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This is how media agencies can make a real difference in climate change

This is how media agencies can make a real difference in climate change

If we want to play our part in not only preserving the planet but our industry too, we have to use our powers to bring about change.

Daytime temperatures reached 53ºC in Delhi in late May, the highest ever recorded in India. A number of people have already died.

This is another sobering reminder that the effects of such heat could be catastrophic, including water and food shortages, mass migration and potentially many more deaths.

There may be debates over its causes, but it’s hard to deny there is a climate crisis.

Soul-searching at Cannes

Meanwhile, it’s Cannes Lions week again. The linen has been unpacked and the waiters have put the overpriced rosé on ice.

It’s also our annual soul-searching week as half of New York, London, Shanghai and San Francisco travel by air to Cannes, racking up the carbon.

This may be a rather hackneyed trope, but it’s an increasingly big issue that we can’t ignore.

The United Nations has come out in favour of a global ban on all fossil-fuel advertising. Cities around the world are prohibiting high-carbon advertising on their estate.

Should fossil fuel ads be banned globally?

In other news, Baillie Gifford, the investment fund, has been forced to abandon its long-standing sponsorship of UK cultural events due to its investments in carbon-heavy industries and apparent ties to Israel.

The “cancellation” of Baillie Gifford will lead to the demise of other events that could and do serve as platforms for climate change debate. Other sponsors will swerve any potential controversy and publishers will exercise caution in whose works they commission.

The climate activist lobby will be encouraged by Baillie Gifford’s withdrawal. The advertising industry is an easy target for activists, but the support of the UN is in another league altogether, even if it is misdirected and short-sighted, as the editor of The Media Leader has observed.

Climate change and the politics of tantrums

Industry initiatives

The advertising industry has in fact been highly active in recent years with several initiatives to address the climate crisis.

These include global industry-wide movements such as Ad Net Zero and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM).

At last year’s Cannes, the two teamed up to produce a guide for advertisers and their agencies on how to reduce carbon emissions in their media supply chains.

This year, they are following up with the Global Media Sustainability Framework — a set of measurement standards for the industry to use for consistent, comparable greenhouse gas emissions from individual media channels.

And we should not forget the Conscious Advertising Network, as well as businesses and not-for-profits such as Brian O’Kelley’s Scope3, Media Bounty and 51-0.

There are good case studies on how advertisers have worked with media agencies to reduce carbon emissions in the supply chain. Sainsbury’s and Skoda are particularly noteworthy.

All of these initiatives and examples are hugely welcome, but there needs to be an urgency about their implementation, with everyone playing a full part. The tools exist in spades, but they have to be used systemically and systematically.

Low trust in brands on climate commitments

Action on digital

Advertisers, agency holding companies, TV operators, publishers, platforms, adtech companies and virtually every other business involved in the industry have declared their support for decarbonisation, with many having stringent targets enshrined in their environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies.

Yet the advertising industry has not yet addressed some of the more egregious examples where decarbonisation has not happened and the situation could worsen if urgent action is not taken.

This especially applies to the digital media supply chain. The fact that it is disastrously carbon-heavy is no secret and there is no excuse for not rectifying this problem.

And there are plenty of tools and techniques available for doing it.

One important contribution comes in the form of Sustainable Advertising: How Advertising Can Support a Better Future, by Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden. It includes thorough guidance on how to reduce carbon emissions in the digital supply chain (chapters five, six and seven for the time-poor).

Advertisers undoubtedly hold the key. How they behave is of crucial importance, but they need the unswerving support of their partners.

We have to use our influence with the world’s brands to persuade them that it is in their longer-term business interests to tackle the climate issue in their operations, products and distribution strategies, as well as in their communications.

But, most of all, we have to show them how — so it’s better to take the lead in this rather than wait for them to instruct us.

End-to-end transparency

Media agencies have a pivotal role to play. They act as the gatekeeper for the media supply chain. The amount of carbon emitted can be dramatically reduced through the choices they make.

They have to plan responsibly, but make real and permanent changes to their executional operations, in full view of the advertiser. Let’s call it “end-to-end transparency”, rather than the overused kind of “transparency” between buyer and seller over money and data.

This doesn’t just apply to digital, but it’s the right place to focus. Estimates vary, but most studies have reported that the internet generates between 2% and 3.7% of total global emissions — the latter figure being the same as the whole airline industry.

Online advertising is estimated to contribute 1g of carbon for every impression. And there are trillions of impressions every day, not to mention an incalculable number of both winning and failed bids.

Media agencies will have to address the existing inefficiency of the open web, where 64% of budget is wasted but from where vast carbon emissions emanate anyway.

They can substantially reduce the number of websites and apps used, as well as the number of exchanges and “hops” within the digital supply chain.

Media agencies’ choices

The US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) programmatic study showed that 86% of impressions from its sample came from 3,000 out of the 44,000 average sites used. All sites emit carbon, but 41,000 of them were doing so with little or no useful effect.

The ANA report contains Scope3 data proving that carefully curated site lists and adtech choices can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 56%.

Media agencies can easily eliminate hugely carbon-heavy websites and apps such as made-for-advertising (MFA) sites, which produce 26% more carbon than non-MFA sites. They can reduce invalid traffic and fraudulent impressions through better control of the adtech employed and through better forensic systems, such as FouAnalytics and Adalytics.

High-growth sectors such as customer media networks, digital commerce and connected TV will all increase the carbon footprint of the ad industry. As spend grows in absolute terms and disproportionately in digital media, the problem will get worse.

So immediate action is required.

GroupM: Global ad market to hit $1tn a year early

Status quo

We know that media agency groups benefit financially from the status quo when it comes to the digital supply chain. Trillions of bids and impressions are a money well for agencies and the adtech industry. Huge fortunes have been made by intermediaries and holding companies rely on hidden margins from the digital supply chain to prop up their profits.

So the holding companies have a choice to make: either reinvent the financial model that encourages trillions of impressions that harm the planet or they can leave things as they are.

If no action is taken, the industry is vulnerable. Hopefully, innovative solutions such as swym.ai will help reduce the egregious waste of money and carbon that currently exists, but media agencies have to lead their clients to such solutions.

Doing nothing is inconceivable, especially if they want to do the right thing by their clients’ ESG policies and their own. The tools exist.

Media agencies can also educate their clients to understand that the relentless pursuit of low-cost media inventory has led to a massive overload of cheap impressions that are ineffective and harmful, and almost inevitably contrary to their ESG promises.

High-quality environments

But the difference media agencies can make doesn’t stop there.

They should support media channels that report accurately and robustly on the climate crisis. There is already an increasing shortage of funding for high-quality content, as money flows to user-generated content sites such as Facebook and TikTok, marketplaces such as Amazon and customer data-led networks such as Walmart, Uber and now (ironically) American Airlines.

We need top-quality journalism to report on the climate emergency, especially at a time when there is consumer fatigue and a shift to the right in politics that aims to make climate a culture war issue rather than an existential one, as Alan Rusbridger has very convincingly pointed out.

Further bans on high-carbon advertising are possible and there is considerable public support for them; and the court of public opinion is the only one that really counts.

Cultural effect

Another tangential way that media agencies can help is by helping find new sponsors for cultural events and thereby contribute to the plurality of culture. This is arguably a sub-set of ensuring client investments aren’t just good but do good.

Hopefully, there will be conferences and awards for real climate-friendly activity in the near future, including the gritty subject of supply-chain management. But, most of all, we need systemic and systematic action.

If we want to play our part in not only preserving the planet but our industry too, we have to use our powers to bring about change.

Media agencies need to step up. Cannes is a good place to make some commitments by signing up to the Global Media Sustainability Framework or supporting Conscious Advertising Network or reading Sustainable Advertising or working with carbon-reduction companies — or preferably all of the above.

Go and make it real.

Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb Media (now MG OMD) and was chief strategy officer at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry, and is non-executive chair of Media Marketing Compliance. He writes for The Media Leader each month.

Bob Wootton, Principal, Deconstruction, on 17 Jun 2024
“Really excellent piece, joins up some important dots”

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