July 14, 2024

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Three ways to make media plans more sustainable in 2024

6 min read
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Marketers are spending more and more time talking about sustainability. It’s becoming an increasingly central part of their jobs – how do they bring sustainable products to market, craft authentic sustainability messaging, and launch impactful sustainability initiatives?

But what about media plans? Media makes a surprisingly large contribution towards carbon emissions in the advertising supply chain, and the industry has yet to meaningfully address it.

At advertising giant WPP, approximately 98% of carbon emissions are ‘scope 3’, meaning they come from its supply chain. Of that, 55% comes directly from the media bought by its media investment wing, GroupM, on behalf of its advertiser clients.

“These numbers can no longer be ignored,” says Zuzanna Gierlinska, chief growth officer of GroupM’s global performance network, GroupM Nexus. “Looking at the high carbon footprint media is driving, we have to start making significant systematic change.”

So, as part of WPP’s broader decarbonisation efforts, GroupM Nexus has been working on three areas where it can start reducing the carbon impact of media plans immediately.

“We want to weave sustainability into the DNA of every campaign. So it’s not an option or a nice-to-have, but something we do as standard from the outset,” says Gierlinska.

But it’s not enough for one agency to look at this; all brands and agencies need to pull together to drive meaningful change.

Looking at the high carbon footprint media is driving, we have to start making significant systematic change.

Zuzanna Gierlinska, GroupM Nexus

“If we just hold onto it all ourselves and say, ‘Look, we’re doing it better than you’, we’re not going to make that industry-wide impact we need,” Gierlinska explains.

Here, she outlines three areas of focus and explains how media plans can be made more sustainable today.

1. Buy media more efficiently

Online carbon calculator Website Carbon estimates that the average website produces 0.8 grams of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per pageview. A website with 10,000 monthly page views therefore makes 102kg of CO2e each year – equal to driving around 700km in a car.

Meanwhile, according to the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) 2022/23 US Transparency Study, the average campaign runs across 44,000 domains. “That is just insane from a carbon footprint perspective,” Gierlinska says.

It’s also seemingly unnecessary, as 99% of spend goes to just the top 6,000 domains. So, for marketers, reducing the number of domains a campaign runs against is an obvious way to lower emissions without compromising effectiveness.

With this in mind, GroupM has cracked down on the number of domains it’s willing to sell by crafting the m-List – a list that only includes around 6,000 high-quality and curated publishers. The m-List is constantly monitored and pre-filtered to remove fraudulent and lower-performing domains, while actively including higher proportions of diverse audience domains to ensure campaigns don’t miss important consumer groups.

2. Reduce ad wastage

Although there are companies making a good start on carbon measurement and reporting within the media ecosystem, none can currently measure all media types, and all involve some degree of modelling. So, while they can give marketers an idea of which publishers, for example, have higher carbon outputs, the data isn’t yet advanced enough to provide detail on how marketers can improve and the impact of their actions.

Further development to address these gaps will be crucial if marketers are to produce fully carbon-optimised media plans. But, while it waits for measurement to mature and standardise, GroupM Nexus is looking at what it can do today – and that means addressing ad wastage. Even without the exact data, marketers can assume that fewer wasted ad impressions will result in lower emissions.

It has approached this challenge in two ways. Firstly, by educating and encouraging advertisers to leverage cross-channel capabilities.

“If you’re buying in a truly cross-channel manner, you need to serve significantly less media per channel to get to the same output as if you were buying siloed, individual campaigns in each channel,” Gierlinska explains.

We know that by reducing the sheer load of impressions, we’ll improve a campaign’s carbon footprint.

Zuzanna Gierlinska, GroupM Nexus

The second approach is to run fewer, more effective ads by using the capabilities of its marketing science team. With the support of AI, GroupM Nexus works out how to deliver the same outcome for an advertiser while reducing the number of impressions that need to be served.

The process starts by building benchmarks as a baseline, which indicate the average number of impressions usually needed to deliver a campaign outcome. AI algorithms then focus on reducing impression volume. Going forward, all video campaigns will use this algorithm as a standard.

“We can’t tell you exactly what the carbon impact of this is because that measurement isn’t fully there yet,” Gierlinska says. “But intuitively, we know that by reducing the sheer load of impressions, we’ll improve a campaign’s carbon footprint.”

3. Drive behavioural change

The final puzzle piece is less of a technical solution and more of a behavioural one. Brands have an opportunity to use their campaigns to drive more sustainable behaviours among consumers, and, at the same time, agencies can use media as an incentive to encourage ambitious sustainable campaigns from their clients.

GroupM Nexus has introduced its +Purpose scheme to do precisely this. To qualify for the addressable TV-focused package, a campaign must advocate for one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Selected campaigns then receive up to 20% added-value impressions, with the aim to deliver additional, tailored messages to those audiences who most need convincing about the climate crisis, and ultimately shift their behaviour.

At the same time, the brand increases its share of voice at no extra cost, driving attention away from its less environmentally conscious counterparts. The package also includes a consultation on innovative creative solutions and promises to fuse societal impact with the brand’s business objectives.

“What we’re hoping to do is to incentivise the right behaviour from brands by rewarding those bringing more sustainable products to the market,” Gierlinska explains.

+Purpose is still in its first iteration, but early results prove “promising”, she adds, pointing to a recent campaign for water filter brand Brita as a “brilliant example”. The campaign called on consumers to ditch plastic bottles and instead turn on the tap to ‘turn on change’.

“We really wanted to support Brita in that endeavour by amplifying that initiative,” Gierlinska says. That support included creative development assistance, which prompted Brita to recycle its existing assets into a new campaign rather than creating a new ad from scratch – typically a carbon-intensive process.

GroupM Nexus also awarded the campaign value-added media to boost Brita’s proposition and get as much airtime for its sustainability-focused product as possible.

Making sustainable media a priority in 2024

When marketers talk about sustainability, the sheer size of the job at hand can be both intimidating and offputting.

“When you look at sustainability at a macro level, people start to think it’s too big of a problem for them to solve, or it’s a problem for someone else,” Gierlinska says. “But the reality is that unless we all get behind this, we’re not going to make the impact we need.”

So, as we teeter on the edge of a climate crisis, it’s vital that all marketers and agencies carefully scrutinise every opportunity to cut emissions and drive towards Net Zero. And therefore, if the industry wants to make genuine progress, improving media sustainability must become a top priority next year.


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