Media planners need to think bigger about emissions associated with advertising

Media planners need to think bigger about emissions associated with advertising

Strategy Leaders

Measuring and offsetting alone cannot be a long-term solution, warns Zenith’s chief strategy officer.  

In the week of COP26, the clamour for a more sustainable advertising industry grows louder.

Advertising agencies are under pressure to help clients reduce their environmental impact.

Peter Field was right – the time for industry cynicism is over. Investors and board members are looking at the future and realising they will have to get to “net zero” quickly. Last week, we learnt that in the UK they may be forced to make this transition faster than planned.

This is going to cost money, and we all know what happens to ad spend when new costs emerge.

In addition, advertising is often viewed by non-marketers as a weak force driving sales – a necessary evil – so how will it be viewed when it is also labelled a drag on a firm’s net zero ambitions?

Measure, reduce, offset, preach

Ad Net Zero is the industry’s best current response to this pressure, but its recommendations for media are fairly sparse. So, we must ask, are we doing enough – not just for the planet – but to safeguard advertising’s role as a growth driver?

To date, the media industry’s initial response has been “measure, reduce, offset, preach”:

  1. Measure the true environmental impact of each impact – using CO2 calculators like A.L.I.C.E from Publicis
  2. Reduce this toll on the environment by applying pressure to media owners and adtech
  3. Offset emissions that remain through partnerships
  4. Preach about these eco-credentials at scale.

But how effective can this approach be?

When it comes to reducing emissions per impact, media owners can only really be expected to move their energy mix towards renewable at broadly the same speed as the rest of the business world. And, while that’s happening, TV screens are getting bigger, more digital out-of-home sites are built, and time spent with mobile video continues to rocket – increasing total emissions.

So the cost of offsetting will stay high, which adds to the cost of goods sold (COGS) and erodes margin.

For example, The IPA’s carbon calculator shows a brand wanting to be on TV 40 weeks a year, at 80 All Adult TVRs per week, with a 30-second ad, would emit 780 tonnes of CO2. Current cost to offset? £11,000, but current discussions about government setting a realistic carbon price would see this virtually quadruple.

And finally, as Andrew Tenzer’s research showed, people don’t really care about brands eco-credentials as much as we think they do, and as Peter Field has proven in recent weeks, purposeful ads based on messages like sustainability generally don’t perform well.

So advertising’s efforts to date can best be summed up as well-meaning, but short-termist and largely unproven in terms of having any real impact – either on emissions or our client’s businesses.

Media must be leaner, not just greener

We marketers are playing to type.

Sustainability is being treated as a new and separate job for media planners – but it’s tied up in the same problem we think about every day: How do we get the right message in front of the right person, at the right time?

When we focus on that, we reduce unnecessary impacts and the associated emissions dramatically. All without a reliance on media owners or third-party offsetting.

To make meaningful, rapid progress on advertising emissions we should focus on making media leaner, not just making it greener.

A real-world example: right now, advertisers define an audience to target, but the audience that’s actually bought differs channel by channel. The overlap of these audiences is largely unknown and difficult to unpick. This makes cross-channel campaign frequency hard to calculate.

When a brand moves to a single audience buy across multiple publishers, with a more accurate identity map underpinning that buy, the real frequency being delievered becomes clearer.

For a global retailer, we discovered a reported frequency of 13 impacts per month (our calculated optimum delivery) was actually more like 32 – so using a more robust identity map and activating a single audience across channels allowed us to halve emissions at a stroke.

Is ‘net zero’ compatible with our marketing orthodoxy?

This battle to master cross-channel reach and frequency is at the heart of Project Origin, C-Flight, and major holding-company acquisitions like Axciom and Epsilon. To date, the benefits they offer have been spoken about exclusively in terms of business and media outcomes, but could it be that they are also key to reducing advertising’s environmental impact?

It would certainly be a powerful argument to drive adoption among businesses who have ESG at the top of their agenda.

This prompts a huge question for the industry: Is the How Brands Grow and Binet/Field orthodoxy around brand building media fit for a ‘net zero’ world?

It’s well accepted that reaching all potential category buyers regularly, ideally with longer-form ads telling a story that elicits an emotional response, is our most reliable approach for delivering business growth.

But this approach is wasteful by design.

Advertisers and agencies will need to reconcile the environmental damage associated with that waste. And this provokes a big question; at what point does a hard cost for offsetting vast brand campaigns erode the effectiveness advantage they bring?

For years stakeholders in adtech and data-rich businesses have tried to prove targeted media can be more effective at scale than traditional advertising approaches.

They haven’t really succeeded. Many marketers remain deeply opposed to this approach.

Maybe the advent of a ‘net zero’ advertising ecosystem will be the catalyst to force reappraisal of brand advertising en masse?

These are the questions media planners have to start to grapple with now if we are to truly make progress in reducing the impact of our activity on the planet.

Measuring and offsetting alone cannot be a long-term solution.

Richard Kirk is chief strategy officer at Zenith UK. Before rejoining the Publicis Groupe media agency in 2019 he was a brand strategist at Amazon.


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