‘Less Byron Sharp, more buying sharper’: how to stick to tough net zero resolutions

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As we march at pace into 2022, many of us will be trying their best to stick to resolutions. A quick straw poll of colleagues suggests most of us are already failing on the old favourites of diet and exercise.  

But one resolution that seems to have a stronger resolve is hitting net zero by 2023. Leaders in the advertising industry will be thinking about how best to reduce emissions across their business. Media agencies are looking to embrace all the reduction and offset measures available to most companies and, for us, the obvious impact we can make towards hitting net-zero carbon is in media buying. 

But at present we seem to be focused on quantifying the problem. And let’s face it, even simply calculating carbon emissions in media buying comes with challenges. We quickly wade into a murky world similar to calorie-counting, where the carbon equivalent of cheat-eating can easily be squared away. With an ever-increasing volume of advertising traded programmatically, we are faced with the tough task of understanding how much carbon programmatic networks discharge. 

Last year, the IPA launched its “Climate Calculator”, a tool designed to help agencies measure and, accordingly, reduce the carbon impact of their media plans at a channel level. The Climate Calculator is a great initiative, but to get a granular answer, the approach requires the transparency of individual media owners, who can be expected to move their energy mix towards renewables only at the same speed as other industries. And how far do we go – do we calculate the footprint of their talent, their operations, their editorial production? Worse still, we have to attempt to reconcile the difference between a green plan and a plan that delivers on KPIs in the eyes of a client – do carbon-efficient media environments and ROI go hand-in-hand?  

The good news: there is more that media agencies can do to tackle climate change that is within our control. We can make a real difference by doing what we do best – planning and buying smarter. At the risk of over-extending the metaphor, to stick to our resolution, we need a better exercise regime, as well as a diet plan. 

The way we push messaging to audiences – rather than pointing the finger at where we are pushing them to – is how we can control doing more with less media. This will effect real change. By identifying the audiences that deliver business results, based on client data, we can create a smarter and attributable form of reach through linked data sets. We can optimise, based on how these groups react to campaigns as they happen. And, most importantly, we can obsess over each media placement to fine-tune the plan and continually reduce wastage.  

This, like a proper exercise regime, requires hard work, from start to finish. Hard work to connect data into a single view of who we want to reach. Hard work to manually fine-tune more analogue media buys. Hard work to prove the trade-off between mass messaging and a broad, but tighter, target with the fat trimmed away. But all of this will have a positive impact on the planet. Less Byron Sharp, and more buying sharper. 

This is also where our carbon counting can be more geared towards improvements. We are able to quantify precisely both reach and the subsequent actions of a target group if we know them at an ID level. Then, by comparing addressable reach with a broad blanket audience – with no attribution – we can identify our footprint reduction. The difference between the size of this more smartly chosen audience versus the broad audience is our carbon reduction. And if we achieve the same net result, year on year, we are by definition planning leaner and greener. 

Creativity is key

The problem with an intense exercise regime is that it can quickly become a chore. This is where the other skill that agency people have can be a powerful weapon – creativity. Here, the same smart use of data has an equal, if not more, powerful application.

When we mine and interpret audience data in the pursuit of ideas and brand experiences – we create activations that “pull” in the right audiences. The more we mine insights to apply to creative messaging, media and experience, the more we pull the right people in. The more we actively seek out, the greater word-of-mouth will work for you, and the less you have to spend on wasteful paid media amplification. It also allows us to move away from explicitly talking to consumers about a brand’s green credentials – something everyone is talking about, but is it what our customers want to hear? 

True audience understanding means knowing what consumers want and when. A logic that can be applied to owned environments just as readily. By creating a seamless customer experience in-store and online that delivers on what we know they really want means less need to “push” messaging. Your audience has already arrived, and is happy to stay – reducing paid media wastage.  

Agencies are set up to help deliver this, but too often we’re restricted to siloes. And, as we know, exercise is a lot more fun and effective when it’s a team sport. If we can share live audience learnings to improve our understanding of what people really want with everyone involved – creative, social, shopping, PR, marketing teams – we can make better content, create a smoother experience and develop better products. Crucially, we can continually learn where we can trim the fat from each interaction. 

Arguably, this is what all good planning is about – the incremental gains we can make by creating cultural relevance for brands and an attractive experience for customers. It’s not new, but the impact that creative audience understanding can make on reaching net zero feels like a galvanising new way of sticking to our resolutions. 

Will Parrish is chief strategy officer of Initiative.

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