Media Buying Briefing: Separating agency progress from posturing around carbon reduction and sustainability

This Media Buying Briefing covers the latest in agency news and media buying for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Monday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Maybe it’s because Climate Week took place last week, but the volume of sustainability-related news and announcements from agencies, marketers and ad-tech firms that flooded reporters’ inboxes the last two weeks has been almost overwhelming.

Could it be that the media world is finally taking concrete steps toward decarbonization — or will many of these efforts become the butt of a joke (or worse, the focus of an upcoming John Oliver segment)?

“There needs to be economic incentives, not just pure altruism, for companies to want to measure the carbon footprint of their digital advertising activity — and then take steps to reduce that,” said an executive at a company that’s devoted to helping digital marketers and media reduce their carbon footprint, who declined to speak on the record. “Our job would be really easy as a company if everyone actually was truly altruistic. But in the current [economic] climate, you don’t want to put your neck on the line to do something that could potentially negatively affect the bottom line of your business.”

Agencies don’t appear to be shy at all about the gains they say they’ve achieved already.

Just last week, Wendy Clark Dentsu International’s soon-to-depart global CEO, posted on LinkedIn that she was “so pleased and proud to share that Dentsu International has been independently verified as carbon neutral, achieving our Scope 1 and 2 objective of reducing absolute emissions by 53% (off our 2019 baseline) and exceeding our science-based 2030 target nine years ahead of plan. This plan also includes our investment in nature-based projects across EMEA, the Americas and APAC to compensate for our remaining scope 1 and 2 emissions. With this notable progress in our own operations, we are adding focus to our Scope 3 emissions, which include our supply chain and the products and services we market.”

(In case you’re not familiar with the 3 Scopes, here’s a quick YouTube video from Climate Now that explains them.)

It’s the Scope 3 part of the equation that’s going to determine if the digital media world can make a difference. A report released last week by ad platform Good-Loop, which surveyed 450 marketers and media agencies about the ad industry’s efforts to limit carbon emissions, started off by citing a BBC stat that says the Internet generates 4% of the world’s global emissions — a number that will double to 8% by 2025. 

Ad exchange Sharethrough is one of many companies partnering with sustainability tools, such as Scope3 and Carbon Direct, in order to measure and act on their carbon emissions generated from the process. With carbon emissions solutions implemented this summer, Frank Maguire, vp of Insights at Sharethrough, told Digiday advertisers are already seeing better performance.

“The stat that really drove it home was that the emissions created from all the servers and everything it takes to surf all the web pages and videos and ads and everything across the Internet creates more carbon emissions than the aviation industry,” Maguire said.

Now advertisers can run this in their buying process to measure and offset their carbon emissions and invest a small amount back into carbon capture projects, Maguire explained, and about 1 million ad impressions is equivalent to 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide. Some of the CPM yield then gets invested into projects through Carbon Direct, so it’s a small cost to the advertiser. But those that are using it have seen their ads perform with a 22% higher click through rate, according to Sharethrough.

“I think that’s ultimately what’s going to drive the tech industry to eventually reach a larger scale of really doing a good job of reducing our carbon emissions is by those with the power to buy throwing their weight in the right way to push the whole industry to be more sustainable,” Maguire said. “It’s good that we’re not hiding our heads in the sand, now that we realize that we’re creating a problem.”

That’s happening across the media and marketing spectrum. Good-Loop found that while 61% of U.S. marketers are currently tracking the carbon cost of their digital marketing campaigns, 56% still rely on estimated figures or calculations for which there’s no standard measure.

And three-fourths of the respondents said the industry needs to do more to tackle carbon reduction. Further, 51% of respondents said their company plans to reach net zero in digital advertising at some point, but only 24% have set target dates and only 2% (like Dentsu) say they have already reached net zero. 

But how can you actually know if you’re net zero if there’s no universally agreed-upon standard for measurement? “There is certainly a feeling of everyone wants to be different, and everyone wants to differentiate [from each other],” said the carbon-reduction executive. “I’m skeptical of all of them [the holding companies]. They all have fossil fuel companies still on their books.”

“What we first need is a standardized measurement framework to assess the pollution of digital media,” said Elisa Boivin, managing director of footsprint, the sustainability division of e-commerce performance agency the Labelium Group. “Efforts should be focused not on proprietary methodologies, but on a common foundation that all industry players can build on and be accountable for. Having a transparent and collaborative methodology is essential to driving change at industry level. 

Can the agency holding companies and independents work together to create one standard? It’s too early to tell — but industry-wide efforts like AdNetZero are a step in the right direction. Alison Pepper, 4As’ executive vp of government relations and sustainability, said credit must be given to the holding companies for the progress they have made. “The holding companies have got a good handle on where they are on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, and they have an understanding of what needs to happen by a reduction in offsets,” said Pepper. “Now you’re seeing them turn their attention to the media side.”

For example, Pepper points to efforts like GroupM’s decarbonization measurement initiative unveiled a few months ago establishes a floor from which to push off to reduce the impact of Scope 3 emissions. “If we get to a place in the advertising community where we can at least agree on the floor, that would be a really important step. And if agencies, advertisers, publishers, ad tech platforms all decide individually to commit resources to go beyond, I’m confident that we can at least get to standardization — and then individual companies can take it to the ceiling.”

To that end, GroupM agency Essence in the U.K. just announced it will apply the mothership’s decarbonization framework to its programmatic practice, in the hopes of reducing the carbon footprint of advertising campaigns, and rewarding publishers that address climate crisis issues in their editorial coverage. 

One potential curveball to progress made, at least on the marketing side, according to Pepper, is the Federal Trade Commission unofficially stated intent to revise its Green Guides, which is expected to be a two-year process that when completed will stand for another 10 years, she said. “That’s something that I’m working with agencies on right now to help them understand what that process will entail and how they’ve evolved. They haven’t touched those guides in 10 years, so they’re going to be significantly updated.”

Color by numbers

When artificial intelligence was starting to get buzz, many were worried it would one day replace human jobs. Now that that hype has died down, it seems there are opportunities for robots and AI technology to work alongside people. Research by software vendor Capterra found that marketers report AI or machine learning can help cut corners without sacrificing quality. What’s more, they expect to see AI continue fueling areas like content creation in the future.

  • 88% of marketers reported that AI or ML technology saves their company time and money, and 82% of marketers said AI and ML content is just as good or better than human-generated content.
  • Capterra reported 45% of marketers spend about half of their time creating marketing content in a typical work week. More than a third are spending about 75% of their time on content per week.
  • 69% said the software implementation takes more than six months, but that the training time is much faster.
  • However, 35% said risk and governance issues, such as security concerns and data quality, are their top challenges. — Antoinette Siu

Takeoff & landing

  • Data and tech firm Neustar said it will incorporate iHeart Media radio data into its Unified Measurement Solution, which employs market mix modeling and marketing attribution. 
  • Holding company Omnicom centralized its e-commerce efforts under a new unit called Transact, which will oversee all connected-commerce and retail media activity. Transact will be headed by Frank Kochenash, who joined Omnicom in March.
  • Horizon Media’s creative agency 305 Worldwide, hired Leena Danan to be svp, managing director of new business and marketing; Marta DeAguiar as svp of group client service leader; and Alejandra Rubio as svp of head of strategy. 
  • Sales-side platform TripleLift hired James Evans to be its chief privacy officer and vp of legal, in what’s likely to be a more important position as privacy regulations tighten. 

Direct quote

“You need to measure at the glass level — not necessarily at the device level or the ad server level — to get the accurate count of what’s actually being delivered to the viewer in the home on the screen. And I think that’s the biggest challenge for the industry moving forward. The problem with measurement at the glass level is that none of the [TV set makers] are working together. My action call to the industry would be to get Samsung, Vizio, LG, Sony, and get all the others to understand that their ACR [automatic content recognition] data is not a competitive strategic asset. It’s only valuable if they pool it, [to] create a national footprint of data for advertisers and sellers to use and understand.”

— Adam Gerber, executive director, U.S. investment strategy at GroupM, talking about advances needed in TV measurement, at the TVB Forward conference

Speed reading

  • As mentioned above, retail media is exploding as a major part of commerce media. I covered Walmart Connect’s expansion of its offerings via deals with Snap, TikTok, Roku and others, along with GroupM’s financial assessment of the broader space. 
  • I also covered a major step forward in local TV measurement when Dentsu Media and Comscore partnered on testing advanced analytics in two top 10 markets with two clients. 
  • Digiday’s platforms reporter Krystal Scanlon dug into the deeper problems Snapchat is facing in light of several recent senior executive departures and increased competition.

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