Jessica Heygate
Feb 22, 2023

‘It's going to be messy’: Ad industry scrambles to standardise sustainability

Sustainability working groups and coalitions are still figuring out how to measure and benchmark carbon emissions before reduction efforts can get underway.

Pressure gauges display a reading on a heat pump installed at the BTB Heizkraftwerk Schoeneweide thermal power plant in Berlin, Germany (Credit: Getty Images)
Pressure gauges display a reading on a heat pump installed at the BTB Heizkraftwerk Schoeneweide thermal power plant in Berlin, Germany (Credit: Getty Images)

A large cohort of the world’s biggest brands and agencies have set targets to reach net-zero carbon emissions over the next seven years. Their success depends upon the industry’s willingness to collaborate and reach consensus.

In conversations with Campaign US over the last few weeks, advertising leaders have expressed frustration about the pace at which sustainability standards are being set.

Carbon reduction efforts cannot get underway until a common framework for measuring and benchmarking carbon emissions has been set.

Ad Net Zero, the industry coalition dedicated to reducing the ad industry’s carbon footprint and promoting sustainable business, is aiming to be the standard setter But its USA director John Osborn admitted there remains “a heck of a lot of work yet still to do,” before an industry-wide carbon measurement framework is established.

“We're moving down the track. We're not where we need to be, but we're not on square one either. We're somewhere in between,” he said.

Osborn was speaking during Campaign US’ Tech Talks event last week, which delved into the obstacles of carbon reduction in digital advertising (the event is available to watch on-demand).

John Osborn, USA director of Ad Net Zero (pictured top), Alison Weissbrot, editor of Campaign US (bottom left), Gabby Sethi, global head of impact at Assembly (bottom middle), Anthony Katsur, CEO of IAB Tech Lab (bottom right).

Agency and trade association leaders who joined Osborn on a panel moderated by Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrot said their sustainability initiatives depend upon Ad Net Zero’s guidance and seal of approval.

“We look at Ad Net Zero to marshall the industry and set the market requirements,” said Anthony Katsur, CEO of IAB Tech Lab. “You can't manage what you can't measure. So it has to start with the basics.”

Katsur said the consortium, which partnered with Ad Net Zero for its global launch in June last year, is awaiting direction on what metadata it should supply to the industry so partners can begin measuring the efficiency of their programmatic supply paths. He wants to be able to provide a baseline data set to the industry this year.

“For this year, let’s at least get some efficient, accurate data on supply path — that is such low hanging fruit to find efficiencies in supply path which will lead to immediately lower carbon footprint in the ecosystem,” Katsur said.

Gabby Sethi, global head of impact at Stagwell-owned Assembly, said the media agency was looking to Ad Net Zero to provide guidance on what standardized measure it should be working towards in its own decarbonization product. 

“We need to make sure that there is real coherence and rallying support around the industry for that [measurement standard],” Sethi said. Assembly signed up as a member of Ad Net Zero for its official USA chapter launch earlier this month.

But Ad Net Zero said it can only establish standards and industry benchmarks once it has a wide enough pool of members.

“Getting some reliable data around those benchmarks — part of the success of that will be to add more diversity in terms of what we have currently amongst our supporters,” said Osborn.

Osborn said Ad Net Zero had “fairly heavy” membership from technology and media ad firms, but suggested more involvement from creative and production partners were needed to reach his goal of setting standards “this calendar year.”

Political roadblocks

Osborn, a former Omnicom executive, also hinted at political roadblocks. He said Ad Net Zero requires collaboration between ad firms and trade associations.

“We’re here to be a driving force to ultimately set those standards and we're in the messy kitchen phase right now because a lot of companies and groups are doing really interesting things — but to date, there has not been a global standard,” he said. 

Ad associations are struggling to reach consensus on prickly issues such as whether fossil fuel clients and their agencies should be permitted into sustainability working groups and initiatives.

Industry activist group Clean Creatives called out Ad Net Zero members for working with fossil fuel clients in a social media stunt on the day of the initiative’s official U.S. launch. It is Clean Creatives’ view that an organization “cannot effectively respond to the climate emergency while working with the people responsible for it,” director Duncan Meisel said at the time.

Osborn said Ad Net Zero “is on a different mission” to Clean Creatives but “for the same goal.”

“Of the groups that are out there, we have a common interest, which is a cleaner, better planet at the end of the day. How we are going about it is different. We felt as an organization that for us, getting our arms around the operations is really key to our mission,” he said.

‘No perfect solution’

Osborn believes that there is no “perfect silver bullet solution” to sustainability and getting to consensus is “going to be messy.”

“Ad Net Zero is in it to ultimately change the way we work and the work we make and how it's made from an operational lens. It's going to be messy, and it's not going to be perfect, but is entirely reliant on the support we get from the group,” said Osborne.

“We're not going to let perfection get in the way of real progress,” he added.

Where to collaborate and compete

One thing that ad industry leaders can agree upon is that carbon measurement should be pre-competitive. 

“We absolutely believe that there has to be a standardized way of measuring this, otherwise you're always comparing apples and pears,” said Assembly’s Sethi.

Once the playing field has been leveled, commercial opportunities can be layered on top. “Where there's opportunity to innovate is developing initiatives, products and recommendations to really help drive those reductions,” said Sethi. 

Competition for carbon reduction can be a positive, Sethi believes, as it “drives standards up across the industry.”

IAB Tech Lab’s Katsur agreed that companies should “compete on green.” 

“If someone's winning business because they are greener than someone else, that's going to motivate another company to go greener,” he said.


Campaign US

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