Scope3 is on a mission to decarbonize media and advertising

Scope3 is on a mission to decarbonize media and advertising


Brian O’Kelley is the CEO and co-founder of Scope3, where he is leading the charge in decarbonizing the media and advertising industry. He also serves as a board member of LiveRamp (RAMP). A visionary in the tech world, Brian co-founded AppNexus, guiding it through its $1.6 billion sale to AT&T in 2018. He has been instrumental in developing key technologies for the $100 billion programmatic advertising industry, including the ad exchange, DSP, SSP, and header bidding. Brian’s innovations have earned him recognition on Crain’s 40 Under 40, Adweek 50, and Silicon Alley 100 lists, and he was named E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year in the New York region. He is also known for his support of initiatives like Girls Who Code and One Acre Fund’s 1 Billion Trees campaign.

Interview conducted by Namketa Savadogo 

The Media Leader: How did you become a reference in the field of sustainable advertising?

Brian O’Kelley: After selling AppNexus in 2018, I wanted to do something in the real world and co-founded a company to do, in essence, SPO for real-world commodities supply chains. In 2019 I took a year-long MIT course on supply chain management, and as part of that I was exposed to the incredible challenge of modeling the sustainability of complex supply chains. It reminded me of adtech, and I did some back-of-the-envelope math and realized that the excess carbon footprint of programmatic advertising was far greater than the impact I could have fixing physical supply chains, so we spun off the commodities business and focused on media and advertising.

The Media Leader: What personal experiences or insights have shaped your approach to sustainability?

Brian O’Kelley: Growing up in Eugene, Oregon – one of the crunchiest places in the US – meant that I was an environmentalist almost by default. However, it’s also a lumber town, and some of my closest friends were from families that made their living in the timber industry. From an early age, I was exposed to the idea that commerce and climate were not at odds: you can have a sustainable timber industry that respects the land and in fact forest management is a critical part of sequestering carbon. The Scope3 thesis that sustainable advertising is effective advertising is very much aligned with these foundations.

The Media Leader: How do you see sustainability gaining momentum in the advertising industry?

Brian O’Kelley: We’ve seen hundreds of advertisers leverage Scope3 data to measure and reduce their carbon footprint, both directly and through our many agency, ad tech, and measurement partners. The emergence of industry standards led by WFA, GARM, and AdNetZero is going to accelerate adoption even more. The question in 2025 isn’t going to be “do I need a sustainability platform?” It’s going to be “which sustainability platform should I use?”

The Media Leader: What are the primary drivers behind this shift towards sustainability?

Brian O’Kelley: Perhaps surprisingly, performance. Case study after case study has demonstrated that when you don’t buy MFA, bloated ad tech stacks, and problematic placements, you get better outcomes. There’s a bunch of junk inventory out there that is wasteful both for money and for carbon. I’ve heard criticism that sustainability is another ad tech tax on publishers. What we see is the opposite: buyers spend more money on quality publishers when they buy sustainably. It’s just good business.

The Media Leader: At the Horizon Media Sustainable Media Summit, you explained how the industry can come together to reduce carbon emissions. What steps do you believe are crucial for achieving widespread industry engagement and adoption of sustainable practices?

Brian O’Kelley: I think the biggest challenge to date has been twofold: lack of standards and lack of mature products. GARM standards coming out in June solves the first one, and I see a ton of progress in the sustainability platforms toward meeting enterprise needs. The recent announcement that 51-0 is integrating Scope3 to power the marketing supply chain is a great example of this maturity, where a company can get both best-in-class carbon accounting and actionable measurement for media without compromising accuracy or adding complexity. 

The Media Leader: What strategies have proven effective in getting people to care about sustainability in advertising?

Brian O’Kelley: What hasn’t worked is trying to lecture people on the climate crisis and what they *should* do about it. What works great is showing people how they can make their media supply chain more effective and efficient, and oh by the way save some carbon too.

The Media Leader: What are the biggest challenges the advertising industry faces in becoming more sustainable?

Brian O’Kelley: The biggest challenge is confusion about ESG/CSR as “moral” choices that are potentially in conflict with business performance. I think we should consider sustainability as a standalone initiative that, while good for the world, is predominantly focused on reducing waste and driving efficiency.

The Media Leader: How do we balance profit and sustainability in a way that motivates stakeholders to prioritize both?

Brian O’Kelley: The lens that seems to work best is that of waste. When you buy water in a plastic bottle it wastes money and carbon. Carrying your own water bottle will save you hundreds of dollars a year and protects you from all kinds of microplastics and other contaminants. Seems like an obvious choice. When we talk about not buying MFA or problematic placements, it’s the same thing: why waste money and media?

The Media Leader: The ad industry generates millions of metric tons of carbon emissions annually, much of which stems from inefficiency and waste. What are some key areas of inefficiency, and how is Scope3 working to address these?

Brian O’Kelley: The biggest areas of waste are 1) highly redundant programmatic supply chains, 2) MFA and other crappy inventory, and 3) problematic placements. Scope3 provides data so that partners can create media products that block climate risk: Climate Shield, Green Media Products, and GMP+.

The Media Leader: Can you explain how Scope3 is leading the change in the industry regarding Scope 3 emissions?

Brian O’Kelley: Scope3 was the first company to provide a comprehensive data set that maps the media value chain – “scope 3” in carbon accounting terms. We open-sourced our methodology so that the industry could collaborate in making this as accurate as possible and have worked closely with industry groups to evolve our approach.

The Media Leader: Scope3 recently announced a collaboration with 51toCarbonZero. Can you explain how this partnership enhances carbon media measurement and its significance for corporate carbon accounting?

Brian O’Kelley: Carbon accounting products like 51-0 start with accounting data to track where money is spent. This is a great starting point but isn’t an accurate way to measure many supply chains, especially those with large variance like media where the same impression may cost 100x more depending on the user and geo. Marketing sustainability platforms like Scope3 focus on activity-based accounting and are more accurate and actionable, but don’t try to be comprehensive across all spend categories. If you can combine both from a methodology and technology perspective, it’s the best of both worlds, and that’s why I’m so excited about the 51-0 partnership with Scope3. 

The Media Leader: Scope3 introduced GMP+, the industry’s first product to use placement as the foundation for blocking problematic placements. How does GMP+ work, and what impact do you anticipate it will have on the industry?

Brian O’Kelley: GMP+ combines our MFA and climate risk data with a new dataset that identifies problematic placements based on global placement ID (GPID). We were very surprised to find that 14.6% of placements had problematic characteristics and that these didn’t tend to overlap with MFA and climate risk. As an industry colleague said to me this afternoon “these are basically just an extension of MFA,” which I agree with: these are placements that are not creating value for advertisers and generate significant carbon.

The Media Leader: You’ve highlighted the issue of problematic ad placements. Can you elaborate on why these are unsustainable and how GMP+ specifically targets these issues?

Brian O’Kelley: An example of a problematic placement is one that renders outside the viewport. The proper behavior – which is a simple configuration flag in GAM – is to only render placements when the user scrolls near them. GMP+ gives buyers a simple way to buy valid placements, increasing viewability and overall performance. As buyers stop monetizing misconfigured placements, we expect publishers to flip them to properly lazy load.

The Media Leader: How does pulling granular activity-based advertising emissions data into corporate carbon accounting platforms contribute to a company’s net-zero goals? Can you provide an example of this in practice?

Brian O’Kelley: Most advertisers have a fairly fixed advertising budget. Using spend-based emissions factors, like 1 kgCO2e per $1000 invested, means that changes to advertising tactics won’t change the measured emissions. Moving to channel-level emissions factors helps a little, but in practice buyers need to move to an activity-based approach to get accurate and actionable reporting on impressions, not spend. Using impression data, buyers can make significant changes to their overall carbon footprint, often saving 30% of their media carbon emissions and helping performance. This progress both impacts real world energy use and progress toward net zero goals.

The Media Leader: What is your long-term vision for Scope3 and the role it will play in transforming the advertising industry towards a more sustainable future?

Brian O’Kelley: Our vision for Scope3 is to provide data that enables systemic decarbonization of the media and advertising industry. There is a lot more work to do, especially as generative AI creates new channels and categories, driving exponential growth in energy use. I’m proud and excited of our progress to date – and that of our partners and the industry as a whole – but there’s a lot more to do!

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