Conscious media investment

This article is part of a series of articles from the WARC Guide to conscious media investment.

Jake Dubbins & Harriet Kingaby, co-chairs The Conscious Advertising Network, and guest editors on The WARC Guide to Conscious Media Investment explain what conscious media is, why it matters, and how it benefits brands, and society.

Advertising funds the internet. It funds our broadcast media channels, quality journalism and digital creators. It funds the narratives that shape our lives and our view of the world. And yet some of those narratives threaten our democracy, our lives, and our planet.

Conscious media investment is about advertisers deliberately choosing to invest in quality and inclusive media, and actively ensuring they defund media that promote dangerous narratives. 

Marketers have taken the first steps to ensure their brand’s safety, but many of these approaches are too blunt or don’t go far enough to face the wider challenges threatening society.

We’ve worked with WARC to amplify the critical need for advertisers to make conscious, responsible and deliberate media investment decisions. This WARC guide includes early lessons from global brands including Diageo, GSK, Virgin O2, HMD and Reebok, as well as advice from network agencies including GroupM and Havas who demonstrate the commercial imperative, and commercial advantages of conscious media investment. The Guide features practical advice to help you become a more responsible and conscious advertiser, which starts with the following steps:

  1. Know why conscious media investment matters, and adopt industry standards
  2. Audit and clean up the supply media chain (CAN can help with this)
  3. Ensure brand safety tools defund the bad, and fund the good
  4. Work with partners who support quality, inclusive and local media
  5. Partner with civil society groups to get ahead of emerging threats
  6. Engage the CFO in these issues

Conscious media investment has multiple benefits for brands

Quality media drives effectiveness.

Multiple studies show quality and inclusive contexts command consumers’ attention, and have high brand impact. Havas’ brand new Sustainable Marketplace which expands on its Meaningful Marketplace demonstrates just how effective advertising supporting quality journalism can be. Ben Downing, global managing director, ethical media & partnerships, reports how a global food packaging firm achieved higher video completion rates, greater ad recall and brand awareness.

Inclusive media drives brand impact.

We know that inclusive advertising is good for brand ROI, but true inclusion is also about deliberately choosing to invest in diverse media and narratives. GSK are committing to positively investing in diverse voices, through direct relationships with media partners such as Gay Times & Brand Advance, and shaping wider commitments with their agency Publicis. And Diageo are driving significantly improved reach and ROI through investing in diverse media, and setting tangible targets to further their spend in the US and beyond. Nationwide are doing the same in the UK.

And there are a growing range of meaningful marketplaces which brands can leverage to actively support diversity & inclusion. For sustainable investment, there’s GOOD-LOOP, an AdTech platform that helps advertisers support their wider ESG goals. Its working with brands such as Nestle’s KitKat, and seeing big boosts in effectiveness.

Conscious media investment is a nascent, but growing, area. When we did some recent research with new CAN members to understand how the experience was for them, one of the pieces of feedback from a global network agency head was that when we started in 2018 we were 2 or 3 years ahead of the industry.  But now the industry is catching up. The WFA’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) has been doing some fantastic work over the last couple of years implementing the Brand Safety Floor and Suitability Framework. In the UK, ISBA have been leading the industry with its Programmatic Supply Chain Study. Investors are catching up with the direction of travel too. Shareholders do not want their money invested in disinformation and adversarial narratives. It also speaks volumes that WARC, known for their leadership in marketing effectiveness, are putting a spotlight on these issues.

Why conscious media investment matters

The WARC Guide to Conscious Media Investment brings together global experts from the UN in human rights, experts from civil society groups on the front line in the fight against racism, homophobia and discrimination and leaders from misinformation to make the case for the moral imperative for conscious media investment.

Mis-and disinformation is a multi-pronged threat to our brands, our consumers, and our planet. The stakes are high, and the scale of the challenge is vast.

Wasted and misspent ad dollars: A recent NewsGuard and Comscore report found that $2.6bn is being spent each year by big brands on disinformation sites.

Environmental threat: A leaked report from the IPCC on climate change blamed disinformation tactics for creating “risks to society” because they have prevented governments from responding to the dangers from climate change. Yet CHEQ and Media Bounty found that 70% of legitimate climate content is unmonetized due to advertising blocklists featuring climate related words.

With COP26 rapidly approaching, time’s running out for advertisers to take a stand on climate denial. As Lord Puttnam says in the report: ‘Climate change is unquestionably the greatest calamity of our time. Its chief enabler has been the amount of misleading and false information that has and continues to be spread regarding climate science.  Online, where we now spend so much of our time, disinformation about climate change reaches an audience so vast it’s almost impossible to fathom… Advertisers have a critical responsibility to defund climate misinformation’.

Societal threat: Misinformation is causing widespread division that doesn’t stay online but is played out in the real-world. As Belinda J. Smith, CEO, Americas, m/SIX & Krystal Olivieri, Global Chief Innovation Officer, GroupM note put it: ‘By directing our budgets toward platforms that can provide the most granular data and the most detailed targeting opportunities, while simultaneously devaluing attributes like journalistic integrity and a diversity of perspectives, we have inadvertently helped bankroll an era of mass disinformation, polarized citizenry, and historically low public trust in institutions and brands.’

Lying and deliberately misleading the public is a lucrative business, and advertisers are unwittingly the benefactors. As Clare Melford, of The Global Disinformation Index, states in this guide: “Advertising dollars are the incentive that much polarising content seeks”. Remove the incentive, and hate and disinformation become less profitable.

It’s critical to actively defund and delegitimise online hate

It’s not only disinformation that has a funding model through our advertising. This summer, thousands of racist messages were directed online at English footballers after the UEFA European Football Championship, leading to multiple arrests. Footballers are in the public eye and so racism is widely reported in the news, but this is just the tip of a global iceberg. UK charity Glitch, who have recently teamed up with BT, the British telco company, to challenge online abuse, report that 50% of black and other minority groups were subject to online abuse during COVID-19.

As Dr Pia Oberoi Senior Advisor on Migration and Human Rights, APAC, United Nations says: ‘Hate speech and disinformation have distinct real-world consequences, and these consequences land with particular force on those who are most marginalized and vulnerable in our societies.’

Ruchira Jaitly of HMD Global lays it out more starkly: ‘In India, misinformation can be a matter of life and death.’

It’s no longer enough for media buyers and advertisers to consider brand safety in our media buys: we must also make human and society safety a key consideration when we decide which media outlets and platforms we want to invest in and our brands associated with.

Be a leader, not a laggard

As this new WARC Guide demonstrates, a growing number of brands and agency networks are rejecting the old ways, heralding a new, conscious era for media investment that benefits both brands and society. Embracing the advertising community’s moral and commercial responsibility to embrace and invest in media that supports human rights and scientific consensus, and quality reporting, and to divest from media that does the opposite.

The brands and agencies in this guide are the early movers. Testing to see what works, what doesn’t and benefitting from the early successes on brand metrics and effectiveness. This is not about purpose. It is making sure you are not funding content that calls for violence against others. It is about making sure you are not funding the climate and ecological breakdown that threatens each and every one of us.

We are now in 2021. The industry is learning. The results are coming in and the commercial imperative is becoming as strong as the moral imperative. The time to act is now. Our societies, our communities, our democracies and indeed the very planet we call home depends on it. The survival and success of your brand may do too.

Find out more about conscious media investment in the upcoming WARC Webinar on Wednesday 29th September at 10am (GMT) with guests Isabel Massey, Global Media Director, Diageo, Jerry Daykin, EMEA Senior Media Director, GSK Consumer Healthcare and Dr Pia Oberoi, Human Rights for the Asia Pacific Region, United Nations.

WARC subscribers can read the full report on

Find out more about the Conscious Advertising Network here.

Related opinion from civil society groups (not paywalled):