June’s Three “C’s” are Cannes, Carbon and Change

By Ben Riley, GM Americas at SeenThis

The industry is gearing up for Cannes, and a big focus this year is sustainability. Despite the somewhat ironic scenario – people flying thousands of miles to sit on yachts in order to talk about reducing their carbon footprint – we need to ensure that it’s not all talk.

Looking at the attendee lists and agendas, it’s clear that a lot of that talk will be at the senior levels. Dealmakers will talk about partnerships and thought leaders will talk about our Net Zero future. With all of this high-level conversation, there is a risk that after Cannes, we all go home and go back to our old ways. The thing about sustainability is that there is no easy button for executives. One more partnership announcement or one more carbon neutral goal will not actually motivate creatives to shoot more sustainable content or media buyers to spend more sustainably. Change happens only when the entire supply chain, from creative designer to media buyer to SSP partner to publisher, has a green light to shift what they are doing.

At Cannes this year, let’s not just talk about carbon, let’s talk about change.

Start Changing at the Beginning

The Internet accounts for 2-4% of the total global emissions, on par with the airline industry. We’re all aware that there’s a problem. Many brands have appointed a Chief Sustainability Officer, or have empowered their CMO to start talking about the importance of sustainability, but, talk will not make this number go down. However action can.

One approach that is working for many brands’ DEI initiatives is to break goals down. Companies like Danone, that set more clear goals around things like hiring and spending ad budgets on multicultural media and then empower people to actually try to reach those goals, are seeing progress. Early in this trend, the media planning teams knew that their company had a goal to increase the percentage of media spend with minority-owned publications, but they were not empowered to shift media spend if it meant testing something new. It wasn’t until a certain percentage of the budget was specifically earmarked for the goal that teams felt like they could make a real change and innovate.

The same is true for sustainability. While many companies have high-level sustainability goals and senior spokespeople, media buying teams are not yet empowered to change. In today’s tough economy, many are too nervous to rock the boat. Sustainability leaders can start to make headway if they cut their goals up into bite-sized, actionable pieces so that the day-to-day work can move in the right direction. Identifying creative projects that can test more sustainable production options, or carving out media and tech budgets earmarked for sustainable initiatives is a great start.

Changing from End-to-End

The next step is to put carbon into the “ROI” conversation. Right now, advertisers are focused on very specific revenue outcomes. With a tight economy, it’s scary to move away from these hard ROI goals. The reality is that many sustainable decisions can serve to drive higher ROI, like selecting a tech partner that’s carbon neutral or cutting out energy-hogging MFA traffic from a media buy or switching to streaming technology. However, we also need to expand our view of ROI in general. Carbon is a cost that we should be considering, even in a tough economy. As we begin measuring the cost of carbon for our advertising, we are creating the opportunity to relate it to the specific outcomes we’re getting. We can start adding this as a campaign goal in itself. In this way we start to gauge an accepted cost in carbon to reach a specific outcome (reach, clicks, conversions etc).

One way to start thinking in terms of adding emissions to the conversation that’s gaining momentum in the UK is the AdGreen calculator, which shows advertisers the carbon footprint of a creative production plan. The same can be done at various levels with media buying plans. Today in the US, a lot of those calculations are one-off, and are not baked into the decision making process. If we build carbon calculation right into our strategies, we’ll start to see the tradeoffs more clearly and people making day-to-day decisions will be empowered.

For this to work, we need to carry it through the process. We have seen a number of high-level brand RFPs where sustainability is mentioned only to see it get dropped by the time it reaches the planning stage. The Cannes LIONS might serve as an inspiration. This year, they’ve requested information about the sustainability of each entry. While not a required element, judges should take it into consideration. If they do, seeing how brands factored sustainability into their creative and media approach will hopefully normalize the concept moving forward.

The real change doesn’t come when we discuss sustainability on a yacht. Real change happens with two additional steps. First, when we all go back to work, we need to keep talking about it. And second, we need to force change – and be willing to deal with some uncertainty as we test new approaches.