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5 minutes with Brian O’Kelley

A centered image of Brian O'Kelley, co-founder and CEO, Scope 3 amidst imagery such as the number 5 and connective circuitry.

Illustration by Sarah Kim / The Current

The origins of Brian O’Kelley’s newest startup, Scope3, can be partly attributed to a banana. O’Kelley was taking a graduate-level course on supply chain management at MIT during the COVID-19 pandemic when he learned that a banana has a different carbon footprint based on where in the world it ends up. From then on, he was fascinated.

O’Kelley, one of the innovators of programmatic advertising and supply chain optimization, is now taking on another challenge in ad tech with Scope3: digital sustainability. Scope3 claims to be the only company to measure end-to-end emissions across the media and advertising supply chain.

We spoke with O’Kelley about trying to change the digital advertising landscape through sustainability efforts.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why make digital advertising more sustainable?
Today, whoever runs more ads gets more money. Running more ads requires more energy and is wasteful.  

It’s counterintuitive and might be surprising coming from one of the people that helped build this enormously complex industry, but we see a future where the winners will be those that run fewer, better ads. We can have less crap, do better for the environment, and do well financially. It’s addition by subtraction.    

What I’d love to see in three or four years is that the quality of everything goes up, that we have better advertising, and that we’re more respectful of consumers.    

And we should see this in all our everyday products too. We should do fewer things that are better. And that changes consumption, which changes the global economy for the better in terms of both environmental and social impact.   

The digital sustainability movement can influence the entire world’s sustainable efforts. We think decarbonizing digital can create a blueprint for decarbonizing the physical world.   

It’s easy to not realize all the emissions digital ads cause. What is driving this environmental impact? 
Two decades ago, no one could have predicted the amount of energy required to power the programmatic ecosystem and its related environmental impact.  

It was once commonly believed that emissions were only a “real world” problem, but it turns out when things like Bitcoin and crypto and ad tech and mar tech require so much computing power, the environmental benefits of going digital are no longer as evident.   

And the impact goes beyond emissions. Today, energy consumption from digital has other huge consequences. For example, the Financial Times recently reported a proposal to ban new housing in parts of London because data centers are using so much of the grid’s capacity and there’s not enough energy to handle the demand from new homes.   

With an estimated 4 percent of all the electricity in the world used by the internet — and that number will only go up as internet usage increases — if we do not act now, when are we going to do it?   

What responsibility does the digital advertising industry have to make sustainability a bigger priority?  
Every industry has the responsibility to make sustainability not only a bigger priority, but the No. 1 priority. Our industry has experienced two decades of incredible growth and innovation. We have helped fund journalism and allowed businesses and publishers of all sizes to connect with customers around the world and grow. Some of the planet’s largest companies count digital advertising as their biggest source of revenue. Consumers and businesses get access to all kinds of information, services, games, and products that are free because of advertising.    

But all of this is not free of consequences for the environment.   

The sectors that contribute the highest percentage of carbon dioxide emissions — cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene — are facing a decades-long challenge that involves redesigning production processes and costly rebuilds or retrofits.   

Unlike these industries, we can decarbonize media and advertising quickly and without billions in investment simply by optimizing processes to eliminate waste and create new efficiencies. This isn’t a problem that requires an entirely new infrastructure. And it’s our responsibility to take the right steps to decarbonize.   

What is it like going from being one of the innovators of programmatic advertising to now trying to make advertising more efficient for the climate?  
I had a front-row seat to the evolution of the programmatic industry, seeing firsthand the opportunities and the problems that were created. But some of the challenges were almost impossible to predict given the speed with which the industry was growing and the rate at which new complexity was embedded into the system.     

I was looking to resolve inefficiencies in the market at AppNexus when I invented supply path optimization, but it didn’t go far enough. It wasn’t until I left AppNexus and began exploring real-world supply chains as an entrepreneur that it occurred to me that the systems I helped invent were contributing to climate change in ways I didn’t foresee.   

Decarbonizing media and advertising is something I feel a responsibility to do and am extremely passionate about. It’s also something I am uniquely qualified to help lead.   

The first question we wanted to answer when we started Scope3 was “Could you bring sustainability-based optimization to digital advertising and make the ecosystem price carbon into key decisions on a per-impression basis?”   

Our theory was that big brands and their agencies would use emissions data to shift spend to lower the carbon footprint of advertising and influence a huge part of the internet (the sell side primarily) to factor carbon more prominently into their operations. So, we’ve built a methodology, a business model, and economic incentives that make it easy for everyone to join the movement. It’s been incredible to watch how quickly the industry has gotten behind the push to decarbonize.     

You’ve said you’re trying to “change the world.” Years from now, what will that look like and what will Scope3’s role be in this venture?  
I think about how interconnected we are and how advertising as a business ecosystem sits right in the middle of some profoundly serious environmental issues. What we’re talking about is changing how and what we consume to be green by design.   

This not only includes programmatic, but how ads are created, what messages they deliver, the types of products and services they promote, and the emissions uplift that results from the use of these products and services — for example, air travel and other high carbon activities.    

No other industry has the power to reduce its own carbon footprint while influencing the entire world to become climate positive. I’d like to think we can help make both a reality.