Greener Companies, Greener Campaigns: A Dirty Industry’s Quest to Change

Alpine Founder Brian Murphy talks about what media sustainability means in 2024.

Brian Murphy has been in the digital ad-tech industry since the 1990s, working at various companies, including DoubleClick, Yahoo! and Google. In 2020 he joined OpenX as Senior Vice President, Buyer Development, getting involved in the ad tech company’s path to net zero. 

To say the experience changed his life is an understatement. Opting to focus on lowering the carbon footprint of the digital advertising industry, Brian left OpenX to launch the Alpine Project, a consultancy that helps advertising agencies, ad tech platforms and publishers create and implement environmental sustainability strategies. 

The goal is to help everyone in the industry future-proof their businesses, unlock new revenue opportunities, and leave the planet in a better state. 

AdMonsters spoke with Murphy about Alpine Project’s progress, how brands and agencies can measure the environmental impact of their ad spend, why ad tech companies should start operating on cloud-based platforms, greenwashing and so much more.

AdMonsters: The internet, including digital advertising, accounts for approximately 3.7% of carbon emissions. You launched Alpine Project to help advertising and technology companies measure, reduce and remove carbon from their operations. How are we doing?

Brian Murphy: We’re making progress but there is more work to be done. A good indicator of how any industry is doing is the number of companies that have publicly reported their verified emissions data and validated their science-based emissions reduction targets. Those are the first two important steps to any corporate climate action plan. If we look at the biggest ad-spending brands, many of them have taken these steps. And the six largest ad agency holding companies have done so as well. 

But if you look at ad tech, it’s a much different story. There are only a handful of pure-play ad tech companies listed in the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) database as having set an emissions reduction target and even fewer with publicly reported verified emissions data. So ad tech has some catching up to do. 

Another good indicator for the ad sector is the support of Ad Net Zero, the non-profit organization that started out of the UK’s Ad Association three years ago and launched a US chapter in early 2024. There are now over 100 Ad-Net-Zero-supporting companies in the US, including many major brands, agencies, and ad tech platforms. There are five Ad Net Zero working groups, and this is where real education and action is taking place. It has been really encouraging to see so many companies join this important organization and get involved in these working groups. 

AdMonsters: Don’t you co-chair one of the Ad Net Zero working groups?

BM: Yes, I co-chair Working Group 1, which focuses on measuring and reducing emissions from the business operations of advertising companies. This working group tackles the fundamentals of any corporate climate action strategy. We bring in guest speakers and address questions such as: how does an advertising agency or media company conduct a greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory? Why is third-party verification important? What is the best way to report emissions data? And what are the steps required to set and validate a science-based target? And of course, how can companies in the ad sector make real progress against reduction targets and become more environmentally sustainable businesses?

AdMonsters: Is setting a target to reduce carbon emissions a requirement for Ad Net Zero?

BM: The leadership at Ad Net Zero has asked that all supporting companies set a science-based emissions reduction target and validate it with a third party such as the Science Based Targets initiative, and provide regular updates on progress against these objectives. 

Setting a science-based target takes work. It requires at least one year’s worth of GHG emissions data, so the company has a baseline year from which to reduce its annual Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions across its business operations and value chain. One of the topics we cover in Working Group 1, is how to begin that process and what standards to follow so it’s being done the right way.  

AdMonsters: According to the ANA, carbon-heavy sites like MFAs are on the rise. We also know that generative AI is pretty carbon-intensive. What do these trends do to the greenhouse gas inventories these companies have reported?

BM: It’s an interesting question of where those things will show up in a company’s GHG inventory reports. The good news is that the ad industry doesn’t need to start from scratch. The GHG Protocol provides a reporting template for any company to disclose its scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions data. But, the reporting template was designed for companies from “heavy” industries that might have factories, warehouses and delivery vehicles. Ad tech companies typically don’t have these types of assets. But we do have office buildings, data centers, business travel and commuting, etc., all of which will appear on a GHG inventory. 

If an ad tech company is using AI, the energy to power will have significant emissions associated with it.

If an ad tech company is using AI, the energy to power will have significant emissions associated with it. But how it gets reported can be tricky based on whether the tech runs on data centers (typically scope 2)  or with a cloud provider like Google Cloud Platform (GCP) or  Amazon Web Services (AWS) which would usually be reported under the scope 3 subcategory 1: Purchased Goods & Services. 

Ad tech companies that move their tech infrastructure from physical data centers to the cloud are seeing a massive reduction in their emissions numbers. In addition to just being more efficient, GCP and AWS in particular,  are doing a lot of work to power their platforms with renewable energy. Both also provide dashboards to let their clients measure the emissions that come from their usage of these platforms. In addition to helping with reduction strategies, this also makes the GHG reporting process a lot easier. 

Without a doubt, AI is a major contributor to the overall electricity use of the broader digital economy. At the same time, AI is really good at solving problems. I believe that AI will play an important role in helping to solve the climate problem in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. But it’s too early to tell if the carbon reduction solutions we see from AI will outweigh its broader carbon impact.

AdMonsters: Last year Google and Boston Consulting Group released a report saying that AI has the potential to mitigate 5-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

BM: That’s right. We can’t assume that these new technologies will be all bad for the environment. It’s important to go to the source and ask the right questions, which brings me back to ad tech. We hear so much talk about how the industry needs to cut out MFA, and unnecessary ad-tech integrations, and that’s true. But at the same time, there are more and more platforms that have moved their infrastructure to the cloud, and then within that, optimized towards data centers that are powered by wind and solar. If more companies did that, we wouldn’t be talking as much about the carbon footprint of MFA sites.

I’m not saying that the industry should ignore things like data waste, advertising waste and non- viewable ads. These things absolutely need to be addressed. But if more DSPs, SSPs and other ad tech platforms start operating on cloud-based platforms that are powered by renewable energy, data waste becomes less of an emissions problem.  

But if more DSPs, SSPs and other ad tech platforms start operating on cloud-based platforms that are powered by renewable energy, data waste becomes less of an emissions problem.  

AdMonsters: That’s totally fair. An analogy I’ve read is that if you’re heating your house with a heat pump that’s powered by solar panels, upgrading your insulation isn’t really a carbon imperative.  What would you like to see happen in 2024 within the ad tech sector?

BM: Really, I’d like to see more companies do what Duration Media is doing, which is reducing inefficiencies in programmatic advertising to create “greener” media solutions. Full disclosure, I’m working with Duration Media on these projects.

Duration Media focuses on understanding and reducing data waste in digital advertising and there are three key sources of this. The first is bid requests. According to Jounce Media, a single digital display ad impression requires upwards of 135 bid requests. That’s a lot of data transfer just for one impression! On top of that, we have cookie syncs (for now) and up to 30% of ads that are never even viewed by an end user. 

Duration Media has done what I hope others will do, which is build green media solutions that help publishers reduce data waste in a way that helps them generate more revenue and helps advertisers buy more viewable, effective, and efficient advertising. Reducing data waste can actually make advertising more effective, helping both the demand and supply sides of the industry – all while reducing emissions from the media supply chain.  

AdMonsters: How can brands and agencies measure the environmental impact of their media spend? 

BM: That’s a very important and timely question. Right now, as an industry, we’re in what’s commonly referred to as the “pre-competitive collaboration” phase. This is where people from various companies within a specific industry collaborate on finding a common framework for emissions measurement, so we’re not all doing it our own way and creating confusion for our economic buyers.  

There is great work being done through a collaboration between Ad Net Zero and The Global Alliance for Responsible Media to create a framework by which we can all quantify the environmental impact of all forms of advertising, from TV to print, and of course, digital. We are expecting a series of announcements on that later this year. Once we’re all following the same framework, advertisers will have a much clearer understanding of the emissions that come from their various media investments. And some brands and agencies have said publicly that the carbon footprint of various media options will influence how they make investment decisions. 

AdMonsters: We hear a lot about greenwashing in advertising when brands make false or exaggerated claims about how environmentally sustainable their companies or products are. Is greenwashing a problem in ad tech? 

BM: Greenwashing is a real problem in ad tech. We’re obviously not marketing our products and services to consumers but we still need to deliberate in how we make public assertions about our sustainability initiatives. And there are plenty of ad tech companies making clams that are textbook greenwashing. 

A good rule of thumb to follow: make sure every claim is verified, validated, or certified by a well-known and trusted 3rd party. If you report your GHG emissions data, make sure it’s verified by an emissions verifier, accredited under the ISO 14065 standard. If you set an emissions reduction target, get it validated by an organization such as the Science Based Targets initiative. And if you make a claim like “Our company has reached Carbon Neutral status”, certify that by following something like the CarbonNeutral Protocol. If you’re doing business with a company making claims about their sustainability achievements, follow the old mantra: “trust but verify”.

In Ad Net Zero’s Working Group 1, we provide supporting companies with a Communications Guideline to ensure we’re all using the right terminology and backing up with the proper verification, validation, or certification. 

AdMonsters: Is there a message you’d like to send to the entire industry?

BM: I’d like to see our industry solve the carbon challenge both for the campaign and the company. What I mean by that is that we can’t just talk about making advertising production or media buying more sustainable. We need to be running more sustainable companies. 

Right now there is a lot of talk and focus on the campaign. There’s the IAB Tech Lab Sustainability working group as well as Ad Net Zero’s Working Group 3 which focuses on media buying and planning. There are a lot of conversations happening in these groups, on stages, on podcasts and in articles around how we can make media, and digital media in particular, more environmentally sustainable. That’s great. These conversations need to happen.

What we’re not talking about enough is how to make advertising companies — agencies, ad tech platforms and media companies — more environmentally sustainable businesses. The Chief Sustainability Officers at many of the world’s biggest brands require their supply chain partners to disclose their emissions data and reduction targets. When those brands start to ask their ad tech and media partners for the same level of transparency— which they will — we need to be ready. And with new rule changes from the State of California, the SEC and the European Union, some ad tech companies will need to disclose emissions data as a regulatory requirement.

So it’s time for all companies in our industry, big and small, public and private, to take the first step and measure, verify, and report their emissions data so the real progress towards reduction can begin.


Brian Murphy is the founder of Alpine Project, a climate consultancy that helps advertising and technology companies create and implement their sustainability strategies so they can future-proof their businesses and create new revenue opportunities. He is also a working group co-chair of Ad Net Zero. Brian is a 25 year veteran of the ad tech industry. He launched the international sales operation at DoubleClick and went on to various leadership roles at Yahoo!, AdMob and Google. He also led Buyer Development at OpenX, the first company in the advertising, technology and media industries to achieve the SBTi Net Zero standard. Brian’s work on this important initiative inspired him to launch Alpine Project as a way to help other companies in the ad sector launch their climate action plans. He is a graduate of St. Lawrence University and The Yale School of Management’s Corporate Sustainability Management Program.