“The clock is ticking.” The Ad Net Zero director outlines a plan for a more sustainable advertising industry

September 27, 2023 | By Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter

Mountains and sun

Welcome to The Sprout, a series that explores the ways businesses are working toward a more-sustainable future.

John Osborn, the director of Ad Net Zero, loves owls. Once, when driving his car a few years ago, he accidentally hit an owl, “and it was devastating,” he remembers. Thankfully, Osborn was able to personally rehabilitate the owl and set it free. For him, this story also helps emphasize the urgency for climate action and a more sustainable advertising industry: “More owls and birds are getting hit on highways because their food sources are drying up because of changes to their environments.”

Throughout his years working as a leader in the advertising industry—including as the CEO of BBDO and OMD USA—Osborn has always had a profound connection to nature. In the early 2000s, he had the opportunity, with BBDO, to work on campaigns for the American Red Cross. He saw firsthand the scale of destruction left in the wake of natural disasters, and began personally volunteering with the organization.

John Osborn

John Osborn, Director, Ad Net Zero

In 2022, Osborn found a way to combine his professional expertise with his passion for environmentalism when he stepped into his current role at Ad Net Zero, the advertising industry’s coalition to reduce the carbon impact of developing, producing, and running advertising to net zero, which is the balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the carbon removed from it. Ad Net Zero comprises some of the industry’s largest agencies, brands, and technology companies, and accounts for more than 45% of the world’s ad spend through its membership. The group calls for agencies and marketing services companies to annually measure consumption data—for example, electricity usage, business travel, and waste production—to reduce operational carbon emissions.

“It’s undeniable that there has been an uptick in the number and the severity of climate-related events around the world,” Osborn says. “And the advertising industry has a clear line of sight to make progress; we just need to get our arms around it to manage and mitigate carbon emissions. There isn’t one silver-bullet solution, but where there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity—and we can achieve it.”

In June, Amazon Ads announced it would be joining Ad Net Zero. Amazon Ads also announced the creation of a new collaboration between Ad Net Zero and The Climate Pledge, a commitment with the world’s top companies to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. The more than 400 (and growing) signatories of The Climate Pledge are now eligible to join Ad Net Zero based on the commitment they’ve already made to reach net zero. This new partnership paves the way for signatories of The Climate Pledge to join Ad Net Zero and provide broader support for media decarbonization.

Osborn sat down with Amazon Ads in July, during the hottest month ever recorded,1 to discuss the challenge facing the advertising industry when it comes to carbon emissions, Ad Net Zero’s cohesive strategy to confront the issue, and what industry leaders can do to address this urgent human crisis.

For our readers who may just be getting to know Ad Net Zero, can you talk a little bit about your mission?

One of the big challenges that exists is that we’re hardwired to respond to clear and present danger. The whole idea of the world getting hotter, and carbon emissions—it’s not a clear and present danger to everyone. More people need to wake up to the fact that this is a serious issue that we need to confront.

The other issue is, in the advertising industry, we’re really response-driven. And a lot of people in the industry want to do something about the climate. But everyone is doing it a little differently, and there isn’t any sense of a common measurement where we can set a benchmark and where we need to go in terms of measuring, managing, and mitigating carbon emissions across advertising. It’s the Wild West out there right now.

Our job is plain and simple: It’s to help the advertising industry help itself. And beyond measurement, more employees are using sustainability to decide where they want to work, more clients are using it to decide who they want to do business with—evidenced by recent best-practices guides from WFA’s GARM and the IAB Tech Lab—and more consumers demand this from brands.

How do you normally outline this sustainability challenge to other leaders in the industry?

One of the things I ask leaders is: What do you do every day? Most leaders tell me they make decisions. Then I’ll ask them how they base their decisions. More often than not, they’ll say they base their decisions on cost, speed, and quality. Well, I tell them that now, more and more decisions will also be based on carbon emissions. That’s the fourth criteria.

I’m not going to tell a company how to do their business. I’m going to arm them with the right information that can help them make better decisions faster on behalf of their business. And carbon emissions are something that more and more leaders need to be aware of, and take into consideration, as they make important decisions going forward.

Here’s an example of that: In programmatic advertising, where over 50% of the advertising carbon emissions exist in media, there’s a lot of waste. Smart minds, as part of our working group, have put their heads together to say that without compromising delivery, we can clean up and streamline programmatic with greater efficiency. And by being more efficient, we can drive greater value. It can be better profit and a better way of doing business.

That’s a really smart way of framing it. Do you get a sense of urgency from leaders on this topic? Do they want to make a change?

The good news is there’s a growing urgency. But honestly, we are not moving fast enough. This is not unique to advertising—every industry is looking at themselves in the mirror and trying to take action to try and measure and mitigate carbon. I’m a glass-half-full guy, though. And when the advertising industry comes together, we have the ability to make great things happen.

I’m deeply hopeful based on the early momentum around trying to create a common framework for consistent measurement, management, and mitigation around carbon emissions. We’re on the right path here, but we must move faster. We’re talking about saving the planet here.

I’ve read the Ad Net Zero report2, but for our readers who are new to this topic, can you walk us through some of the pillars of your plan?

This industry is built to serve advertisers, and advertisers are facing increased regulation. This requires more consistent reporting, and Ad Net Zero was created out of a two-pronged need: One is focused on measurement and understanding the benchmark that we’re at right now. The other is educational. It’s about providing a utility for the advertising industry to better serve clients. People roll up their sleeves. We have these great resources, and in a lot of ways Ad Net Zero is the connective tissue between a lot of amazing work that’s being done in the industry.

We have a five-action plan with working groups aligned to each: One is to reduce emissions from advertising business operations. Two is to reduce emissions from advertising production. Three is to reduce emissions from media planning and buying. Four is to reduce advertising emissions through awards and from events. And the fifth is longer-term innovation to change how we think about advertising in the future. It’s important to us that we’ve got integrity and we’re actually making progress. We’re not a check-the-box organization. We’re a working organization.

In June, Amazon Ads announced that it was joining Ad Net Zero. What message does that send to the wider industry, and what is the significance?

It’s the big leagues. Let’s be clear. It’s a huge statement that a company with the scale and reach of Amazon is saying that we can put in the work for the greater good. We are deeply humbled and thrilled to be working with Amazon Ads. With all these big brands joining in, the momentum continues. And we need more of that behavior change to really make progress because the clock is ticking.

According to some of our recent research, 66% of consumers are actively seeking out brands that are sustainable in their business practices, 52% of consumers said they’re willing to pay more for a product that has a third-party sustainability certification, and as much as 62% of adult Gen Z consumers were willing to pay the higher price tag. What kind of urgency are brands and advertisers seeing from consumers to reduce their harm on the environment?

More consumers in greater numbers are standing up and saying they’re going to make different decisions in regards to how they live their lives. I’m seeing this across the board but also specifically with the younger generation. If you talk to Gen Z, they care a lot about this particular issue. If you want to build a sustainable, long-term business, you’ve got to look at Gen Z. Because they’re there and they care a lot. Businesses that don’t get on board with this mission fast enough run a real risk. The future stability and vitality of business is always under the microscope, and future generations are not going to settle.

What are Ad Net Zero’s future goals? What does it look like for the rest of this year and beyond?

The ultimate goal is to create a consistent measurement framework for the advertising industry. We need to have minimally 1,200 production jobs loaded into the AdGreen production carbon calculator database [industry-standard tool created by nonprofit AdGreen, which is also connected with Ad Net Zero] so we have a clear benchmark for emissions measurement for production jobs. By the end of this year, we want to land at measurement guidance and guidelines around media, so that it’s all apples to apples, regardless of what media tool is being used. And we need to continue the momentum that we’re building.

We encourage everyone to start adopting best practices and tools that are available today like AdGreen if you are producing ads and the GARM sustainability media guide across your media plan. We all need to adopt science-based targets: Ad Net Zero can help companies with this process, and we have training available across these different actions.

Look at your choices around energy supply, which should be renewable, and business travel. Seek to limit flights, and travel economy if possible. And use IAB Tech Lab guidance on how to decarbonize your digital advertising.

Accelerate any work you are doing around promoting sustainable products, services, and behaviors—if you have examples of success, share that with the Ad Net Zero team so we can all learn from each other.

To turn the ship, we need the majority to come with us, so by the end of this year, we’re hoping to have roughly 80 supporters [who have joined Ad Net Zero] here in the U.S.—about doubling where we are now—and that will complement the 100-plus we have in the U.K., 70-plus in Ireland, and the 25 foundational global-level supporters. New Zealand also just launched at the beginning of August, and there are additional plans in other markets. We’re on the clock, and when we come together we can do amazing things.

1World Meteorological Organization, 2023
2Ad Net Zero