Staff Reporters
Nov 8, 2021

Is 'Ad Net Zero' possible in Asia-Pacific?

SOUNDING BOARD: We ask marcomms leaders how the region can keep pace with the heightened interest in sustainability in the absence of an initiative like the UK's 'Ad Net Zero'.

Is 'Ad Net Zero' possible in Asia-Pacific?

A range of high-carbon clients and their agencies were recently called out for greenwashing in a 'subvertising' movement in Europe. Organisers of the movement called for agencies including Ogilvy, MediaCom, VCCP and Vizeum to boycott high-carbon clients such as Shell, BP, Jaguar Land Rover and British Airways. The billboard takeover was organised ahead of COP26, the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted. 

With pressure mounting on the ad industry to address its role in the climate crisis, hundreds have joined 'Ad Net Zero', a UK initiative led by the Advertising Association, the ISBA and the IPA. Launched in November last year, the initiative calls for collective action from the UK ad industry to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the end of 2030. A five-point plan to achieve this includes curbing emissions in business operations; advertising productions; media planning, buying and distribution; awards and events. Finally, the plan asks agencies and clients to harness the power of their advertising to promote more sustainable consumer choices and behaviours.

While this movement has propelled companies and agencies in that market to act on their sustainability goals, there is as of yet no equivalent in APAC. Instead, advertisers and agencies across the region have leant more on individual action to make good on their sustainability promises. “Regulations in APAC are behind regulations in Europe so, in a way, waiting for APAC regulations to guide the industry may not be meaningful,” Konstantin Popovic, chief executive of Grey Group Singapore, said responding to Campaign's Q4 global forecast. “As responsible economic actors, all agencies should lead the way through voluntary action (not just goals).”

Covid grounded travel plans and forced agencies to manage shoots remotely, a positive change for the environment. But post-pandemic, will APAC adland return to its old ways? Has the sustained conversation about sustainability compelled the industry to change old habits? 

To see whether APAC's marketing community is really serious about making a sustainable difference, Campaign reached out to a range of APAC leaders to get their perspective on plans and goals surrounding sustainability and climate change.

As addressed in COP26, the climate crisis requires global collaboration to address. How would an initiative like Ad Net Zero translate into APAC?


Suzy Goulding, director, MullenLowe Sustainability:

There is no reason why we couldn’t create or adopt an initiative similar to Ad Net Zero here in APAC. The way the industry operates is no different to its UK counterpart and there should be greater impetus to take action here, given that many of us have offices and clients operating in some of the most environmentally vulnerable places on the planet.

Reviewing production methods and processes and looking to adopt less carbon intensive ways of working is a great place to start. The impact of Covid has meant we’re already conducting business as usual without the need for international travel.

There is a huge commercial risk to agencies not seen to be walking the talk on sustainability. As many of the world’s biggest brands and corporations announce high-profile sustainability commitments, they’ll increasingly seek to work with like-minded agencies who can actively demonstrate their own commitments and actions. I believe the industry has a moral imperative to help clients communicate transparently around sustainability. This doesn’t necessarily mean stepping away from carbon-heavy clients but being clear that you’re there to help them have an honest dialogue with their stakeholders, not to help them greenwash. And to be prepared to walk away if this is the expectation.

Alistair McEwan, senior vice president of commercial development, BBC Global News APAC:

Sustainable practice is something that we believe every business should place a focus on. It’s certainly something we are looking at in our own departments across the BBC both globally and in APAC. As I’m sure you have read earlier this year, BBC Director General Tim Davie announced the BBC’s intention to reach net zero by 2030 and we are starting to implement a ‘deep decarbonisation’ strategy across the organisation.

At BBC StoryWorks, the content studio for BBC Global News, we’re planning to move in the coming months to a net zero production approach across every element of the commercial content we create. We’ve recently delivered our first Albert-certified production for Hyundai from EMEA and will be piloting a net zero campaigns in APAC and the Americas in the coming months. We intend that this approach will become business as usual across all of our output and we’ll be moving forward in a manner that ensures we embed these changes in a sustainable fashion. We’ll be working alongside broader industry initiatives, with measurement and tracking being critical to understanding how we’re doing, what needs to change, and how we offset any remaining environmental impact, in line with our approach at BBC Studios, as a matter of course, for every campaign. The goal is for BBC StoryWorks to become a net zero brand studio.  

Prashant Kumar, founder and senior partner, Entropia (part of Accenture Interactive):

Climate crisis indeed requires global collaboration. And everyone needs to do their bit. One of the most fundamental impetus is coming from ESG activist funds, which are raising the cost of capital for those less responsible, and I see that as very effective. The second biggest thrust is from Elon Musk—who made Tesla profitable—and the future of fossil cars unprofitable. That’s big. Regulators are now getting into action, which is very positive as well.

The next big target should be obsolescence policies of different industries. If you make things to last only for a short time, so people will be forced to buy again, you are hurting climate. We need laws there mandating minimum standards and attacking cartels who are destroying the planet in the name of faux-innovations.

Laura Kantor, marketing and sustainability director, Foodpanda Singapore:

An initiative like Ad Net Zero comes quite timely as brands continually look for ways to incorporate sustainability into the way they operate, including the way they market and advertise. Given the complexity of the APAC region, differences in government regulations, environmental awareness and digital penetration, a similar rollout might be more challenging in this region than in Europe.

Would an effort like Ad Net Zero gain traction here? Is there a strong impetus from the APAC ad industry to reduce its environmental impact?


McEwan:

We can’t speak specifically on whether the UK based Advertising Association Ad Net Zero Initiative will gain traction across APAC, but what we do know is the increasing importance that our audiences and consumers in general are placing on the sustainable practices of the brands they choose to engage with in this region. We received unequivocal feedback from a recent sustainability survey we conducted in May 2021, in which 79% of APAC consumers said a brand’s sustainable practices and commitments are important factors to consider before making a purchase.

This is on par with the global average. Even with a high portion of sustainability-minded consumers, there’s still as much as 53% of consumers that said they were not clearly aware of leading brands’ sustainability practices across automotive, technology and finance sectors. So continued education and action is required. Another 79% of APAC consumers agree that brands should finance research on how to improve their sustainable practices whilst 83% believe in better consumer education is a must in this area.

Kumar: 

The ad industry is only a function of the larger society. Sensitivities differ country to country. But overall there is tremendous enthusiasm—no doubt—in agencies towards sustainable development goals. Of course marketers need to complement that more and more too, making higher investments towards sustainable innovations and brand-building. Unilever for example has shown a unique commitment towards this.

Goulding:

I don’t think there’s any impetus at all at the moment or maybe there are some APAC agencies just quietly getting on with becoming more sustainable. There are a couple of ways in which adopting an Ad Net Zero stance could gain traction. One is for networks to apply the same rigour in sustainability reporting at an individual agency or market level as they do at global HQ, thus providing agencies with the guardrails and international standards needed to accurately measure and set sustainability targets. Another would be for industry bodies like AAMS (who I know are already looking to make sustainability a key focus area) to take the initiative by advocating for sustainability adoption across the industry, providing support and guidance to members, perhaps by connecting with Ad Net Zero and establishing an APAC equivalent.

Kantor:

I truly believe that companies need to be held accountable for the way they impact not only the environment but society too, as this really is the way that change is made. Unfortunately, the majority of campaigns we see are always used for a bit of short term PR buzz, and less about driving actual change. I would welcome an equivalent movement in APAC to really keep businesses on their toes, and equally give customers transparency about which companies they should be supporting, based on shared values. 

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