How SPO is driving ad tech’s decarbonization push

“Sustainability” is one of the latest buzzwords in ad tech with it driving many of the public talking points on the contemporary conferences circuit as marketers attempt to define themselves as purpose-driven.

Its newfound status as a cause celebre is in no small part due to the efforts of ad tech veteran, Brian O’Kelley, CEO of carbon emission measurement firm Scope3, who recently told attendees at the Green Media Summit that programmatic advertising has “a huge environmental impact.”

For O’Kelley, the executive credited with coining the term “supply-path optimization,” the concept of shifting ad dollars away from high carbon supply paths to ones that provide fewer carbon emissions is already pushing on an open door.

“We’ve all known about the supply-path issues for several years,” he told conference attendees, adding that “what people couldn’t do for money, transparency or privacy, they might do for saving the planet.” 

Speaking with Digiday, Ratko Vidakovic, founder of consultancy service AdProfs, echoed such sentiments, adding that corporations’ public CSR commitments are “SPO with leverage” as it gives their buying teams an enhanced mandate to pressurize their suppliers.

Ryan Barker, founder and CEO of BERA, a start-up that helps brands measure how they are achieving their CSR goals using consumer panel data, told Digiday that marketers are increasingly likely to insist upon more “carbon-lite supply paths” in their advertising campaigns. This is especially the case as they are better able to correlate consumer sentiments such as “brand love” with sales.

Although for Adform’s Joseph Dressler, goodwill is one thing, but the industry requires a significant cultural shift for there to be actual change. And it’s one that will test the fortitude of those with responsibilities for revenues on the sell-side of the industry.

“I looked up the last 100 RFPs that we got,” he told Green Media Summit attendees, “it was less than five that had any mention whatsoever of sustainability and green goals… so a brand can say they want to be sustainable, but it has to trickle all the way down to media planning and programmatic for it to have any impact.”

Research from Jounce Media suggests that at least 20% of all ad impressions are traded on several occasions along the ad tech supply chain with middlemen taking a cut of the initial transaction fee, all while adding to the industry’s carbon footprint. Albeit, the question must be asked, will a reduction in the number of ad tech partners result in diminished revenues for publishers?

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For fellow summit speaker, Maggie Mattingley, lead director for inventory management at The Trade Desk, a company that has (arguably) blazed a trail in the industry’s SPO efforts, publishers have to ask themselves if they are willing to “take that short-term sacrifice on revenue” when it comes to reducing the number of partners they work with?

PreBid, an industry body that helps implement tech standards for media owners, is currently preparing guidelines for its membership to better understand how they can reduce their carbon emissions while maintaining revenue.

“You can have 100 pixels firing on the page, but the reality is how many are actually generating revenue?,” said PreBid president, Mike Racic, speaking separately at The Green Media Summit. “[The guidelines] are about things like testing the incrementality between all these different partners, so you can understand who’s truly driving revenue.”

Speaking separately with Digiday, OpenX CEO John Gentry said there is a thin line between some of the industry’s latest proclamations about sustainability and “greenwashing” but, in general, the trend is a positive one.

“If somebody is trying to figure out a solution I support that but I think people trying to use this [sustainability] as another competitive dimension, and not working to figure out a real solution that is aligned with global standards, I think that’s a challenge and a problem,” he added.

Ben Feldman, a specialist in helping companies offset their carbon emissions (who also has a background in ad tech) companies in the sector that are eager to escape the ‘greenwashing’ tag need to do more than just purchase carbon offset credits. “The carbon offset system has a problem because it’s saying that ‘you’ve got permission to emit carbon,” he said. “Companies should move to things like how they are removing carbon from the atmosphere.”

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