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Sustainability in Digital Marketing with Hannah Thompson

by Sean Greally | 08.03.2023

Sustainability is a term on many digital marketers’ minds at the minute. But how big of an issue actually is it? And how can businesses take their sustainability goals and apply them practically? We recently interviewed our very own Hannah Thompson, Head of Programmatic and ATL at Tug London, to get her thoughts on this.

How big of an issue is sustainability in the digital marketing world?

It’s a growing issue, and it’s one I think people will be interested in for the long-term. Agencies are starting to see a lot more brands asking questions in the pitch process about what their sustainability standards are, and how they could make campaigns more environmentally friendly. In fact, we’ve heard that some brands are starting to ask about B-Corp status from agencies. We’ve not seen any at Tug, but I don’t think we’re far away from that.

There tend to be quite a lot of young people in digital marketing. So inevitably, the issues that are front and centre for these younger generations also tend to be the issues that are prevalent in the industry. Environmentalism is a big issue for younger generations. Gen Z are doing amazing things in terms of pushing more of the narrative towards sustainability. If the industry’s workforce wasn’t so young and politically active, I don’t think it would be something that’s quite as far up our agenda.

What are the main issues with sustainability in marketing?

It’s really hard to fathom how some marketing practices, especially digital, could be using energy, as a lot of us don’t first think of these practices as physical. For example, people might think something like the file size of a banner is barely a question when setting up programmatic campaigns, how could it possibly be using up that much energy? But for things like programmatic, the amount of data that passes through servers due to large file sizes is a huge issue. 

On top of this, you’ve also got channels like Out-of-Home moving towards digital because they’re more cost-efficient and allow for more data targeting. However, theoretically, that could make their practices less energy efficient, even if it’s more monetarily efficient. You’ve got less ad wastage, but what’s the environmental cost for that? 

Because it’s such a cloudy supply chain as well, it’s also very difficult to figure out where you can actually improve your sustainability. I know companies like Scope3 are working with tech, agencies and brands to figure out the carbon equivalent of what they’re doing and how to reduce it. 

I also think a lot of companies are scared of advertising their sustainability goals. You want to make progress, but without sacrificing progress in another area of the business. This is where the whole ‘perfectionism is the enemy of progress’ phrase comes into play, because if you try to fix all of it, you’ll end up fixing none of it. The most important thing is to reduce your carbon footprint, not offset it – and some of the ambitious goals companies are making aren’t just challenging, they’re impossible. For example, a Times article stated that the amount of trees companies have promised to plant by 2050 is more than the amount of space available on the planet.

What specific things could businesses do to improve how sustainable their marketing is?

I think one of the next big moves in sustainability for the industry will be looking at fixing transparency problems in digital advertising supply chains. We will have to fix this in order to see where sustainability issues truly lie. Currently, it’s a bit like a surgeon operating blind. We know there are problems to fix, but we can’t see what these are because we don’t have the transparency in the supply chain to know what’s going wrong.

From a smaller standpoint, there are lots of things you can do to make your digital marketing more sustainable. For instance, you could limit the frames and animation of your banner. This reduces the file weight without removing the core message or narrative of your advert. Also, if using blockchain technology, make sure the servers use clean green energy to power them. Aisling McCabe from our Canada office recently wrote a really great piece for The Drum on 4 paths for digital marketing agencies that’s definitely worth checking out for more tips.