Digital media sustainability is due its own front-page moment

Digital media sustainability is due its own front-page moment

Remember 2017’s headlines on brand risk? Until we make sustainability business-critical, a similar moment could be coming for carbon-heavy digital media investments.

The marketers involved won’t easily forget the moment in early 2017 when brand safety suddenly became a subject of great interest to them. “Big brands fund terror through online adverts,” blazed the front page of The Times, having identified ads for numerous major advertisers alongside extremist content on YouTube.

And just like that, brand safety became a critical key performance indicator (KPI) for marketers who had not considered the extent of the brand reputation threat just a few days before.

Rightly or wrongly, it is not hard to picture a similar naming-and-shaming moment coming for non-sustainable, carbon-heavy digital media investments.

The context is well-established: against the backdrop of the climate crisis, digital advertising represents 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, on a par with — but growing faster than — aviation. Add in the computational power usage of an expanding AI sector and this is only set to double or even triple. 

Advertising’s carbon footprint

We know that a million ad impressions is equal to a metric ton of CO2e — the same as one passenger’s round-trip flight from Boston to London, 121,000 fully charged smartphones or 2.4m plastic straws (source: Sharethrough).

The average ad campaign delivers this 70 times over (source: Fifty-Five). This is why, according to Purpose Disruptors and Magic Numbers, 32% of each person’s carbon footprint now comes from the ads they see and receive.

None of this is any secret in industry circles — far from it. The problem — and it may be one that a front-page newspaper story could quickly solve — is that media sustainability is not yet business-critical. Very few brands today are incentivised to avoid working with high-carbon partners and they often lack the data to do so.

Sustainability is, for the moment, still a secondary KPI. There is still a debate to be had, meanwhile, between publishers and advertisers on the question of whether green inventory should come at a premium. My view is that it probably should, in the same way organic vegetables originally came at a higher price that has gradually reduced as demand has risen.

More solutions needed

If we are prepared to learn the lessons of the past and understand emissions-shaming as a brand reputation accident waiting to happen, what do we do about it?

When brand safety became a news item in its own right, what rapidly followed was an entire ecosystem of solutions and an infusion of money from brands desperate to avoid exposure to brand risk.

Sooner or later, we can expect the same to happen here — and, in the meantime, there is work to be done. The business of driving reductions remains immature and there are really only a handful of solutions in the marketplace today.

Tracking and reporting solutions exist, but the tactics and methodologies for driving reduction are still being created, with great reference points in the quick action guides from the World Federation of Advertisers and IAB Tech Lab.

In enlightened brand boardrooms, it’s true that environmental and social purpose are growing in their significance to media buying decisions.

Some companies, though not enough, are waking up to tackling these scope 3 emissions — those indirectly created in the supply chain in the course of doing business, including the emissions of creative, media, production and data partners — but it is fair to say that most of those involved are still at a loss as to what to do about them.

Speaking out

Some brands are speaking out more than others. Mars has talked about its roadmap around ESG in advertising and publicly declared that it will refuse to work with suppliers that decline to adopt science-based targets. Diageo, too, has called attention to the vital need for transparency in ESG aspects of media investment.

There is also some movement at agency network level. Dentsu recently announced the creation of an Ethical Media Index, in partnership with GoodNet, emphasising sustainability and helping its clients deliver on it with their media buys.

ESG is gradually becoming an aspect of agency reviews, and brands and their partners are asking more frequently how much carbon is generated by their activities — even if that interest is not necessarily trickling down to money on plans.

Don’t leave it to publishers

An easy move for brands and agencies is simply to demand publishers present them with green media alternatives. This is understandable, but perhaps not all that fair. Publishers, already struggling to keep the lights on under heavy pressure from Google, Meta and others, can’t be expected to clean up the digital supply chain single-handed.

Programmatic’s multiple auctions and huge inefficiencies put it very reasonably in the firing line, as its greatest asset is also its weakness — it is awash with data and its impact is laid bare for all to see, unlike that of walled-garden sectors such as social and search. Programmatic has work to do, but it doesn’t deserve to carry the can for the entire digital advertising sector.

Next time, I want to talk about those publishers and how we can help them to help us all do the right thing — ideally before media sustainability has its own front-page moment.

Hannah Mirza is founder and CEO of Responsible Marketing Agency

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