Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Advertisers need to realise there’s no plan B

By Pierre de Lannoy, Strategy Director, UK, MiQ

Did you know, MiQ in partnership with Scope3, recently calculated that £10k in digital ad spend has the same carbon footprint as a plane flying from London to Chicago? And a typical online ad campaign emits 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide – a third of what an average US consumer produces in a year.

But how is this even possible? Think about the full ecosystem of digital advertising. This includes everything from the design of the creative asset, suppliers, intermediaries, and publishers – all of which run offices, process data, and have their own carbon footprint – and the user device and the internet connection that the ad is viewed on. This includes the power to the device, as well as the cell tower, data centres and all underlying infrastructure that the internet runs on.

Although the internet has been a positive force in many respects, the same cannot be said for its environmental impact. The global internet industry as a whole is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And the problem is only set to get worse. Internet traffic has tripled since 2016 and it’s not slowing down. 

The internet is made up of a physical infrastructure that needs energy to function, and the impact on the environment is much higher if we take into consideration the CO2 emissions generated during the construction, upkeep, and end-of-life management of this infrastructure.

We must all accept that digital advertising has played a part in creating the climate crisis, and act now – but where do we start?

Check out your supply chain

The first step is to really dive into the Adland supply chain and examine sustainability at every part of it. Data platforms can help with this, and can power carbon-aware planning, reporting, data integration, and the decision-making capabilities partners need to drive innovation and climate accountability into every engagement.

Size doesn’t matter (that much)

After making sure the supply chain is as spotless as possible, agencies and brands must concentrate on the advertisement itself. Power is used for every file that a viewer’s device needs to load on a page. Therefore, creative teams must minimise the size of their files. As the asset will be displayed in a small digital box rather than on a billboard, you might not need that huge file.

Then, we must think about the platforms and media types on which the advertisements will appear. This is particularly important for CTV. Energy efficiency probably wasn’t top of mind when someone purchased their TV, and, in terms of pixel size, this is the largest digital ad you’ll probably ever run that isn’t a digital billboard. Because of this, it is the most carbon-intensive. Broadcasters and marketers must put pressure on manufacturers to increase product efficiency as this channel’s growth continues.

However, data from Scope3 shows that creative emissions only account for around 10% of overall Scope 3 emissions for a campaign. Optimising file size will only deliver marginal improvements. The big gains will be in driving industry-wide efficiencies upstream in the supply chain, driving a consolidation that will then minimise data centre activity.

Cultivate a healthier ecosystem

Finally, companies and advertisers need to make sure that this is a continuous activity. Even though we’re just getting started, the industry needs to work towards a time when advertisers can lessen the impact of their creatives, and only direct funds to publishers who are trustworthy and who optimise their websites. Together we need to develop an ecosystem based on ethical business practises from the start, along with a robust standard for measuring carbon footprint.