“Fad” Up - How We Can Give Sustainability Staying Power

08 Dec, 2023

Iesha White, Head of Content at The Women in Programmatic Network, explains how we can give sustainability staying power.

One of our industry darlings is the fad. 

Here’s how our industry typically proceeds: a given calendar year is proclaimed the Year of [insert punchy, pithy topic here]. Thus the life cycle of industry’s new obsession begins.

We voraciously read trade articles and attend countless conference talks deconstructing the latest trends of both prospective clients and rival companies. We establish company focus committees to address and anticipate the inevitable barrage of client questions.

Then inevitably, next year’s emerging fad eclipses last year’s fad. Coverage in the trades and conference topics quickly change. Focus committee meetings dwindle in frequency until they are cancelled. The once ubiquitous fad is now nothing more than a collection of documents stashed in a shared drive folder, forgotten. 

We’ve seen this time and again, appearing predestined to repeat the same pattern. How can our industry ensure that sustainability doesn’t fall into that same trap?

A good start is to be honest with ourselves: corporate sustainability execution is hard and will require ways of working changes. Addressing the climate emergency is everyone’s responsibility - and consumers are watching to see how brands step up - or fall back.

Advertising, by default, has a tricky relationship with sustainability. Our goals as marketers are to get the public to: 1) see advertisements, 2) buy items featured in said advertisements, 3) repeat the process. We encourage consumptive behaviour, with repetition of said behaviour as a welcome bonus.

In comparison, the sustainability core focus is on minimising environmental harms. A major emphasis is on reduction of waste - and thereby, reduction of consumption. This can make marketers uneasy, as our prime directive is to encourage consumption of goods and services at scale.

In response to this unease, there’s been a historical reaction to make our company appearances greener. We revamp our offices to meet green building qualifications, we install recycling bins in our break rooms, and we do a volunteer outdoor cleanup day once a year.

Those are great steps that every company should take. But they’re also dissonant from other parts of the advertising industry’s lived and digital realities. 

We increase vehicular emissions with employee return to office mandates, we jet-set to conferences all around the globe, and at events, we distribute massive amounts of single use plastic swag. And at the same time that programmatic and other digital buying technologies have come to the fore, ad dollars are contracting, so we race to the bottom for the lowest possible CPMs. Billions of server calls go from point to point and human to human - generating a lot of electricity that does not always result in an ad placement.

We know we have got some work to do as a collective. But what do we do?

It starts with a mindset shift. We need to start treating sustainability as an integral part of doing business across strategy, planning, and buying. Too many times, we only act on topics when called out by the public. We cannot make lasting change if we are only reactively engaged. 

The marketers’ creed of “we cannot improve what we cannot measure” remains apt - we should measure, benchmark, optimise, quantify - and yes - publicise our efforts. As the unique role of brand stewards, we already know how to enable behavioural change in the public. We just need to adapt that for ourselves.

The Women in Programmatic Network will be writing a monthly column for The Female Leaders' Club throughout the year.

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