Does sustainability influence media choice? Brands have their say

JCDecaux UK research provokes a new conversation around using media choice to push sustainability goals

Does sustainability influence media choice? Brands have their say

Sustainability is the buzz word for marketers anxious to prove themselves on the right side of history, and, crucially, on the right side of business practice.

On a recent balmy evening, Campaign and JCDecaux UK brought together a diverse selection of senior marketers, agencies, out of home specialists and media owners to share food at London’s Petersham Nurseries and to reflect on the results of new JCDecaux UK research that reveals the attitudes of 200 marketers towards sustainability.

The full results are due to be published in an expert report in Campaign at the end of June and the passionate discussion around the table reflects the level of engagement advertisers have with the topic, and their thirst for more information. 

As a sneak preview of the thinking around sustainability, the debate provided fascinating insight on this fast-moving area and the sense of responsibility that brands feel around it.

Chris Dooley, head of social impact at JCDecaux, said the outdoor media owner’s work in “giving back” was ingrained in its DNA from the earliest days of providing bus shelters in cities to today when it incorporates free Wi-Fi and air quality gauges in settings, as well as providing 200 defibrillators throughout the UK.

“We give back to the community in ways that people do not realise, including 50p in every £1 that we share with our landlord partners,” he said. He’s right: brands at the dinner discussion had little understanding of this and were eager to discover more. Agencies too. “50p in the £1 is what’s got me the most excited today,” revealed Starcom’s chief strategy officer Dan Plant. 

The consensus among the gathered group was that, while there has been a greater level of conversation on sustainability in the past year and the issue has moved from being niche to a mainstream concern, not everyone is at the same point on their journey. 

Lack of knowledge - and also measurement - felt like a blocker to change; however, calculators were seen as “a blunt tool”, with the unrealistic aim of creating a single carbonisation number from the entirety of ESG (the environmental, social and governance pillars of sustainability).

Without giving away too much in advance of publication of the report, which asks “Should sustainability influence media choice?” Here is a sample of what was discussed. 

A flavour of the discussion

On measurability

It is clear that marketers are passionate about the environment, and many have taken impressive strides, but there is also confusion about claims relating to sustainability. In a nutshell, who or what do you believe?

“It’s hard to measure and bring tangibility back to the business. A more solid measurement framework is needed,” said Georgina Bramall, marketing strategy director at Giff Gaff.

“The econometrics aren’t up to it,” agreed Dan Plant, chief strategy officer at Starcom. As one marketer lamented: “There’s too much information; we don’t know what’s true or real.”

Ultimately, the issue goes beyond the moral imperative, said EON’s Somerville. Marketers need numbers; they need to make sure their marketing is effective so it’s crucial for the industry to work together. “It’ll be a slow march but we’ll get there - when consumer awareness and action forces us.”

It’s not a number

Obsession with carbon calculators was felt by some to miss the point as ESG can’t be boiled down to a single number, said Sophie Pemberton, group chief strategy officer at OOH specialist Talon. 

“Bringing it back to carbon calculators and one number doesn’t do it any justice, but clients do want those numbers to compare – it’s insane.”

The debate is becoming more nuanced and making a call on issues such as diversity or social inclusivity can be hard to do with the relatively unsophisticated tools that are available at present.

Not only that - “I never knew any of this information existed,” one marketer admitted. “Calculators are contradictory and there’s too much information around. I would have expected our top [media] partner to have told us about it."

Time for change

Although the imperative is for “change now”, there were cautions about how quickly the sector can bring about real transformation.

Media is part of the supply chain, even if this is not always recognised, and, at some point, it will be legally bound to net zero targets, so complacency is not an option.

However, Ollie Joyce, global chief transformation officer at Mindshare said it would take two or three years before budgets would be seen to move. Meantime, brands should be asking questions about sustainability to allow time for transition. The time to make a change, Somerville urged, is now.

Cultural change

As with any radical change, it was felt that sustainability has to be rooted in an organisation with everyone playing a part. 

“Sustainability doesn’t sit within marketing, it’s normally someone reporting to the CEO,” noted Jawad Safdar, growth marketing director, international at Wex Inc. “Most marketers aren’t educated in any of this.”

“It’s not a department but part of the business culture,” added Bramall. At Giffgaff, becoming a B Corp has made sustainability everyone’s responsibility. 

Questions remain about who is responsible for ESG but a wider embrace of the subject, embedding it in corporate culture rather than in siloes, can only help.

Key take-aways 

“Carbon and environmental impact are really tough to figure out. Think about media and its impact on the world around more broadly and how OOH contributes to the ecosystem. There are media that do and media that don’t and as an industry we should be focusing on the media that puts value back in rather than extracts it” - Dan Plant, chief strategy officer, Starcom.

“The key messages have landed but we need to think what else we need to do to ensure that we share knowledge with each other in a clear and easy way” - Nicole Lonsdale, chief client officer, Kinetic.

“Until ESG matters to the majority of our audience or is regulated, brands won’t really make decisions based on it” - Jawad Safdar, growth marketing director, international, WEX Inc.

“It’s always going to come down to effectiveness so if there’s a way of feeding the importance of sustainability and ESG into the econometrics then it can start to affect high level decision making” - Pia Kingan, media strategy director, Sky.

“People would not have had these conversations a few years ago, but we need to do more to make brands informed about what we do around sustainability. I hope we reach a tipping point where calculators do what we need them to do” - Chris Dooley, head of social impact, JCDecaux.

“It will take transparency and standardisation of information to allow us to justify change” - Ollie Joyce, global chief transformation officer, Mindshare.

“There’s a lot of comfort that this is becoming a common conversation now and not a couple of us in a cupboard. But we need to watch that it doesn’t just become a conversation among ourselves and that it includes the customers” - Scott Somerville, chief marketing officer, EON.

“There is a clear passion about this space which inspires you to be louder and push the key decision makers more and be more vocal to get action off the ground” - James Thompson, executive director, Manning Gottlieb OMD.