Opinion: Taking sustainability beyond the screen and into the ad mix

The topic of sustainability in advertising has become increasingly important over the past few years, with marketing giants around the world recognising that they urgently need to mitigate their own effects on climate change.

Businesses are approaching this in a range of different ways. For example, out-of-home specialist Ocean Outdoor UK recently rolled out a wide-ranging sustainability initiative, pledging a percentage of its annual revenue to four critical marine based projects rooted in the removal of atmospheric carbon and ecosystem restoration.

Elsewhere, Ad Net Zero – the advertising sector’s response to the climate emergency – has introduced strict science-based targets for brands who join their mission. Whichever path they take, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for brands to simply pay lip service to sustainability – even PR giant WPP was recently named and shamed by the SBTi for failing meet net zero target-setting deadlines.

At the same time, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about environmental and social issues, leading to the rise of the ‘eco-friendly consumer’. As these two elements come together, it’s never been more important that marketers take their effects on the climate seriously.

Tapping into this need, VIOOH CMO Helen Miall gives us her take from a recent thought-provoking panel session at Germany’s d3con conference, focused on integrating eco-friendly practices into the advertising mix.

“A recent Global Consumer Insights survey from PwC found that eight out of ten consumers said that they would pay up to 5% more for sustainably produced goods. In the same study, 81% of people surveyed expect companies to be environmentally conscious in their advertising and communications.

The spotlight then is on advertisers, agencies, media owners and the partners that work with them to step up and communicate about their position on sustainability. Along with external factors such as soaring energy bills affecting everyday life, it’s no surprise that channels which operate very visibly in the public space such as OOH, have come under intense scrutiny.

At VIOOH, we recently announced our industry-first carbon emissions measurement, working with Cedara, a supporter of Ad Net Zero. VIOOH’s carbon emissions for 2022 hit 18% below the programmatic open web benchmark for the same year.

The environmentally considerate nature of the OOH channel shines through in many attributes such as being a broadcast medium, reaching a one-to-many audience, as well as its easy integration into multi-channel programmatic media strategies.

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Media planning today encompasses a wide range of channels, dominated by digital media, as the panellists revealed.

Trade Desk director of client services, Anja Martensen emphasised the company’s role in facilitating sustainable media buying, especially for direct brands and agencies, while GroupM Germany chief growth officer Dr. Daniela Tollert outlined the agency’s sustainability strategy, focusing on raising awareness, providing transparency to clients and driving standardisation in the industry.

At the same time, WallDecaux director of digital and programmatic, Björn Wendler shared the firm’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050,  highlighting initiatives such as optimising campaigns and using green energy.

Emerging themes to drive sustainable advertising

Throughout the discussion, several themes emerged and the panellists stressed the importance of both education and collaboration in driving sustainability efforts.

Martensen emphasised the need for data-driven approaches, citing studies on consumer awareness and company commitments to climate action, while Tollert explained the need for authenticity in brand communication, given the growing consumer scrutiny and the rise of greenwashing.

Interestingly, a 2022 Kantar study showed that 79% of people think brands should be a responsible part of the solution to combat climate change.

With growing awareness and education on environmental and social issues, consumers seek products and brands that align with their values. For brands, it’s important to act authentically as consumers are more aware than ever of greenwashing and misleading sustainability claims.

To this point, Wendler highlighted challenges and opportunities in incorporating energy-efficient solutions and technological advancements to reduce carbon emissions in advertising operations.

All panellists acknowledged the lack of comprehensive sustainability initiatives in advertising campaigns. While some pilots and initiatives exist, more can be done towards achieving end-to-end sustainability in advertising practices.

The conversation concluded that brands need to prioritise sustainability, starting with small steps and collaboration across the industry.

In the end, it’s the responsibility of clients and agencies to find the best way to reduce carbon emissions in every media plan, while continuing to achieve against campaign objectives and  – of course – understanding that the most carbon-friendly media plan will likely not be the cheapest.

What sustainability steps can brands can take now?

Martensen felt that there are two key steps; the first around measurement to better understand a business’s carbon footprint and where it originates from. Second is optimisation to reduce the CO2 emissions.

Studies that show that supply path optimisation for example, is a huge lever to reduce CO2 emissions. There are other options too including green publisher deals, media quality KPIs etc. So, it’s important to take a step back and educate businesses on measurement and optimisation in the first instance.

For Group M Germany’s clients, Tollert explained that media agencies are trying to look at what channels are important to achieve KPIs and how to insert sustainability goals into those assumptions. The solution can’t be to exclude individual media channels, so agencies need to educate clients and look at the media mix to better align campaigns to sustainability goals.

Everyone involved in an ad campaign needs to make the biggest impact possible within their own specific area of influence or scope of work with practical impactful actions. Businesses can often be ahead with sustainability goals, but this doesn’t always include media which has a wider impact not only via the CO2 emission but also the message behind it.

Awareness on the client side is steadily growing, but commitment and resources are needed to fully align media and sustainability goals.

The d3con panel session provided valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of integrating eco-friendly practices into the advertising mix. It highlighted the need for concerted efforts, education, commitment and collaboration to drive meaningful change towards sustainability in advertising.

As brands continue to navigate this evolving landscape, embracing sustainability is a necessity not only to build trust and loyalty with consumers, but to protect our world for future generations.

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