Media industry carbon impact – Ad Net Zero and the IPA Media Focus Group Climate Charter

The UK advertising industry put its head firmly above the parapet in 2020 and committed itself to reduce its carbon footprint. Two key initiatives are the development of a media carbon calculator; and the setting up of a media owner sustainability showcase. Good intentions need to turn into rapid results – what are the factors that the industry should be considering?

Climate Change – Now it Matters to Marketers

Climate change is big news globally, affecting everybody and impacting on every industry and business. It has grown in importance and profile over the last year, not in the least due to the rise of the Climate Extinction movement and its high profile leadership, but also due to an increasing focus on the wellbeing of the world during the Covid19 crisis.

These huge drivers of change have led consumers to be increasingly more interested in the contribution of businesses to global sustainability. They are starting to demand that the brands they buy should be far more active in reducing their carbon footprint – they want more than box-ticking CSR initiatives and lip service about sustainability.

When customers start to make their voices heard, marketing teams have to take notice. As one consequence, over the last six months, we have seen many more advertising campaigns talking up the more responsible role that brands and businesses are playing in society, and how they are taking action on climate change and sustainability.

This brings us to the media. Although media activity may not one of the biggest contributors to CO2 pollution, it is still a significant one. More importantly, it is a highly visible one. After all, what good does it do to a company’s reputation if its advertising campaign designed to tells the world about its carbon reduction policies then results in a very public contribution to the issue it is seeking to tackle? It’s a dilemma that the UK advertising industry is now acutely aware of.

What Steps is the Industry Taking to Tackle its Carbon Footprint?

The Advertising Association in the UK published its Ad Net Zero report in November 2020. The report includes a five-point action plan for the industry, and the most significant one relates to “Media Choice” – media companies are tasked with committing to the IPA Media Futures Climate Charter, working with their clients to develop lower carbon-impact media plans. The plan is to accomplish this through the development and adoption (by the whole industry) of a media carbon calculator.

The charter also calls for the establishment of a showcase of sustainable media owners, driven by the media agencies.

The Charter is seen as a “critical first step towards transitioning the media industry to a zero-carbon future”, to quote Mark Howley of Publicis Media, the Interim Chair of the IPA Media Futures Group.

Can the Plan Succeed?

The provision of an industry-standard measuring tool for media usage should be a major step forwards for the media industry.

Once developed, the next issue to address will be how it is used. This is less clear from the report and the action plan. Some critical issues need addressing if the carbon calculator and the showcase are to achieve their desired results. Here are a few for immediate consideration.

  • Does the new showcase act primarily as a place for showing off the credentials of different media owners? Or will it become a necessity for media owners to show their commitment in order for consideration on future media plans?
  • What teeth will the industry have to encourage action to be taken? Will presence in the showcase be demanded for selection on a media schedule, or will it just be a ‘nice-to-have’ for media owners while their reach and price remain the prime selection criteria? Will there be financial penalties for poor performers or rewards for the best?
  • Will results be achieved simply by relying on media planners and buyers to consider the carbon impact when building schedules?
  • How will the carbon impact measured by the carbon calculator influence media selection? Do we need universally accepted criteria, or will it be down to the individual specification of the client, to reflect their own carbon policy?
  • How will the relative importance of carbon impact be measured against reach and cost? Will there be a scoring system available to get the balance right?
  • To achieve maximum results, the carbon calculator needs to represent universally accepted measures of the impact of all media. This requires an immense amount of independently assessed data, which will need continuous updating. Will there be a referee of the accuracy of the data? We also know that rival carbon counting tools are already available and others are under development. There is no guarantee that they will all produce the same results – which one should be the gold standard?
  • Finally – what will be the respective importance of offsetting v. carbon reduction in the ideal media plan of the future? Offsetting has been the great conscience-protector for businesses, but can this role continue? Actual reductions in carbon contribution are surely the way forward, so how will this be best addressed?

Off-Setting Vs Wastage

TrinityP3’s own experience is that the most effective route to carbon contribution reduction in the media industry is through the reduction of waste in media plans. This can best be achieved through the better use of data. For instance, using opt-ins for electronic and printed communication so that less individual messages are sent out. And better targeting of the use of digital and printed media so that impressions are not wasted on audiences with no interest in seeing them.

There is a risk that the solution to the problem will be seen as simply to do less marketing. This is not a sustainable strategy for the industry. Marketing is too important to the success of the business to be challenged to do less. It must instead do better – better use of targeting, ensuring the more accurate match of a message to the audience, staying away from channels that don’t reach the audience, and looking for maximum carbon-efficiency in the final media selection.

Whose Problem is it to Solve?

There is always a limiting factor in achieving a big solution like carbon reduction. As in many other cases, the key factor here will be money. There is inevitably a cost to producing a media plan that considers carbon impact as well as financial cost and reach. The carbon calculator and the showcase will take highly-skilled labour to develop, to put in place and then to run once it is set up.

None of this will come cheap. So who will bear this cost? The media agencies? Clients? Media owners? At the moment this is not clear.

In reality, all will have to have a role in the solution. So who will be stumping up the money? Someone needs to step up to the plate, and until significant investment appears there s a danger that action on this vital initiative will be limited in its ambition, scope and impact.

Is your marketing strategy aligned to your company’s sustainability policy? Do you measure and optimise your carbon emissions? Find out how we can help