On a day when Europe was baking under record-high temperatures and wildfires raged in the North American west, WPP’s media investment arm GroupM introduced a framework designed to measure and ultimately reduce carbon emissions caused by the ad industry.
While the framework arose out of WPP’s stated ambition to decarbonize its own media supply chain by 2030, the company wants it to become the industry standard. “It is our hope that this assessment will serve as common ground for the industry as we seek to rapidly achieve standardization,” said GroupM in a report outlining the framework.
“By sharing this global framework, we hope to begin aligning our industry behind a consistent set of standards that will create clear goals and incentives for rapidly decarbonizing the media supply chain,” said GroupM’s global CEO Christian Juhl in a release.
“It’s not about holding it close to our chest,” added Lindsey Talbot, chief investment officer with GroupM Canada. “Our intention is to share this with the industry so that we’re all driving towards the same goal. It’s about encouraging everyone to align to a single industry method so we’re not all working towards different goalposts.”
The framework details a new set of measurement methodologies designed to break down the media value chain and define data inputs to measure carbon emissions across all five stages of the advertising lifecycle—1. raw material cultivation and extraction 2. production 3. distribution and storage 4. consumer use and 5. end of life—for all formats, channels and markets, in accordance with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol‘s standards.
While some of the negative environmental effects of advertising are well-known—flying for production, using paper to print ads, etc.—the digital advertising system has also become increasingly harmful as it has grown in scale.
In a November column for AdExchanger, Ryan Cochrane, COO of Good-Loop, an online ad company with a focus on social good, said that a typical online ad campaign emits approximately 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide, about one-third of what the average U.S. consumer produces in one year. And according to the GroupM report, the computing power needed to target and reach an audience is responsible for about 52% of the total emissions during a campaign’s lifecycle.
GroupM’s new methodology will initially provide a “cradle-to-gate” overview of an ad campaign, assessing everything in the media supply chain up to the delivery of messages, but not beyond (ie: the consumer energy use required for consumption and end-of-life treatment). The ultimate goal, it said, is to provide a “cradle-to-grave” assessment.
“Although we can currently capture incremental data of what consumers do with an ad after they engage with it on smart media like smart phones or OTT, there is currently no reliable data on how consumers dispose of a newspaper ad, for example,” explained Krystal Olivieri, global chief innovation officer, GroupM and Choreograph. “Because we need to have a consistent measurement approach across all channels, we have decided to measure cradle to gate for now, but we will look to expand as rapidly as possible.”
GroupM hinted at the framework’s rollout in Cannes last month, when Mindshare’s global chief transformation officer Ollie Joyce revealed during a panel discussion that it would be releasing findings of an extensive analysis of the various tools used by the industry to calculate the impact of media on carbon emissions. At the time, Joyce said the industry was engaged in a “calculator arms race” built around different tools and broad estimates.
The company outlined the new framework in the report: Calculating a Cleaner Future Now: A Unified Methodology for Accelerated Media Decarbonization. While acknowledging ongoing industry efforts to clean up the advertising supply chain, it said that having different standards across companies, platforms and markets is delaying “meaningful action” on reducing carbon emissions.
The GroupM framework provides parameters, data inputs and methodology required for what it described as the “world’s most robust” global carbon calculator, allowing media planners to map the total carbon footprint of advertising campaigns from development to delivery.
The calculator is expected to be available to GroupM clients later this year, but the company is also making its methodologies and processes available to industry bodies and businesses committed to decarbonizing the media supply chain.
GroupM said that greater data granularity will enable clients to shift media investments to lower-emission media publishers and platforms, thereby accelerating decarbonization across the media supply chain.
The company’s first step in developing a framework was an assessment of existing media carbon calculators, including those used by GroupM agencies. Among its findings was that there are inconsistencies in data collection and aggregation, and they are not aligned with Greenhouse Gas Protocols and other relevant guidance.
“In our industry’s rush to create these tools, we’ve ended up building competing calculators that are all calculating different things,” said Joyce in the report. “Going forward, this will prevent progress, so the next phase has to drive toward standardization.”
Joyce noted that the advertising industry has successfully come together to achieve standardization around other key issues like measurement and brand safety, but cautioned that there is an accelerated timeline for achieving similar goals around decarbonization.
“It took 10 to 15 years to get meaningful progress on privacy, and five to eight years to get meaningful progress on harmful content,” he said. “We simply do not have that much time to align around what carbon measurement and carbon reduction look like.”
“Standardizing anything in this industry is no easy feat, but this is about providing clients and our media partners with a tool that will ultimately save our planet,” added Talbot. “Yes we developed [the framework], but it’s in everyone’s best interests to have everyone align to this methodology so we can start to make a real impact quickly. It’s very urgent and something we are looking to roll out immediately.”
Talbot said that GroupM’s commitment to decarbonizing its media supply chain by 2030 is “purposefully aggressive,” but action is imperative. “We can’t sit on this for another 25 years,” she said. “It’s not very meaningful to say ‘We’ll get around to this by 2050.’ The impact on the planet by that point could be completely irreversible.”
Media accounts for more than half of WPP’s total annual emissions, roughly equivalent to 7.3 billion miles driven in a gasoline-powered vehicle. “These are numbers that can no longer be ignored,” said Olivieri.
And while the GroupM report acknowledged that media decarbonization is a long-term undertaking, it outlined a handful of short-term actions that can be undertaken to reduce emissions stemming from the digital supply chain, including buying fewer, better ads from higher-quality publishers; reducing the complexity of the supply chain by having fewer intermediaries (“less tech simplistically equals less emissions”); buying low-carbon media products that are incentivized to cut waste; and reducing the size of creative assets.
Talbot said that the importance of having a standardized measure for emissions across the digital media supply chain is increasing as more ad dollars are being invested programatically. “It’s having fewer suppliers with higher quality ads, versus buying a bunch of ads,” she said. “You could buy 100 ads that produce the same impression count as 50 ads. It’s about looking at higher quality and higher view-ability, so we don’t have to serve as many ads to reach the consumer. It’s about being smarter with targeting, and smarter with the ad environments that we are supporting.”
The GroupM announcement comes amid growing awareness and consideration of the advertising industry’s impact on carbon emissions and climate change. In Cannes last month, advertising leaders including the major holding companies, along with Unilever and Google and Meta, announced their intention to roll out the Ad Net Zero initiative to international markets around the world. Ad Net Zero launched in the U.K. in 2020, with the intention of reducing carbon emissions from UK advertising operations to net zero by 2030.
One overarching question is whether the industry woke up to the realities and dangers of carbon emissions early enough for any of these efforts to make a meaningful difference?
“It’s a dire situation now, so it’s safe to say no one started early enough on this, but we’re doing as much as we can to make as much of an impact as quickly as we can,” said Talbot. “Quite frankly we should never have been in this situation—not just as an industry, but the fact the planet is in this state in 2022 is pretty alarming.
“It’s safe to say it could have been tackled earlier, but it’s no small undertaking.”