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Progress over perfection: 7 steps to tackle your campaign emissions now

A man uses a gardening tool to trim a shrub in the shape of a finger cursor.

Illustration by Dave Cole / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

Carbon emissions and greenhouse gas equivalents are driving the current climate crisis.

Like most industries, the advertising and media industries contribute to these carbon emissions through the existence of their essential functions — the production, delivery and consumer consumption of the ads, for example.

Short of these industries ceasing to exist, carbon emissions will continue to be a factor. For instance, programmatic activations require computer processing power to function, demanding grid energy, which emits carbon.

Real and meaningful progress has been made within the programmatic landscape to reduce its carbon emissions. But without standardization or universal industry benchmarks, most companies are marking their own homework.

Fortunately, there is industry demand for, and some work being done toward, standardization. Additionally, multiple providers are contributing toward benchmarks.

In the interim, progress should be valued in the absence of perfection.

A logical approach and actionable solutions

Thinking simply, let’s start by following the logic of “fewer signals equals less carbon.”

“Fewer signals” is the pursuit of reducing the data processing and computing power required, where feasible, within campaign activation. This is a desirable starting point, as we should begin by avoiding and then reducing when it comes to carbon.

From here, there are seven ways to test and progress the maturity of programmatic sustainability today.

  1. File-size reduction: Compressing ad sizes can reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted and stored, leading to lower CO2 emissions from data servers and the network infrastructure involved in delivering creative. Solutions can include manual file-size reductions, shorter video assets or device-specific creatives.
  2. Supply path optimization (SPO): SPO is the practice of identifying quality inventory and curating a direct supply path to that inventory through the reduction of supply intermediaries. By reducing intermediaries within our path to purchase, we require less processing power to serve an impression.
  3. Removing made-for-advertising (MFA) sites: Cutting out MFA sites from campaigns is a sustainable practice, as they have a poor site design that takes heavy energy processing to function. CO2PM on MFA websites, classified as wastage by Ebiquity, is 26.4% higher than non-MFA websites.
  4. High attention and viewability: An ad that is served but isn’t seen is 100% wasted. By focusing on quality inventory, we can mitigate wastage through acquiring relevant impressions. Further, early research suggests that higher attention inventory is more readily available on publishers who apply more sustainable practices. A study found that carbon emissions from digital ads fall by 63% on average when measured and optimized for attention time.
  5. Sustainability measurement: Emissions data is becoming an additional campaign metric alongside other performance metrics. Partners can help estimate the carbon emissions of each impression served based on a range of inputs. Currently these methods are probabilistic, so while they do appear to offer value, they should be optimized with a sense of logic alongside other performance indicators.
  6. Green packages: Through the listed practices of SPO, MFA removal, and attention and sustainability measurement, green media can be curated as a private marketplace and stored within the demand-side platform (DSP) for activation.
  7. Delivery optimizations: Through a DSP or activation partner, small platform tweaks can be applied that are less intensive on the energy grid as opposed to their delivery alternatives. Solutions can include energy-intensity optimization, Wi-Fi targeting, video streaming technology or device targeting.

Driving meaningful change

For these tactics to deliver meaningful impact they need to be integrated within the overarching architecture of your activations.

For example, this means not just reducing one creative, with one partner on one line item, but rather reducing the size of your entire asset set.

In a similar vein, measuring different partners with different methodologies on a line-item-by-line-item basis will not enable you to compare apples with apples. You’d want to align on a valid approach that has a high level of interoperability across all components of your activation to then optimize toward reduction accordingly.

You may require controlled testing to commence — this is where partial implementations are ideal. However, ensure that what you are testing could be scaled across your entire buying approach if successful.

For some of the listed solutions to drive impact, we must align and then act as an industry. For example, for MFA sites, if one buyer chooses to not serve in this environment, the site would still function due to other advertisers generating revenue. But if we as an industry cease to deliver on these high-emitting sites, they should cease to exist.

All media buying approaches, digital or not, will emit carbon as a byproduct of their existence. As it is still an emerging area within programmatic, there is a lack of perfection or standardization.

However, this should not spur complacency — progress is vital to reduce carbon emissions and to help gather the learnings to establish the standardization and the “perfection” we seek.

This op-ed represents the views and opinions of the author and not of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, or The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk.