Mediavine’s Julia Li Champions Sustainability in Ad Tech, Paving the Way to Net Zero

Julia Li, Director of Sustainability at Mediavine, shares strategies for a sustainable future for the planet and ad tech industry.

Sometimes the hardest part of achieving a huge goal is figuring out how to get started. Take reaching net zero. Digital ad tech is a carbon-intensive industry. Everything we do is virtual, demanding electricity and power. How does one get their head around it?

“The first thing people in the digital advertising space need to understand is the why. Why does sustainability matter to their business?” asked Julia Li, Director of Sustainability at Mediavine. For Li, it boils down to three components.

A Threefold Approach: Ethics, Compliance, and Finance

The first is an ethical concern. Employees don’t want to be in a business that actively contributes to the climate crisis. Ethics matter for employee engagement and recruiting.

The second component all companies need to consider is compliance, which is quickly becoming an urgent issue. For instance, companies that do business in Europe will need to comply with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), a directive requiring companies to report on the impact of their activities on the environment and society beginning in 2024 and report them in 2025. Late last year, California adopted two laws that will require public and private companies doing business in the state to disclose their greenhouse gas (GHG) and their climate-related financial risks. And last month, the SEC adopted a rule with the same requirements.

The third component, Li explained, is financial. Brands and marketers will demand more sustainable inventory. Their customers and employees are very concerned about the climate, and advertising is a huge opportunity for brands to meet their sustainability goals. 

Measuring to Master: The Role of Data in Sustainability

But as Li points out, doing what’s right for the planet happens to overlap with what’s right for the industry. Take lazy loading, one of the recommendations of IAB Tech Lab’s Sustainability Playbook. Mediavine adopted the tactic years ago to decrease data usage so that publisher sites can load faster. Faster load time means visitors are less likely to click away, and it’s good for SEO rankings. And as it happens, it lowers the carbon emissions of each ad while meeting performance goals, since data is only transacted when the ad is viewable.

“All companies that want to promote the industry’s long-term goals and keep their businesses profitable will find the IAB sustainability best practices very helpful,” Li explained. “We did a lot of things to improve efficiency, and an unintended consequence was that we also lowered our carbon emissions.”

Recently, Mediavine announced a partnership with 51toCarbonZero to help the company get its house in order.  51toCarbonZero helps companies measure, communicate, and improve their carbon footprint to achieve net zero. “These are important steps especially if, as a publisher, you want to promote the sustainability of your inventory to brands that are conscious of the carbon footprint of their marketing activities,” Li said. 

For Mediavine, measuring its Scope 1 and 2 emissions is straightforward, as the company’s workforce is completely remote. “Ninety-nine percent of our emissions are Scope 3, and 51toCarbonZero will help us identify all of the different buckets of activities that are contributing to Scope 3 emissions so we can feed that data into our internal analysis.”

Measurement and reporting is the first step in the path to net zero, as you can’t reduce what you can’t measure. “We’re looking to 51toCarbonZero to shed light on our blind spots. Is our data center the biggest contributor to our carbon footprint? Is it employee travel? We don’t actually know. Measuring will allow us to understand the levers we can pull that will have the biggest reduction of our carbon emissions,” Li explained.

Identifying Opportunities for Reduction in Carbon Footprint

There are some low-hanging fruit for data-intensive industries like digital advertising. Data centers are carbon-heavy, but partnering with a company, like AWS, that uses renewable energy to power their centers can go a long way in reducing emissions. “This is one way the companies can scale their impact,” Li said. She encourages business leaders to examine the claims of their providers to ensure they’re using renewables and not just buying offsets.

Another low-hanging fruit is in streamlining data processing, which requires looking at the ad-tech stack and how many vendors are present in the bid stream. “Mediavine is 99% direct, we don’t use any resellers. We constantly A/B test our SSP partners and eliminate the underperforming ones. That focus on efficiency and reducing middle players is good for publishers, but it also lowers our data processing and shrinks our carbon footprint.”

In other words, considering the long-term goals of a business is grounded in the same principles as planning for sustainability. It’s putting the long-term future ahead of short-term profits.