February 5, 2023

Digital Marketing Education

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The importance of keeping sustainability in mind when producing online ads

Living a more sustainable life is on the path to achieving mainstream status. Steps being taken can vary from avoiding plastic straws and using reusable bags to major structural and cultural shifts that can help reduce our collective carbon footprint. Globally, climate change is the second most important issue for consumers, according to Amazon Ads’ 2022 Higher Impact research study, and 78% of those surveyed believe brands need to ramp up efforts to encourage people to be more conscious consumers. 

To date, many brands have been doing their part to make their businesses more sustainable for the planet and consumers, such as innovating packaging to reduce waste and/or producing carbon neutral products. But what about the environmental impact of online advertising? In all my roles, whether at Amazon Ads or in my previous life as an agency CEO, I’ve always held true to a “media for good” ethos. Given the influential nature of advertising, those of us in charge of marketing have a responsibility to do more and be better, even if we don’t have all of the data and right answers at our fingertips. 

Earlier this month, at CES in Las Vegas, I discussed media sustainability and decarbonization in my fireside chat with Kirk McDonald, CEO GroupM, North America who has begun leading the charge. Here’s why: In a 2018 environmental impact assessment review of online advertising published by Elsevier, the authors estimated that in 2016, online advertising CO2e emissions accounted for 10% of the internet’s total infrastructure emissions, making it a significant contributor. That was seven years ago, and while methodologies for measuring the media industry’s CO2e emissions have been iterating, we still have a lot to learn. What hasn’t changed is the urgency for action and the need for us to come together as an industry on this timely and important issue.

I’ve become an advocate for media plans to be evaluated on sustainability metrics, like carbon emissions, and I hope to see the industry begin evolving media measurement for things like the carbon impact of ad placements. 

Consumers are speaking up

There’s no getting around it, consumers care about more than just the products a business creates. According to Amazon Ads’ global Higher Impact study, 73% of consumers are tired of brands acting like they’re exempt from environmental responsibility. What’s top of mind for consumers needs to be top of mind for advertisers. 

The 2018 environmental impact assessment review of online advertising notes that ads often include a trifecta of energy-hungry features like graphics, animation and video, in contrast to other online content. Meanwhile, on the back end, a variety of real-time measurements and engagement insights are being collected, requiring even more processing power. Taking this all into consideration, it’s clear the industry needs a seismic shift—and that can start with education.

Industry-wide challenges

As difficult as it may be to wrap one’s head around how to begin, media decarbonization is an important topic that marketers need to better understand. The challenges are numerous, including the lack of an industry-wide methodology to measure the carbon footprint of media and the need for standardization of methodology and adoption from brands. 

Across the board, media decarbonization education is necessary. 

“Every movement requires someone or something to spark action,” McDonald said during our CES fireside chat on the topic. “Education is a critical starting point, but our best efforts individually will be in vain if we can’t agree on a common methodology with omnichannel compatibility. We can’t manage what we can’t measure.”

With that in mind, this past summer, to help the industry move forward as a whole, GroupM, WPP’s media investment group, developed a methodology to measure and reduce ad-based carbon emissions. Following the Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s standards, the global carbon measurement framework is “designed to break down the media value chain and define the necessary data inputs to measure carbon emissions across all five stages of the advertising lifecycle.” 

Let’s start now

While there are many challenges marketers are facing in 2023, sustainability can’t be deprioritized in planning discussions. As marketers look to make an incremental impact on becoming more sustainable, it’s important to focus on efficiency as a pathway to achieve this. Efficiency can take multiple approaches, for instance, by more intentionally defining audience engagement and insights, elevating the quality of creative assets, and optimizing campaigns with agile analytics to see how they can perform better.

Efforts like these, and more, are within reach. It’s up to us in the industry to lead by example and take steps authentically, both big and small, to reduce emissions. As McDonald stated, “We can’t manage what we can’t measure,” and when you have the tools to better understand your audience’s needs, goals and how to achieve results with greater efficiency, you can better serve customers and the planet in the long run.


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