Brian O’Kelley: ‘Our model is to get buyers to make emissions part of their spending decisions’

Brian O’Kelley, an executive widely thought of as one of “the godfathers of ad tech,” is back with his latest venture Scope3 — striking a deal to help make ad inventory with a low carbon footprint more easily available to advertisers.

Scope3 is O’Kelley’s third ad tech start-up (previously he sold Right Media to Yahoo and AppNexus to AT&T), which aims to help companies across the ad-tech supply chain reduce the carbon emissions of their activity.

The company’s research estimates that approximately one gram of carbon is produced every time an ad impression is generated, and has now struck a deal with Blockthrough to package inventory with a low carbon footprint and then make it available via private marketplaces.

“Our model is to get buyers to make emissions part of their spending decisions,” O’Kelley, Scope3’s CEO, told Digiday. “We know that publishers and supply-side ad tech companies will go where the money is.”

Marty Krátký-Katz, CEO of Blockthrough, a company that helps publishers recoup revenue that would otherwise be lost to ad blocking, told Digiday ads that adhere to the “acceptable ads program” are less likely to aggravate readers.

It may be that Google having its hands tied is enough to allow innovation, which is great.
Brian O’Kelley, Scope3, CEO

“Because they create a lighter ad experience, they inherently involve a lower carbon experience,” he said. “Acceptable ads do not allow auto-refresh, animated or video ads, and they’re the three big culprits when it comes to cranking up the carbon footprint of publishers’ online ads.”

In one of his first interviews since Scope3 came out of beta, O’Kelley shared with Digiday details on the intricacies of modeling the environmental impact of digital advertising, plus his views on the state of competition in the sector.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk us through how Scope3 can calculate the carbon footprint of an ad impression?

There are four major components to the emissions of a web page: the device or browser rendering on a page, energy from data transmissions, production costs for content, and then there’s things like targeting and analytics. We can calculate the first two by simulating a page, kind of like a search engine does, and then we can see CPU usage and the data it downloaded.

What we can’t see is what’s happening inside the mysterious ad tech world, but we can look at Prebid configurations and Ads.txt files, plus we can use third-party data sources for aggregated, anonymous data about supply paths. So, we’re using all these different datasets, and we’ve built one of the most accurate pictures of the advertising supply chain that’s ever been put together.

And then we’ve built a proprietary model for how an SSP works, how a DSP works, how a Prebid or Open Bidding configuration works at a CPU level — and this is because we have years of experience of building ad tech.

What kind of an appetite is there to make carbon emissions a key consideration among brands when conducting their media buys?

It depends by country. I would say that in the U.K., France and Australia, it’s definitely the number one topic and there is immense interest from agencies and brands. I would say that in the U.S., it’s number two, maybe number three [in priority].

DEI is probably the hottest topic in the U.S. Plus I think that cost-control and some of the Big Tech issues are concerns, but [sustainability issues] are definitely rising. There’s been an immense amount of interest in Europe. We thought we’d pilot in one country, but our first pilot is in six countries [one of which is the U.K.] and we will have 10 countries by April.

Speaking of Big Tech, in 2019 you testified before Congress about ad tech’s competitive landscape. Since then, several antitrust cases have been filed against Google in the U.S. alone. What are your thoughts now?

You’re asking a politics question, and I don’t claim to have any knowledge of how politics actually works. That case is going to take forever and the Democrats have said they’re serious and not going to take any flak from the Big Tech people. But the 2022 [mid-term] elections are going to have a big impact and you need to think what Congress will look like in 12 months.

If you can tell me who the president is going to be in 2025 – when that case is probably going to hit – and what the Democrat or Republican majority is, then I could probably tell you a bit more. But I do think that Google is extremely cautious and very much in defensive mode on the business side.

I think that creates opportunities for other folks to innovate because Google has had its hands tied. And it may be that Google having its hands tied is enough to allow innovation, which is great. I think the risk is that Amazon takes advantage of that because it has so many more assets than independents.

Just look at how companies like Microsoft [which recently bought the assets of Xandr, a.k.a. AppNexus] is reentering advertising — how cool is that? Yahoo is also reinvigorating itself under new management. So, Google is not dominating the future of advertising; I think that’s the main point of all of this. If the antitrust case serves to further scare them into not being aggressive then I’m okay with that.

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