industry needs to align on objectives and therefore measurement. IPG is reducing emissions in line with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C and it will run on 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Omnicom will reduce energy use by 20% per person globally by 2023 (using a 2015 baseline) and will be running on 20% renewables by next year. Dentsu has committed to reducing absolute emissions by 90% by 2040 across its entire value chain (notably, this excludes media emissions).

In media, in particular, a uniform approach across agency borders is required. GroupM’s open framework identifies 11 measurable channels: TV, VOD, cinema, social, digital, print, OOH, DOOH, radio, digital audio and transient. It will be measuring carbon dioxide output across five stages of ad consumption, from raw material production, extraction, production, distribution and storage all the way to consumption and end of life (recycling a newspaper, for example).

Measuring multi-channel marketing campaigns using a single tool will be difficult due to a lack of standardization. For example, digital ad emissions are often measured per KB of data while print will use emissions per centimeter. However, Joyce is confident the latest tool can compare apples and oranges and adds: ”We are moving from estimation to a program that can significantly drive reductions. That is a big shift – we are developing channel-level tools.”

The updated calculator will be available across the group from Q4. From 2023, some of the all-important vendor-level data will be plugged in.

Joyce adds that there ”are huge things [GroupM] can do today to make a difference,” with some of the immediate ”wins” according to the report being:

  • Make decarbonization efforts visible

  • Buy fewer, better ads from higher-quality publishers

  • Reduce complexity of supply chain – every layer has a footprint

  • Buy low-carbon media products that are incentivized to cut waste

  • Reduce the size of creative assets

GroupM will make the methodologies and processes available to industry bodies committed to decarbonizing the media supply chain, with the target approved by the Science Based Targets initiative.

One huge shift is the suggestion from a media agency that it should serve fewer ads for the good of the environment. Increasing the efficiency of campaigns and reducing wasteful placements and frequencies would immediately cut output.

Joyce says: ”This is the general direction of travel anyway. There’s a big push around attention measurement. There’s a piece of work that’s coming out that shows that higher-attention environments have generally got a lower carbon footprint. And that’s linked to buying fewer, better quality impressions. We’ve got a big push in terms of investment in quality journalism. The same kind of principle applies, which is encouraging people to pay premiums for better higher-quality environments.”

This means the industry will have to shift from a decade of price-driven purchases through the programmatic ecosystem, which some have called a race to the bottom that has hurt quality publishers.

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More broadly, Joyce is ”preparing clients” and says that they are ”showing that they are willing to invest”. But, he adds, the current incarnation of carbon calculators aren’t moving ”significant money... yet”.

Could an increase in transparency hurt the ad industry, however? Will brands be hesitant to advertise for fear it’ll impact their sustainability goals? Joyce doesn’t think so: “It won’t make a difference as to whether they want to advertise or not, but it’ll impact who they monetize with. The decarbonization industry is quite young. So everyone’s working things out.“

There’s a broad acknowledgment that publisher partners and media owners will need to open up and share standardized, real-time emission data to network partners. There’s a race underway.

Olivieri adds: “Our clients will continue having net-zero goals. Reporting requirements will continue to grow. [Sharing the data] will make our conversations easier. It’ll be easier for partners that have bigger budgets and more revenue coming in to make big decisions.“

This won’t be an overnight deadline, she stresses. “We won’t slap your hand if you don’t provide this information. It’s not like you won’t get any budget. This is an evolution.”

However, sharpening that point, she adds: “At some point, we will have to make tougher decisions with our clients.”

Just last week, The Drum asked if the climate cost of digital billboards too high to justify?

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