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Media Adtech Media Planning and Buying

Can Scope3’s adtech execs tame the carbon emissions they once helped create?

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By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

October 12, 2022 | 7 min read

Adtech veteran Anne Coghlan explains how her latest gig Scope3 will help decarbonize the opaque industry she and co-founder Brian O’Kelley helped build.

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Scope3 helps decarbonize adland by estimating the grams of carbon emitted by digital display and video ads

There’s a swelling of marketers who want to offset the carbon footprint of their media buys, but the tools remain in their infancy and platforms are still slow to offer the true picture. Enter Scope3, the brain-child of AppNexus alumni Anne Coghlan and Brian O’Kelley, which launched in 2022 to help decarbonize adland by estimating the grams of carbon emitted by digital display and video ads. And there’s more on the way.

It’s a departure from the career path Coghlan initially set out on. She joined AppNexus in 2015, three years before the $1.6bn buyout by AT&T, as a product strategist. Her role was to take over the work the likes of O’Kelley did in building pre-bid and more. She jokes that they are responsible “for creating a lot of the complexities that we live with to this day.”

She says at the time of building out AppNexus, there was little consideration around sustainability or energy consumption. For publishers in particular, there was a gold rush to add as many partners as possible to prop up real journalism and content languishing during the switch from print to digital.

“No one was really thinking about the carbon footprint. We realize now that a lot of decisions were made without considering the environmental impact. They are now a problem. There’s a lot of waste and inefficiency in the ecosystem, not just from a money perspective and a lack of transparency, but also for the environment.”

After the AppNexus buy-out (AT&T later sold it to Microsoft), Coghlan left the ad industry and joined Waybridge, a supply chain technology company, where she was challenged to understand the carbon expenditure in everything from mining, transport and smelting to shipping and more. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar from the issue plaguing adtech.

“It was about this time last year that we started applying this thinking to the world of programmatic, asking how many players are involved in the serving of one ad, not just the winners, but every single company involved in the losing bids using even a tiny bit of electricity,” she says.

It’s all “inherently connected” from the brand to the publisher via a slate of adtech intermediaries, says Coghlan, who believes the first step is in measuring the carbon footprint of any given brand/agency’s digital activity, then incentivizing brands to buy accredited green media products (GMPs).

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“Once brands realize that advertising is part of their carbon cost, they will put pressure on their supply chain. Brands are answerable to the board, but also consumers, who are starting to be a bit more scrutinizing.”

But if programmatic advertising is indeed so wasteful, why don’t brands just stop using it?

“Advertising does have positive impacts,” she says, adding that the behavior changes we need to save the world can be pushed by this apparatus.“There is also a natural correlation between having fewer ads and fewer emissions overall, [so we should seek] higher quality or more effective ads.”

Her first port of call would be removing made-for-advertising sites from the media plan, which are by their very nature crammed with ads generated (often) for bot traffic. “They’re terrible for the environment – I think we will see many positive effects from focusing on quality instead.”

So she’s giving a pass to digital advertising – but what about the less intensive contextual advertising v audience-based targeting?

Any media buyer worth their salt will know the content types their audiences will be likely to engage with. But that’s a simplistic view, and contextual advertising needs to prove itself as a worthy successor. If the untargeted inventory is less effective, agencies will likely buy more to make up for the deficit.

“This is something we are researching at the moment. In the third-party cookie world, the user is pinging lots of different companies to make sure that they’ve got all the information centralized on one user. That is extremely carbon intensive, just by virtue of the number of computers and servers involved. There are lots of processes that happen in the audience-based targeting that are under threat anyway, so people have been moving away from that and moving towards contextual advertising ever since I left adtech in 2019.”

At 15 staff on the books, Scope3 is set to scale up fast. Its “aggressive” roadmap will see it extend to all digital channels by the midpoint of 2023.

She concludes: “We have to go big because there isn’t an option to go home if we don’t sort this out. We need to reduce those emissions as quickly as possible.”

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