Jenna Cummings, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Rival, outlines the steps marketers can take to measure and assess their environmental impact. This includes incorporating measurement at key decision-making moments, and how to identify alternative tactics and strategies without sacrificing campaign effectiveness.

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

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Momentum is shifting – sustainability is no longer limited to the realm of ESG teams and has become a core priority in business as in life. Many agencies and brands are working to decrease scope 1 and 2 emissions – those from their direct operations, like flights and travel, office space, or materials used in the course of business. But scope 3 emissions, those parts of the supply chain downstream from owned and operated business processes, represent a huge portion of agency and advertiser overall environmental impact – from media buys, production, and data management. 2018 figures estimate that online advertising emits up to 159 Mt CO2e (that is 159,000,000 metric tons). In 2022, Scope3 and Ebiquity estimated a slightly more modest 77 Mt CO2e. This is the equivalent of millions of passenger flights annually, or enough to power tens of millions of homes per year. 

These emissions come from the massive amounts of electricity required to place cookies and track users, load ads, and the transference of digital creative files among many other things. The explosive use of generative AI, automation, and media fragmentation across platforms is also creating a mass of content that demands to be distributed – this will fundamentally worsen the emissions problem if not checked. This is only what it takes to run the infrastructure of digital advertising itself – the brilliant teams at Magic Numbers and Purpose Disruptors have published additional research that increased consumption from advertising-driven sales impacts 32% of the carbon footprint of every person in the UK, and is worsening year on year. 

Moral, ethical, and exigent practical need for lowered emissions aside, there will be increasing pressure from market forces to move this way as well. Regulatory environments in multiple countries will start to require measurement and disclosure as well as primarily avoidance and reduction – not only offsets – in order for companies to claim they are achieving their progress towards net zero. France has implemented such requirements already, and the UK has tightened greenwashing laws. Some major clients are already demanding their suppliers demonstrate legitimate steps towards the decarbonisation of their supply chains. 

However, relatively few marketers are considering downstream impacts in their strategic planning process, leaving the greening to operations teams. But this is now so urgent that efforts to improve it can no longer be limited to any one team. Barring the actual commitment of budget towards ESG programs and changes in client product attributes to be genuinely more green – which marketers should be pushing their clients for – the low-budget approach is simply treating carbon like a strategic constraint much like we do the other finite resource in marketing campaigns: budget. 

Here, I outline three steps strategists can take to begin to account for a carbon budget.

Measure, assess, understand

This space is nascent, but developing rapidly – Ad Net Zero also has a strong framework and additional resources for organisations on their decarbonisation journey. For strategists not involved in business operational decisions, this is most relevant and immediately applicable for media placements and production. To start, media emissions may be standardised under a measure of gCO2epm – grams of carbon dioxide and equivalent emitted per thousand impressions. You can utilise the IPA’s publicly available methodology behind their Media Plan Carbon Calculator. Use this to start to understand your baseline emissions and actually develop a carbon budget and target for future campaigns. 

Put this measurement into place near actual moments of decision making 

Reporting ex post facto changes nothing – impact will come only when actual choices are made on the basis of emissions and sustainability. Work with your media buyer’s online-item forecasting of carbon impact during planning, or if you’re still in progress with this capability, apply a heuristic of “waste reduction” to tactic selection. Are those programmatic ad buys truly driving incremental value? 

Simplify your supply chains – buy direct placements from publishers rather than multiple exchanges. Limit your inventory purchased on social apps to the most effective formats and placements – don’t listen to the platform reps and expand your placements to the whole ecosystem (no one needs to buy Facebook Audience Network, ever). 

Video ads cost about 10x the electricity to serve than static or banner ads – does this campaign require hundreds of combinations of generated video permutations? 

Go beyond your digital attribution – partner with your measurement and analytics teams for radical incrementality testing of your campaigns to understand which tactics, channels, and carbon expenditures are driving actual value and cut the ones that aren’t. 

Carbon also happens to be a reasonable proxy for waste and inefficiency in and of itself. The core point here: do less. 

Choose avoidance and reductions rather than offsets – which should be used sparingly 

Carbon offsets should be treated like publisher value add – occasionally, it can be a great boost to an already successful campaign, but it cannot carry an activation on its own. My biggest frustration with the green initiatives of major media decarbonisation players is the development of “green” media products – we don’t need more ad placements, networks, or intermediaries, we simply need to do less. So much digital marketing is never seen, collects data that’s never used correctly, spends money that could have been deployed elsewhere. Working with your execution teams to identify only the most effective and impactful tactics on your campaign plan makes you a good strategist and more sustainable. 

We are at the end of the era, sustainability can no longer be an afterthought – all forces are converging on a new age where sustainability will be one of the primary considerations of all business processes, marketing included. Don’t get left behind. 

Key takeaways
  • Emissions from digital advertising is an acute problem that is only going to become worse with the current advancements we’re seeing in AI, automation, and media fragmentation
  • Make your brand or agency future fit now. Push your clients and colleagues towards green solutions. Steps towards actual reduction, not merely offsets, in all aspects of all businesses will likely be a regulatory requirement in your country, if they are not already.
  • Begin by implementing measurement processes, which will take time, and then look to incorporate this into your planning. As it is good practice to review campaign results and improve performance over time, carbon efficiency improvement requires iteration. 
  • Carbon offsets or green media products are not solutions in and of themselves – they are one tactic, and not one to be relied on heavily. Just as multi-channel marketing campaigns are more effective, sustainability strategies are more successful when relying primarily on avoidance, reductions, and deploying other tactics sparingly.

The best and easiest way to become more sustainable is simply to reduce ineffective and inefficient tactics in your campaigns. Do less.