Sustainable Ad Practices: Good For The Planet, And The Bottom Line

Brands have long been investing in sustainability-related content, but recently the spotlight has fallen on the carbon footprint of the ads themselves, and there is growing pressure for marketers to measure and decrease the emissions produced by their ad campaigns. 

This isn’t just a moral imperative. It’s a commercial one too.

According to Dentsu, more than three-quarters of consumers say that in five years’ time, they will only want to spend money on brands that practice sustainable advertising; while 42% believe that brands should be transparent about the impact their products and marketing activities have on the environment. 



All forms of advertising have a carbon footprint, and while there is scope for making offline media investments more sustainable, the real opportunity is in online advertising.

Not only is online attracting an ever-increasing proportion of advertising dollars, but it also requires a huge amount of energy, with warehouses full of servers plugged into national grids.

Every single impression served uses between 0.14Wh and 1.93Wh. The total amount of energy used is vast when you consider the number of impressions served each day around the world.

Indeed, the energy required to power online advertising generates around 2% of the internet’s total emissions, and internet emissions account for around 3% of total global emissions – on par with the entire aviation industry. 

The key for marketers is to reduce excess digital activity -- particularly wasted impressions. Luckily, this equates to not only a reduced carbon footprint, but also financial savings, meaning cutting emissions also drives higher media value. 

So how can marketers reduce their carbon emissions online?

Implement a relevant KPI framework 

First things first. The key to successful media planning is to implement an efficient framework with well-defined KPIs to ensure that all parties are aligned and focused on the same goals, both business and planet.

This alignment is the best way to avoid waste, to drive higher media value and to reduce carbon emissions.

Avoid excessive frequency and optimize targeting

Reducing waste is fundamental to greener media planning. Every wasted impression uses unnecessary energy.

Focusing spend to avoid excessive frequency drives savings as well as cutting carbon emissions, and using data-driven insights to identify your exact target audience and target them precisely with tailored messaging and creative achieves the same impact.

Reducing the number of channels you invest in and focusing only on the ones that truly capture the attention of your desired audience is also a great way to deliver on value for your brand and the planet.

Refine supply paths and simplify tech stacks 

Every step of any supply-chain increases activity and therefore carbon emissions, and the same is true for online advertising.

Each surplus supplier removed from the chain between a brand and its publishers will decrease a campaign’s carbon footprint -- especially when it comes to reducing duplicative auction activity -- and that’s good for your budget too. 

Simplifying your tech stack will reduce the number of layers between creating and delivering an ad and will reduce the volume of indirect emissions driven by your campaigns, as well as making your buying process more transparent and easier to manage.

Many brands will undoubtedly already be auditing their tech stacks with the imminent demise of the third-party cookie. 

Optimize creative 

It’s not just where and how you place an ad that can impact on its footprint -- the ad and the message itself also have an effect. They can be optimized to reduce data usage, for example by using smaller file sizes to reduce the energy required to load them.

Highly impactful, data-driven messaging that drives higher attention will also reduce the number of impressions needed and the amount of energy required. 

Consider the impact of programmatic 

It is estimated that programmatic advertising drives 215,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per month across Australia, France, the UK, Germany and the US. The difference in how publishers approach programmatic buying is a key factor in their differing carbon footprints; so buying direct from publishers that limit the number of ad slots on a page and primarily sell ads direct to the advertiser will have a significant impact on carbon emissions.

Reducing reliance on programmatic buying may help brands to avoid "made-for-advertising" sites that have high ad refresh rates and limited reach. Inclusion lists that are vetted for reach and sustainability will guide brands more seamlessly to more sustainable campaigns. 

Explore working with partners who offer greener ad technology 

Although simplifying the tech stack is a practical and important measure to take in reducing your brand’s carbon footprint, there are an increasing number of suppliers who offer green ad-tech solutions -- collectively known as the "greenscape."

These companies are innovating across the media investment process, from minimizing the amount of surplus data downloaded and targeting lower-carbon inventory, to measuring how much carbon or other greenhouse gases are produced by a campaign.

Partnering with these and similar platforms that have a focus on sustainability will help brands work towards becoming carbon neutral. 

Beware the footprint of AI

Artificial intelligence is set to revolutionize the advertising industry -- allowing marketers to automate so much of their activity and achieve the holy grail of automation and personalization. It’s exciting, but it also comes with risks, not least its impact on the environment.

AI uses more energy than other forms of computing --  training just one model can use more electricity than 100 U.S. homes consume in a year and generate the same carbon emissions as 110 U.S. cars emit in a year. And that doesn't include the billions of requests asking AI to perform tasks.

As the technology is so new, it’s difficult to know how to mitigate for the impact of AI. But, as is so often the case, using it with caution and consideration will benefit not only the planet, but advertising outcomes too.  

As is so often the case with modern advertising, navigating the new greenscape can be challenging for marketers who already have a lot on their plates.

Independent auditors and partners can provide guidance, signposting effective solutions and suggesting effective KPI and measurement frameworks. 

1 comment about "Sustainable Ad Practices: Good For The Planet, And The Bottom Line".
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  1. James O'Connor from Turbine Advisory, December 4, 2023 at 10:12 a.m.

    This is a great list for how marketers can reduce their carbon emissions Fredrik. Adding a thought here is to test and measure. Buyers are already well rehearsed when trying a new media vendor, but systematically validating what moves the needle on carbon emissions without sacrificing on hitting KPI benchmarks or business outcomes can also enhance a brand's best practices for what works.

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