Attention isn’t Sustainability’s Silver Bullet

Planning and buying attention will not solve digital advertising’s sustainability challenges - but placing a greater focus on the location and quality of inventory can help shape the industry’s environmentally conscious future. Liam Brennan, managing director at The Responsible Marketing Agency tells us how.

Marketing activities are one of the main contributors to many companies’ carbon footprints, and digital media is the major culprit due to the extensive use of cloud-based servers, large file sizes of video-based creative and complex (and often opaque) supply chains.

Indeed, the digital advertising industry is considered responsible for 3.5% of annual global greenhouse gases emissions. Increasing consumer appetite for resource-intensive media (principally video) means data transfer is on track to grow by 20% each year globally - a hike that is as severe as it sounds.

So it is encouraging to see both brands and agencies taking practical steps to reduce their carbon footprint from their media activity, but sadly this is often the ‘quick fix’ route - minimal effort for maximum return, and nothing more.

Planning and buying to attention is increasingly viewed as that silver-bullet solution, but there is a flaw in the thinking, which in turn masks a larger problem to be solved - one that will take more time and effort to address, but is far more likely to pay off in the long term, both for the planet and for business.

Attention: Correlation and Causation

The problem is that we tend to confuse correlation and causation. Purchasing ice cream, for example, means you are more likely to drown - or at least that’s what the data says. When sales of ice cream are up, the number of drownings also tragically increases at beaches across the world. But of course, buying an ice cream won’t make you drown. These two things are simply correlated, as they both happen when the sun is out.

Likewise, there have been numerous case studies lately which appear to ‘prove’ that planning and buying to attention can have a large impact on media carbon footprint reduction - such as this case study from Playground xyz/Scope3 showing a 63% reduction. These are, of course, impressive numbers, but as with the ice cream example, identifying attention as the driver of carbon reduction is just another case of correlation over causation.

Attention metrics certainly offer planners and buyers a good proxy for measuring advertising effectiveness. Attention is a (somewhat) real-time feedback metric that a planner or trader can use to evaluate the quality of the sites and inventory they buy. In turn, more money flows away from heavily cluttered sites - which often maximise viewability by putting as many ads as possible above the fold - and towards inventory that typically drives better outcomes for brands.

Thus, the logic is that planning and buying attention reduces spending on poor-quality. high-ad-load/clickbait sites, and instead moves money towards sites that drive better outcomes - and those sites typically have less inventory, less clutter and therefore (usually) a lower carbon footprint.

Whilst on paper this might seem logical, it is another case of correlation over causation. Yes, it might represent a move away from cluttered pages and wasted impressions, but it can also mark a shift towards high carbon-emitting streaming video and larger formats, or the use of extraneous additional technology partners - more layers, emitting more carbon.

So, if attention isn’t the silver bullet, then what is?

World Beyond Attention

Digital vanity metrics such as viewability and CTR, and a quest for cheaper (and often opaque) inventory have contributed to the industry’s increasingly huge carbon footprint. The industry has become hooked on driving efficiencies but wandered from driving effectiveness.

Those looking at attention as a way of improving this situation are on the right path, and its potential to reduce carbon footprint is only a bonus. But when it comes to improving sustainability in the media industry, attention is a quick fix at best - not a long-term solution.

Brands will make more and faster inroads towards their emissions targets by looking to remove ‘black box’ tech-stack solutions, auditing their digital supply chains, actively seeking out those with strong sustainability credentials and optimising what they buy and from whom.

To this end, brands should be asking their agencies where their ad dollars are flowing, and what can be done to improve their carbon footprint, alongside a conversation around ‘looking under the hood’ to improve media performance. 

All parties could benefit from understanding where the largest and most rapid impacts can be made, to develop a time- and action-based roadmap for change. The GARM Sustainability Quick Action Guide is a good place to start. 

The sustainability conversation shouldn’t be a box-ticking exercise; it should be an opportunity for brands to evaluate their current approach and look to make incremental improvements. That is how they will improve performance from both a carbon and a commercial standpoint - doing good for the world and doing the right thing for their own business.