Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Draft article for Cream (draft 2)


In the future media agencies will not only have to hit a specific target audience at the right moment but they will also have to measure the impact of such activity on the environment. John Grant explains.

“Media and Sustainability” could be the title of a 1980s synth pop album but actually it’s increasingly becoming a core business concern for media owners and agencies.

Those resistant to the greening of media will argue that the business is responsible for ideas and strategies to grow clients’ businesses not their environmental policies. However, while sustainability people currently have bigger fish to fry, like tackling child labour, toxic components and recyclability for example media choices are a highly visible expression of what a company is about.

The result is that sustainability is fast becoming a day to day concern. One reason is that the many brands that have made public commitments to green issues (like going carbon neutral) are now subject to much greater scrutiny internally and externally.

They already book greener cabs, encourage staff to share lifts or indeed travel by bus, use greener electricity, are moving to paperless ticketing and taking screen savers off computers. Pretty soon they will also be looking quite critically at the footprint of their media schedule.

Since the 1980s, niche brands like Aveda, Body Shop and Ecover have been scrutinizing marketing materials, in the same way as they would packaging. But in 2007 it’s a much more mainstream corporate concern.

The process started with the social responsibility reports. These are quite bulky to the point where a possibly apocryphal but widespread tale claims that the full HSBC report if printed would need two people to lift it!

It was ironic to talk about saving the planet in a format that (even with the best inks and paper stocks) was so resource intensive to manufacture and ship. So these reports naturally moved to PDF instead. The challenge now is to address communications to consumers.

HSBC is a case in point. It’s “Green Kit” initiative in the USA was designed to reward those who sign up to its automated (paperless) bill paying option, by offering a pack containing a low-energy lightbulb, reusable shopping bags and eco-product vouchers, to all those who have paid three or more bills online.

It’s cited as an example of the new impetus towards digital and away from paper-based communications in all dealings with customers. Before it was about cost and convenience. Now it is about footprint too.

Even here, however, there were challenges. The scheme was immediately criticised for its reliance on the massive direct mail push that promoted the offer. There’s little doubt that HSBC is deadly serious about its commitment to be ‘the green bank’. What it has now learned is that taking this position means that all of its actions have to be consistent.

In the UK Sainsbury got flak for the fact that it’s much publicised Anya Hindmarch “I’m not a plastic bag” bags were neither organic cotton nor fair trade. That’s basically a crisis of printing and production. You will be judged by the standards you set for yourself.

The print media industry is obviously watching this trend nervously. The case for paper is that electronic media still use energy, that such devices often have poor recyclability and short life spans. Nevertheless there is a debate to be had about the relative merits of print vs digital; the latter is not only less resource intensive in the short-term but also archivable, searchable.

When I was considering the best way to publish The Green Marketing Manifesto earlier this year, the fact that people were likely to print off downloaded copies of the book tipped the scales back in favour of sticking to a traditional book format; with the right dyes, paper stocks, cover and so on.

Nonetheless there are worries about issues for paper to address now such as the litter of free sheet newspapers abandoned on public transport every day. In London, Associated Newspapers and News International have come under pressure from the local authorities to contribute to the cost of recycling their afternoon freesheets as they battle to dominate this distribution channel.

Consumer titles with circulations running into the millions, the very publications that have been extolling the benefits of going green are having to start to measure their own impact. Time Inc, for example, has taken part in studies of its carbon footprint – apparently their average magazine produces 0.29 pounds of CO2 per copy – and has joined the Paper Working Group alongside Starbucks and Bank of America. One of the pressures driving such moves is the fact that clients such as HSBC and Aveda are asking questions.

The first part of the process is that the relative impacts of different media choices (down to the fine detail, like sourcing of materials in a mail shot) are assessed. In this way, if the company has targets to reduce their impact, progress can be tracked and reported.

It’s a similar process to the way procurement people manage the resources used in marketing from a cost and performance point of view. Intriguingly there is a new scheme designed to give clients (and agencies) the ability to check the carbon footprint of their media schedule currently on test with two major advertisers in the UK.

It is called Noughtilus and is being developed by a company who already provide web-based MRM (Marketing Resource Management) tools to manage marketing costs and performance.

The system will report on environmental impacts (air, water, waste, land disturbance) alongside the economic factors such as cost and ROI. In this way, the marketing activities can be subject to a balanced scorecard of measures (environmental but also effectiveness) and optimised over time.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the death of direct mail (if that proves the best option, on a balanced reading of these criteria), but it does threaten ‘junk’ activities that are wasteful in every sense.

And as well as managing the average impacts, there are also likely to be outstanding new creative media ideas thrown up by environmental considerations. One early example of the possibilities is the NedBank posters from South Africa, which picked up the Outdoor Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes. The headline reads “What if a bank really did give power to the people?” The poster itself was a solar panel, which supplied electricity to several adjacent buildings including a community school.

Ogilvy’s high-profile stunt of staging a flood in Second Life for Adventure Ecology to highlight the potential impact of global warming was also short-listed in the Titanium category.

Former US vice-president and now global green guru Al Gore was down at the festival this year too, to discuss the ad industry’s potential contribution to what he described as the biggest business movement in history. He was presented with the first-ever Cannes ‘Green Award’. You can’t help feeling that in the years to come it’ll be as contested a category as the Media Lions.


Andrew Smart said...

The solar panel poster you're referring to would have been genius in my opinion if it was just that. A poster that was also a solar panel. The thing that took the shine off it :-) for me was that the solar panels where in fact bolted on to the top of a traditional poster. I think they missed a trick.

I also think your point about these kind of initiatives throwing them open for much closer scrutiny is a very good point. I immediately started to wonder how consistent this poster might be with their investment policies for example?

I think the whole issue surrounding media choices is really interesting though. I'm in the process of thinking up some ideas to promote my own company and it becomes really interesting when you start to think of the message purely from a media point of view.

Lat year we sent out re-cycled Christmas cards. Not new cards printed on re-cycled paper but old cards with the names crossed out and new one's written in. We founds some really interesting and very beautiful old cards with all kinds of weird messages on them. "Dear Flora and Bert, Sorry I won't be able to come this year due to blood poisoning." Somehow, they became much more personal than they would have been if we'd bought them new. I think we'll re-cycle that idea.

Freya said...

Hi John, did I let you know that the panel where I spoke on this topic went well? If not, I apologize, and it did. I quoted you lots. Another thing which occurred to me and about which I spoke is the changing role of supply chain in brand. Used to be a liability to be managed - Nike sweatshops; now it provides opportunity to build the brand story and credibility and as such is becoming more prominent (organic and fairtade labeling mainstream adoption, Dole bananas, Timberland & Tesco footprint, DuPont 'sustainable materials logo bidding to be the new 'Intel inside' etc.). And the more consumers become used to thinking this way, the more everyone will need to have all their ducks in a row. Cheers, F.