Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Patrick Collister: Bad ads are damaging the planet

Patrick Collister, NDA’s monthly creative columnist, is the Curator of The Caples Awards, Editor of Directory and a friend to

Last week I got an email from an AI-powered marketing company. 

Proudly they declared, “Brand X created 10K+ ads in minutes.”

As a creative bunny, it’s hard not to be dismayed by this.

And it’s only going to get worse as Ad Creative Optimization (yuck) companies proliferate at the expense of what used to be called agencies.

Score, mindless dross sprayed out indiscriminately across the internet: 1, targeted and crafted messages that engage and build the brand, 0.

No wonder an estimated 42.7% of individuals use ad blockers.

This isn’t just digital pollution.

It turns out to be environmental spoliation as well. 

Now, I haven’t the foggiest idea how you measure data.

Ofcom says we consume around 5.6GB per month on our phones. Video is particularly greedy.

But everything is connected.

So I do know that wherever you go and whatever you do, you’re also generating data.

Perhaps as much as 46GB per day.

Good grief!

Between us, we’re propagating 328.77 million terabytes of the stuff between dawn and dusk.

I’m not familiar with zettabytes, but apparently we’re set to produce 120 zetts of it this year, which is not good. It’s not good at all.

The problem is that large companies are hoovering up vast quantities of qualitative and quantitative data from multiple sources and then doing sod all with it.   

This is dark data.

It’s the 65% of data that is never used.

Data that is completely useless.

The only reason IT chiefs like to hang onto it is for compliance and because there is a vague feeling they may be missing something which they might look for and find in the future.

Plus, storage is relatively inexpensive.

Though one suspects for not much longer.

Having all your files in the cloud sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Can’t be damaging to the environment, surely, storing your files up in the old cumulonimbus?

Well, um…

Pause for a moment to think about all those coaxial cables, fibre optic tubes, water pipes and air conditioning units that keep the servers from overheating inside massive data centres, all of which use horrifying amounts of electricity. 

This is MIT in the subject:

“The Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. A single data centre can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes.”

So, how many data centres are there in Britain?

517. By MIT maths, using the same amount of energy as 25 million homes

In the USA, there are 5,388 data centres and there are several thousand more dotted around elsewhere.  

Then there are hyperscale data centres. There are many hundreds of these, each housing over 5,000 servers in buildings a lot bigger than your average warehouse.

Worldwide, data centres are getting through 3% of the electricity supply.

Accounting for a significantly large slice of the 4% of greenhouse gases attributed to digitalisation.  

Look at it this way.

While the Mayor of London harasses motorists in the pursuit of his net zero ambitions, the average website with 100,000 page views a month is belching out the same CO2 in a year as a family hatchback.

TikTok, which is all video, produces 41,000 tonnes of carbon a day.

Sorry to overwhelm you with numbers. But the worrying thing about them is, for some unfathomable reason, they are excluded from the UK’s current climate change reporting figures.

In other words, all existing net zero targets are wrong and if digital was included, those targets would be a lot harder to achieve.

Yet hardly anyone is talking about it.

Outside Loughborough University, that is.

There, Professors Tom Jackson, Ian Hodgkinson and Graham Hitchen are banging their drums.

They are calling for “digital decarbonisation”.

In encouraging brand owners to embrace digital transformation, the advertising industry has helped create the problem. Now it needs to be part of the solution.  

This was something we talked about in a Caples Awards get-together I organised three weeks ago with Professor Hitchen.

We reflected on the astonishing wastage of digital advertising.

Of Brand X’s 10,000 ads, most will never be seen. Yet they are environmental pollutants as well as an affront to human intelligence.

Here are some more stats that startled me and which may startle you too.  

In the last five years, advertising emissions in the UK have increased by well over 11%.

Ad Creative Optimisation (yuck) companies are helping spew into the atmosphere the equivalent annual emissions of 56 coal-fired power stations. 

32% of your carbon footprint, dear reader, comes from the ads you are served.

I never thought I’d sing the praises of a media agency but all hail to Group M, who are telling their clients they should run fewer but higher quality ads.

It’s the efficiency versus effectiveness debate again.

Efficiency is spraying thousands of ads out in the hope of meeting short-term targets. Effectiveness is building a brand through lasting emotional connections.

I now have even more reason to belong to the latter camp.

More creative advertising is more sustainable advertising.

As Rik Haslam, co-founder of BrandPie New York pithily put it, “crap ads are climate crime.”