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The Importance of Addressing Sustainable Advertising in Canada… and Beyond



Spark Foundry’s Alex Guimond on digital media growing too fast, and why Canada is behind other media markets in the world of production emissions, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

The Importance of Addressing Sustainable Advertising in Canada… and Beyond

The internet and digital space are amazing places. You can find out virtually anything you want to know. You can consume any media you want. You can even reach out to people on the other side of the globe in a matter of seconds. When it comes to convenience and time efficiency, these two things are very hard to beat. However, what people might not be aware of is that the internet and all things digital also now account for as much carbon emission as the entire global pre-covid-19 airline industry. Every hour of TV production generates 9.2 tons of carbon dioxide, while a digital billboard can consume 30 times the power of a typical home.

This is undoubtedly a scary concept. With the difficulty of perceiving digital pollution, the question of how a sector aiming to sell products - all while running on data, video and internet bandwidth - can be sustainable, is of extreme importance for the future of the planet. It’s for this reason that Publicis Media is trying to make a difference in not one, but two different ways. 

The first is the release of an environmentally focused issue of the company’s publication, ‘PubliSees’. Looking at the environmental impact of media choices, the latest release has collected all available data on the weight of advertising through different media, and not only shares critical takeaways - such as the fact that Canada is a few steps behind other media markets in the world (both from an agency-readiness perspective and publisher transparency around production emissions perspective) - with the hope of helping the industry see the danger, and commit to a healthier future.  

Secondly, Publicis has launched A.L.I.C.E. (Advertising Limiting Impacts & Carbon Emissions), a global step-by-step calculator designed to quantify emissions on marketing activities. With the capability to analyse anything from creation and asset production to digital transformation projects, event marketing and media visibility, the tool is currently operational in Canada and is expected to get a significant upgrade in its media measurement capabilities in the imminent future. 

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with the Spark Foundry (part of Publicis Media) VP of connections Alex Guimond, to learn more about these new initiatives and why this subject is of grave importance. 

LBB> How long has tackling sustainability in advertising been on Publicis’ radar? And what led to this being a recent point of focus for the agency? 

Alex> Publicis Groupe was the first communications company to join the United Nations Global Compact effort back in 2003 - with a focus on limiting environmental impacts. Since then, the agency has voluntarily joined other initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project. In 2021, following the early achievement of 2030 targets, the Groupe set new targets to achieve by 2030 aligned with the 1.5°C scenario of the Paris Agreement.

LBB> The headlining news coming out of Publicis Canada is the release of ‘PubliSees’, and A.L.I.C.E. (Advertising Limiting Impacts & Carbon Emissions). Please tell us more! How did the ideas for these initiatives come about, and what made them the right course of action for Publicis Groupe? 

Alex> ‘PubliSees’ is a Publicis Media Canada initiative born in the spring of 2020, when we observed rapid shifts in consumer behaviours, mindsets and habits following the first wave of the covid-19 pandemic. The series started off as a digest of available research at that point in time, before becoming a deeper dive into specific issues as trends started emerging (covering topics like DEI, the displaced workforce, immigration, inflation and sustainability - among many others). There have been over 30 releases of ‘PubliSees’ to this day, and they serve as a great reference for both our teams and our clients. 

A.L.I.C.E., on the other hand, is a global initiative that is many years in the making. The tool was developed with the intent to help our clients quantify their impacts while enabling the Groupe to better quantify its own downstream Scope 3 emissions in the process.

LBB> Tell us more about how A.L.I.C.E. was developed! What did that process look like, who did you work with, and what can we expect from the ‘significant upgrade in its media measurement capabilities’ that the press release teased?

Alex> Most of the credit for A.L.I.C.E. deserves to go to the Groupe’s CSR team located in Paris, who have developed the tool in the past few years. It was initially rolled out to the French market in 2020 (starting with the creative and digital transformation teams, followed by media and event teams), and has since been ported to a growing number of countries (including Canada) to account for differences in energy grids and emissions factors.

The next iteration of the tool is expected at the start of 2023, and gets its upgrade through a partnership with a specialised company, Scope3. The new features will focus on the active measurement of programmatic media buys, and real-time optimisation of media activation.

LBB> The data behind this initiative is essential. Who was involved in this process, and how did you go about executing the research? 

Alex> The process can best be described as going down the research rabbit hole - with each report sparking insights and referencing new equally insightful research. This particular research did not include net new proprietary data, but serves more as a literature review to bring our community up to speed. This is a topic that will not disappear anytime soon, and this research is one of the first steps in that direction for our team in Canada.

LBB> Did you have any preconceived expectations for what the research would tell you? If so, what were they, and why? 

Alex> My gut has always been guarded when it comes to the scale of video and social platforms (they’ve been touting their gazillion users and boasting about the enormous amount of time spent for years already). A few months ago, my phone gave me an alert that I had run out of storage space, so I did what most people do: delete the hi-res photos of receipts and accidental screenshots from my camera roll, and uninstall apps that I don’t really need. It had me wondering whether we still need all those unboxing videos from the mid-2000s and unwatched smartphone concert footage taking up space somewhere.

Shortly after that day, my team and I spent a few hours on ‘Decentraland’ to get familiar with the metaverse, and my laptop was struggling to process the data and overheated - which was a good preview of things to come.

LBB> What were the most interesting things you learned from the study?

Alex> Writing the literature review was an interesting process, which quickly turned ethical due to overconsumption and abundance. Cynicism aside, it was a difficult exercise to consolidate different data sources into one fair comparison while knowing that there are so many measurement philosophies and protocols (for example looking at carbon dioxide emissions vs. methane - both greenhouse gases that are damaging in different ways). This made it tough to know where to draw the line on the different topics to cover. For instance, would it be unfair to penalise radio when such a large proportion of time spent listening is in a car while commuting? And what about the fact that most digital billboards serve no other purpose than advertising? Should we include the environmental impact of the production of the screen? What about old mobile devices that are sitting in people’s junk drawers unused? This was definitely a learning process on sustainability (I am a comms strategist in a media agency, not a trained sustainability expert) which ultimately, has made me more comfortable talking about the subject than before.

LBB> What were the most surprising takeaways? Was there anything that caught you off guard?

Alex> The most surprising takeaway was how difficult it was to find information and grasp what that number means. Not only is the information still quite private, but it’s also reported across different company levels - often across different market bases. 

Most people have no idea what one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions means, so many tools use comparisons to help us anchor to what we know, which leads us to biased views on consumption. For example, an average Canadian’s use of Google searches adds up to 26kg of CO2 per year - about the same as driving 100km in a car. This makes it sound like searching Google is terrible, when in fact, people needing to go places and needing to find information online are equally important. It’s very difficult to understand what to do next - even once we have the numbers.

LBB> What do Canadian brands need to be taking away from this study?

Alex> Canadian brands know that the media landscape is constantly evolving. We hope that they take away an understanding of the current lay of the land, so that they may think critically using an additional lens going forwards. The other takeaway is that the tools are out there to start benchmarking campaigns today, so that they may have a good sense of how to improve next time. 

LBB> The press release mentioned the importance of reconciling the development of the ad sector with the carbon sobriety the Paris Accords set out to achieve. Based on your research, is this possible? And if so, how can the ad industry achieve this end?

Alex> This is a tough question! The short answer is that the energy consumption of digital media and technology is growing too fast, and advertising is an economic lever that can influence positive change if channelled properly. Quite frankly, I am not sure whether this is possible or not (have not seen data or expert opinions on the matter), however, we don’t really have a choice but to try to push in that direction collectively.

LBB> How can brands and the advertising community do a better job at assessing campaigns for sustainability? What trends need to be implemented for a healthier future?

Alex> Understandably, brands might have other messages in their communications - which might lead them to not prioritise sustainability. I think the right thing to do for a brand is not to rush into a virtuous message if its eco scorecards are below par. A good example of this is HSBC, whose climate change ads were banned earlier this week in the UK: generating a lot of negative press for the brand. A great stepping stone for doing better as a brand is being mindful of the environmental impact in their media touchpoints - which doesn’t require a sustainability claim in their message at all.

LBB> The report also highlighted the fact that Canada is a few steps behind other media markets in the world, both from an agency-readiness perspective and publisher transparency around production emissions. Why is this?

Alex> I think size plays a big part in it. Being a ‘smaller’ market globally means that agencies often have to prioritise resources towards servicing clients and maintaining efficiencies as best as possible, without necessarily benefitting from large teams to tackle the issue. Media and content sovereignty is another possible factor that could slow down the progress on the publisher side - creating a reliance on producers (often US-based) to make the move.

LBB> Specifically, looking at the Canadian market, what does the country need to do in order to improve itself in these regards? And how does that compare to the international world of advertising? 

Alex> Leaning into sustainability more heavily would probably have a quick impact on Canada’s media landscape. Being a relatively concentrated media market (where only a handful of large players lead the way) - having one dominant publisher make the first move would likely translate to favourable positioning and others following suit shortly after. A Mintel report from earlier this year shows that 81% of Canadians want businesses to provide information about the carbon footprint of their products. As such, it’s clear the market is ready for it.

Additionally, it should be noted that much like other parts of the world, Canada’s media investments and consumer media habits span both local publishers and global platforms. This opens the door to a great differentiating opportunity for those with a shorter value chain and lower carbon emissions tallies. 

LBB> How has the information gained from the study affected the way Publicis Media will be working in the future? 

Alex> We’re hoping this literature review - much like the ones we developed around other macro trends - helps our teams and our clients have deeper discussions around how media can unlock better outcomes for brands, and ultimately, Canadians. Our next step involves conversations amongst ourselves, vendors, partners and clients, so that decisions about prioritising (or deprioritising) this issue can be made with a slightly more informed opinion.

LBB> Is there anything you’d like to add?

Alex> From the moment we started working on this topic (early 2022) to today, we’ve noticed an uptake in discussions on sustainability in different forums, and are glad to see that others are having similar reflections. We look forward to reading the marketing community’s positions and solutions.

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Publicis Canada, Mon, 24 Oct 2022 16:43:51 GMT