“Is sustainability important? Absolutely, it is. Everybody talks about it now,” said Brad Jakeman, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Rethink Food and the former President of PepsiCo’s Global Beverage Group. “But then there are two camps of people: People who are saying and not doing … and people who are trying to be sustainable and finding it really challenging.”

The OpenX panel on sustainability in business at Cannes Lions set out to inform, inspire and guide that second group — and its featured experts delivered. 

In two packed sessions, leaders from global brands, agencies and consulting firms and environmental leaders in business and advertising came together to talk about sustainability. It’s a topic OpenX has been championing for years on its “Path to Net-Zero,” which includes becoming the first certified CarbonNeutral® ad tech company, having its net-zero targets validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), and creating a suite of sustainable products. Moderated by Bill Wescott, Managing Partner at BrainOxygen LLC and a pioneer in climate action and standards, the group covered key sustainability criteria, the need for a consistent measurement framework, impactful steps the industry can take and much more. 

Watch the highlights here, and read on for six of the biggest takeaways from the sessions:

1. We need a common sustainability standard.

 Without a common set of definitions, carbon-calculation methodologies and shared data sets, it can be difficult to accurately determine where we’re headed and who’s succeeding. To make real progress, the industry needs a baseline: clear and open standards verified by impartial climate experts.

Ollie Joyce,  Global Chief Transformation Officer at Mindshare and Executive Director of GroupM’s Media Decarbonisation Programme, has been working with his team to develop a set of comprehensive global standards that can be used across the business. “The only way [this model] works for us is [if] it is standardized, and it is broadly adopted, “ he said. By breaking down the value chains for major media channels, defining what’s included, agreeing on the boundaries to standardize data sets and creating a transparent and public methodology, the industry can begin to invest in lower-carbon options, according to Joyce. Joyce and his colleagues have set out to open source their internal model and data sets to help develop a global set of standards. This consistent measurement tool will help all stakeholders in the value chain make better decisions. “We can solve this — and we can solve it at speed. By November, we would love to see this adopted as the global standard,” said Joyce.

Stephen Woodford, Founder of Ad Net Zero and CEO of the UK Advertising Association, and Brian O’Kelly, CEO of Scope3, voiced their support for this critical goal. “All of these companies need to show their carbon footprints and show the transition to net-zero media,” said O’Kelley. “I think that by the end of the year, we could actually adopt these standards. We can build it into the core of advertising, and we can see real change.”

2. Businesses need to take the lead.

While 80% of consumers say they care about the environment, less than 10% are willing to make trade-offs to prioritize sustainability, explained Lauren Taylor, Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group. The firm has researched consumer behaviors, and she suggests businesses lean on other reasons to make the sustainable choice, like the feelings people have driving a Tesla or the time people save with more effective dishwasher soap. “It’s win-win for the consumer and for marketers,” she explained.

Jakeman agreed, sharing how most consumers won’t sacrifice for sustainability. He also shared a solution for reaching these discerning customers: Companies need to turn sustainability into an addition, not a substitution. “Our challenge as consumer brands is how do we make [sustainability] an ‘and’ versus an ‘or’? How do we deliver all the things across all the categories that have historically been great drivers, such as taste, value and convenience, and make them sustainable?” he asked.

Brian O’Kelley, Co-Founder and CEO at Scope3, believes there’s hope yet — so long as businesses make the right decisions themselves. “There’s a lot of illusions that we have about sustainability. Consumers aren’t going to make decisions about sustainability. That would be too easy. We, as professionals, have to make some hard choices,” he said. “But they’re not that hard.”

3. Educating partners and the public is key.

Sustainability efforts are bolstered through partnership, and Carole Diarra, Global Vice President of Marketing at UGG, describes how the organization has prioritized supporting regenerative farmland through a partnership with the Savory Institute. Getting farmers on board with the shift to more carbon-friendly practices has taken quite a bit of education. The process is good for the planet, but it’s also good for their bottom lines — and conveying that message has been paramount to the program’s success.

She also shared how educating consumers on sustainability means thinking about what they’ll value. For UGG, one sustainability measure is how long the product lasts. By ensuring the customer knows their shoes won’t need to be replaced frequently, UGG allows the public to make informed sustainability choices that benefit both themselves and the planet.

Advertising and communication around these issues play a major role in educating consumers about their opportunities to spend with sustainable companies. “Marketing can turn into an active impact, “ said Sophie Kelly, Senior Vice President at Diageo. “We’re actively contributing to our [sustainability partners’] goals, and we’re contributing to our goals through our marketing programs.” On top of that, by promoting sustainability through activations and messaging, she explained, the public gets to see the value in these choices, greatly multiplying the positive impact.

4. We can boost sustainability without sacrificing performance.

Employing sustainable practices doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. Just ask Becky Verano-Luri, Vice President of Marketing Operations and Capabilities at Reckitt Benckiser. When her team discovered one of their most successful sustainability shifts, a greener process wasn’t their intention. She needed to cut production costs in the development of marketing assets, but she didn’t want to sacrifice results. After consulting with production experts, Verano-Luri turned to a virtual studio to complete the creative — and the choice paid off across all metrics.

She and her team completed 13 shoots in a virtual studio, a process through which most of the content is created by remote collaborators online. Through this change, she cut her production costs, improved her creative by expanding the team’s options, and reduced the carbon footprint of this project by over 90% by cutting travel and on-site activities. Touting the practice, she said, “It can have such a massive impact on your brand growth but equally on your carbon footprint.”

Laure-Sarah Labrunie, Media Lead at Nestle, shared a similar experience. Her team was searching for an answer to the cost of sustainable choices when they learned how simple these shifts could be. They A/B tested an advertisement with just slight differences meant to maximize usage on the public’s preferred devices and to minimize the carbon footprint. They shifted the sound from stereo to mono, compressed the creative, optimized it for WIFI instead of 4G, and targeted days with a lower carbon footprint.

The result: The environmentally optimized advertisement had a 50% lower carbon footprint with the same consumer impact. “What we now know is that we can have a great impact with sustainability without compromising on performance and media results,” she explained.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said, explaining the process of choosing sustainability. “It’s pragmatic, and it will lead you to great results.”

5. Sustainability success comes with collaboration.

Achieving sustainability goals requires “total business commitment,” said Kelly — and it’s critical that this collaboration happens externally and internally. At Diageo, they’ve created a cross-functional business team that comes together to deliver sustainability concepts, programming and initiatives across the organization. This collaboration is key to the effectiveness of each strategy, and it’s how Kelly knows the industry will be able to make real and lasting change.

Collaboration across all actors in the ad sector value chain is critical to achieving substantive and lasting sustainability results. Developing a consistent standard for environmental metrics with clear, comparable terms, methods and data sets is one essential step. Leadership from organizations like GroupM and Scope3, along with associations like Ad Net Zero, are accelerating progress that benefits both the advertising industry and its clients. “​​It’s innovation throughout the supply chain. It’s about the businesses themselves. It’s about the production. It’s about the media distribution,” says Stephen Woodford, explaining the importance of every step in the process.

He continued to echo the necessity of this inclusive effort. “Everybody who’s responsible for making an advertising decision, wherever you sit in the supply chain, has to know about sustainability because every single choice makes a difference,” he said. His hope is that, with deep collaboration, “by 2030, every ad will be a green ad.” 

6. We need to make small, meaningful changes now.

It may seem like these goals are lofty, but there are widely beneficial steps that organizations can take right now to shift their practices toward sustainability — and those steps today might be even more powerful than large-scale programs in the future. Wescott set the context: “I think the ad sector is going through something similar to what the software sector went through about 10-15 years ago, only the environment is much less forgiving. I think the stakeholders have higher expectations. They’re better informed.” 

O’Kelley details how the carbon released now never disappears, creating a multiplying effect in the future and emphasizing the importance of urgent action. “That cumulative impact is so incredibly valuable that making fast, small changes today may be more important than a bigger change that takes a decade.”

One metric that can make a major difference: transparently tracking advertising spending to ensure it’s headed toward sustainability. “I want to start seeing serious amounts of money being moved to low carbon media — and that will be because investment changes behavior,” says Joyce. 

As the case studies shared by Nestle and Reckitt show, decreasing climate impacts can also result in lower costs and better marketing outcomes. These are steps that can scale quickly across a company, and these leading companies are eager to share their insights freely so they can scale across the entire ad sector.  “Ad Net Zero is the program for the ad industry to get its house in order,” said Woodford. “ I think the journey that OpenX has been on is absolutely admirable…to reduce its carbon footprint by 90%, in such a short period of time, deserves the highest praise and support,” he added. 

At OpenX, we have already made massive progress in reducing our own carbon footprint. We’re the first and only ad exchange to achieve CarbonNeutral® company certification, we’ve reduced our emissions by 90%, and we’ve met the key criteria of the Science Based Targets initiative’s net-zero standard. We’re on our way to real and lasting change, and we’ve developed a path to take you there with us.

We’re deeply grateful to Bill Wescott for moderating these impactful panels and to each and every one of our panelists for sharing their insights, knowledge and experience. 

Bill Wescott
Managing Partner at BrainOxygen LLC 

Sophie Kelly
Senior Vice President at Diageo 

Becky Verano-Luri
Vice President of Marketing Operations and Capabilities at Reckitt Benckiser 

Laure-Sarah Labrunie
Media Lead at Nestlé 

Carole Diarra
Global Vice President of Marketing at UGG 

Brad Jakeman
Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Rethink Food 

Lauren Taylor
Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group 

Ollie Joyce
Global Chief Transformation Officer at Mindshare 

Stephen Woodford
Chief Executive Officer at Advertising Association 

Brian O’Kelley
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Scope3

Watch the panels here.

Find out more at openx.com/sustainability or contact us at BuyerDevelopment@openx.com.