Many advertisers are struggling to track and then reduce the contribution their digital advertising makes to climate change. Mark Andrews, Senior Consultant at ID Comms, outlines how to make progress.

The world of media planning and buying is facing a growing push for sustainability. Consumers in particular are demanding more from brands. More than 75% say they’ll prioritise sustainable brands in the next five years, and many expect transparency about a brand’s carbon footprint, including the contribution from advertising.

Until now, many brands have focused on the climate impact of content production, despite production contributing a significantly smaller proportion of the ad industry’s emissions than media – 14% versus media’s 55% according to a 2019 report from WPP.

But with digital advertising growing – and powering a rising carbon footprint for many brands – the focus is now firmly on digital media. In 2023, 69% of global ad spend was digital and every ad impression uses energy, which all adds up to a significant impact. The global digital industry emits four times more greenhouse gases than the UK, according to research by Impact+.  

Part of the problem has been that there hasn’t been a unified standard for measuring emissions for media. This makes it difficult for brands to compare options by channel or marketplace and track their progress in picking low-carbon options.

The new global framework that’s just been launched by the WFA’s GARM and Ad Net Zero will be an improvement and allow for better tracking and decision-making, however.

Who’s doing what now?

The state of play right now is that some advertisers – roughly around 30% of those we see – are using their media agencies to forecast carbon emissions on their media plans. 

This is educating planners and buyers and helps media teams think about carbon emissions as well as considering how practical decisions at the planning stage could lower emissions, without negatively impacting the effectiveness of media planning/buying.

A select few advertisers – around 10% – are now using measurement tools (in certain channels such as programmatic and paid social) to track the emissions of their media buys.

Created prior to the launch of the WFA framework, tools such as Scope3 and IMPACT+ use different proprietary models, each estimating the emissions based on a dataset of emissions per ad format, inventory type, for example. The bottom line is that advertisers have been hesitant to make wholesale changes in how they buy based on this data. 

While the sustainability spotlight has not yet been internally focused on media according to a number of advertisers we’ve spoken with, many senior media leaders are now thinking about getting their house in order now.

Kick-starting your climate plan

We think there are six key steps that brands can take now to start that process:

  1. Start to forecast. If you don’t already, get your agency partner to forecast emissions on your media plans. This will help you to estimate your total media related emissions. Once you have a baseline, you can begin to reduce. The WFA blueprint will help standardise this process.
  2. Measure your impact. Testing will help you understand where emissions hotspots might lie and start to match the best choice for the planet with performance in terms of effectiveness and efficiency.
  3. Reduce unnecessary waste. This will also reduce emissions. Techniques such as better ad frequency capping help to ensure your message reaches the right people without unnecessary over exposure, thus minimising unnecessary emissions.
  4. Seek sustainable media partners. Media platforms and agencies are increasingly offering sustainable solutions, so look to partner with providers that prioritise renewable energy sources or carbon offset programs as part of their advertising infrastructure.
  5. Think about your ad-tech stack. The more technology services involved, the more resources and carbon it emits, consider the total value and impact of each technology on the media plan
  6. Embrace transparency. Consumers are looking for eco-conscious brands, so being transparent about your efforts to reduce your media footprint will help boost brand appeal. To be credible you’ll have to share your progress and goals.

Right now, there’s no single advertiser that’s got this 100% right and the industry is still aligning itself on the right approach.

Nevertheless, there are simple steps that can be taken to put your brand ahead of the pack. Like so many things in business and in media, there’s no overnight fix, but by starting to create a baseline now and executing our six simple steps, you can put a marker in the sand. 

Every one of them will make you more carbon efficient today than you were yesterday.