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Shutting out high-emitting publishers won’t clear brands’ carbon conscience

Black smoke coming out of rolled up newspaper smoke stacks, emerging from a bright chartreuse browser window.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

Just like the fossil fuels burned to produce electricity, existing methods to measure greenhouse gas emissions are byproducts of antiquity. Marketers need to quantify their emissions, and ad tech veterans are quick to offer remedies that “deliver results” by placing the blame on publishers. Their solution is simple: Block the highest-emitting publishers from your media plan, measure how much carbon you’ve just saved, plop the case study on your website and then crow about your green bona fides while sipping rosé in Cannes.

The only problem is that this is completely wrong.

Defining responsibility

First of all, this logic really only works in open-web programmatic. Marketers need omnichannel measurement, and publisher-centric measurement methodologies fall apart when you move to prominent direct channels like connected TV (CTV) and social. It’s illogical to harmonize publisher measurement across all channels. If a marketer buys an in-stream video during an hourlong viewing of House of the Dragon, is the buyer on the hook for the emissions of every draconian CGI fireball included in that video? Or when buying an ad spot in an endlessly scrolling social media feed, are they responsible for the environmental impact of the next 30 minutes of mind-numbing cat videos? Of course not.

Another example lies in the programmatic supply path measurements. Suppose a publisher had 1,000 lines in its ads.txt file. This, multiplied by wasteful programmatic byproducts such as bid duplication, resellers and ad refreshing, implies thousands of pathways to access the publisher through programmatic channels, which is extremely carbon-intensive. Publisher-centric carbon measurement methods would have marketers shoulder that entire burden in their own Scope 3 calculations. But what if they have done careful supply path optimization (SPO) and only access that publisher via a handful of curated, direct buying channels? Should they be held liable for the thousands of paths they don’t use? Of course not.

Understanding emissions

So, what should marketers count toward their Scope 3 emissions? Fortunately, industry standards from trade bodies like the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, the World Federation of Advertisers, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau are emerging with some clear guidance. Marketers’ carbon calculations should include emissions around the creation, distribution and consumption of their advertising. This means that, rather than lumping in all irrelevant publisher activity with advertiser activity, we must begin differentiating between publisher Scope 3 activity and advertiser Scope 3 activity.

The reason to get this right is that when advertisers start changing the things within their control, they actually lower their own emissions by any sensible definition of Scope 3 measurement. The converse — shutting off high-emitting publishers — does comparatively very little despite the impressive numbers in results decks. You cannot lower your emissions with a block list alone.

Measuring for action

The good news is that there are numerous levers for brands to achieve lower emissions: streamlining content production, lower creative weights, SPO, geotargeting, device targeting, and elimination of unviewable or fraudulent inventory, to name a few. Measuring their impact provides incentives for change; for example, why get into SPO if your measured carbon score has all available publisher supply paths? The dual benefit of most of these measures is that advertisers are simultaneously eliminating financial waste in their marketing efforts as well as cutting environmental waste. None of these concepts are new to sophisticated marketers.

These levers exist because we are an industry that prides itself on precision. That’s why the carbon data associated with each impression is very granular, with every impression having a quasi-unique carbon fingerprint. A CTV ad bought directly and shown for seven seconds in Scotland at noon on a Wednesday has a different footprint than a mobile ad bought through a programmatic reseller in California at midnight on a Friday. And all of these variables are squarely in advertisers’ purviews.

Savvy marketers wanting to go a little bit further and add in outcome measurements around viewability, attention, attribution, cost and other KPIs can supercharge this impression-level data and begin thinking in emissions per outcome. Perhaps that high-emitting ad has earned its carbon footprint because it performs well, and thus has a lower carbon per outcome than a lower-emitting ad. Or maybe you’re one of the many advertisers still addicted to low-cost made-for-advertising inventory, but their terrible emissions per attention unit might finally be the justification you need to avoid this problematic inventory. There are innumerable exciting possibilities.

Evolving to thrive

Some readers will undoubtedly mistake this as a call to ignore publisher bad actors. And that’s absolutely not true; advertisers need to consider publisher emissions when generating their media plans. But that does not mean making the mistake of adding their emissions to your own. Publisher carbon footprint should be a factor alongside others, including risky content, media bias and ad load, to justify whether a given publisher has earned your budget. Conscientious marketers who have spent time and effort cleaning up their own house will naturally want to do business with publishers who have cleaned theirs.

Finally, I would be remiss to not acknowledge that at Good-Loop, we have historically conflated publisher and advertiser emissions in our own methodology. The carbon measurement vendors have worked in good faith to define carbon emissions, bring technology to market and educate the industry.

The early days of any new technology are messy and, as pointed out above, we still believe that publisher emissions should not be ignored. However, harking back to the fossil fuels comparison, it’s incumbent on us to evolve to emerging standards or be left behind.

The views and opinions contained in this op-ed represent the views and opinions of the author(s) and do not represent the views or opinions of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, nor of The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk of the content.