Visions for a Sustainable and Inclusive Future: Brian O’Kelley’s Inspiring Perspective

Brian O’Kelley has been in ad tech from the beginning. He is credited as the inventor of programmatic advertising and the online ad exchange and co-founded companies like AppNexus, Waybridge, and his latest venture, Scope3. 

As a veteran of the ad tech industry, O’Kelley has seen many changes over the years and hopes to be at the forefront of the next big change that the industry, and indeed the world, needs – a way to do business that is good for both profit and planet. 

That’s part of what he’ll discuss in his keynote presentation at Admonsters Ops next month in New York City, titled “How Ad Tech Became an Environmental Nightmare and How We Can Solve it in 2023.”

The More Things (in Advertising) Change, the More They Stay the Same

O’Kelley began his ad tech career about 20 years ago, and at that time, the digital landscape looked very different than it does today. “When I conceived programmatic advertising, there were no smartphones. There was no social media and certainly no generative AI. The world looks dramatically different,” he shares. 

While some things have remained the same – like using cookies, which O’Kelley confesses surprises him – much of the terrain looks starkly different than it did two decades ago. A number of unintended consequences came along with the creation of programmatic advertising. “There’s no way I could have thought that by auctioning ads to the highest bidder in real-time, the world would change as much as it has. I think that’s what’s exciting and scary,” notes O’Kelley.

Now, he is working toward a future of sustainability in ad tech where progress is made, while learning from the past – considering future impact and ensuring no one is left behind. He and his team at Scope3 are operating with the understanding that sustainability is a foundational need and responsibility and that these initiatives should not leave anyone out, including small business owners and minority-led businesses. 

“I want this to be a force for good,” O’Kelley shares. This initiative, he says, should be done responsibly so that in ten years, we are looking back with pride rather than regret. 

Shaping Environmentally Responsible Ad Tech

While no one has a crystal ball to ascertain what is on the horizon, O’Kelley and Scope3 are working diligently to create a more sustainable future for the ad tech industry by ensuring environmental accountability makes good business sense. 

“I can’t predict everything, but it’s really important to us to be accountable to ourselves, but also accountable to the industry and accountable to the citizens of the world. We impact a lot of people in this industry. And I think we must keep them in mind with the innovations we roll out,” he says. 

This passion for sustainability began when O’Kelley was in high school. He lived in Eugene, OR. when friction existed between the environmental damage caused by the logging industry and the people whose livelihoods depended on the timber business. 

“It’s very interesting to see this tension between business and environment, and I feel like I’ve lived with that tension my whole life. I think of Scope3 as a natural evolution: what if you could do both? What if you could be good for business and good for the environment? What if these weren’t at odds?” O’Kelley suggests. 

To this end, Scope3 is trying to make sustainability the profitable thing to do. Although some environmentalists might balk at this approach because people should want to be environmentally conscious for the “right” reasons, O’Kelley says the reason doesn’t really matter. “If you do sustainable things because it makes you money, fine. If we can create conditions that are both good for the world and good for business, it will happen. That is just how capitalism works.”

Putting the Hypothesis to the Test: Sustainability Is Good for Business 

Programmatic advertising creates a large number of carbon emissions due to the volume of servers needed to power real-time auctions (many of which are often auctions within auctions) to see who can secure end-user impressions. However, it is still uncertain what the overall environmental impact of this energy usage is, which is the first step to fixing the problem. 

Explains O’Kelley, “The first thing we worked on last year was, could we create a way of measuring the emissions of every single ad impression on the internet, and we’re not quite there yet. We started with programmatic, so we’ve done display, app, and CTV. We’ve just added social and are working on audio and out of home next. There’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s also a big world; different countries have totally different landscapes.”

While it’s a big project, the data that Scope3 has collected so far indicates it is important to identify the exact sources of emissions in the ad lifecycle and which media properties cause the highest emissions. This will make it easy for marketers to shift spend accordingly to help the industry decarbonize. 

This is for two reasons. O’Kelley says, “One is no money going to high carbon sites means those publishers will have to change their practices. And two is that, just as we hypothesized, the highest carbon inventory was also the worst inventory, meaning that because there are so many intermediaries, very little of the money was actually getting to the publisher, and that’s about return on an investment. If we can get ad spend to shift from non-working to working media, we’d all suddenly see performance improve.” 

Scope3 pilot-tested this hypothesis with big brands. In every case, when the “proverbial green button,” as O’Kelley puts it, was pressed, campaigns consistently reduced emissions by about one-third while maintaining or even increasing performance results. Reducing emissions was both good for performance and the environment. 

“We’ve just released that as a product you can use from the DSP. We’re in the process of getting this plugged into all the major DSPs, and it is called Climate Shield. This is the, I hope, ‘always on’ way to do this sustainable thing. To avoid really high carbon inventory sources and shift your spend to higher performing and lower carbon inventory,” says O’Kelley. 

Putting People First & Increasing Inclusivity 

The “secret sauce” to operating a successful business boils down to one thing, says O’Kelley – culture. “I think having talented, passionate, motivated people is key. Operating with vulnerability and a sense of the consequences of accountability actions is essential.” Of course, a winning strategy and providing a product that people need play a role, but the foundation stems from a company’s people. 

For his part, O’Kelley is a champion of inclusivity within the tech industry. A piece of this is what O’Kelley refers to as a selfish desire to always have the best people on his team, and in part that comes from opening the door to a broader candidate pool. In another sense, though, he believes everyone deserves the same opportunities, regardless of their background. 

“The more we can open doors, the more we can address unconscious bias, not hiring someone from our network who we’ve worked with before because it’s easy, instead reaching out a little further and looking for candidates that might not have the same academic background, making sure that when we promote we are promoting without the inherent bias that we all have, because everyone has biases. If we can acknowledge those, that’s great,” O’Kelley shares.  

This extends to accessibility and designing digital spaces with everyone in mind, rather than just from the designer’s perspective, who may be younger and not experiencing the same challenges as the older adults in their lives. If you don’t make text accessible, you may miss 10-15 percent of the population. “Old people should get annoying ads too,” jokes O’Kelley.

From a business perspective, as he works with Scope3 to increase sustainability in the industry, it is also important to O’Kelley to gain different perspectives on challenges other people may face. He says it is important to help them be more sustainable and understand how Scope3’s technology might impact their business.

“In a selfish way, I think also, these companies should be really successful and profitable over time. And I want to be part of that. I want to be part of the future, not stuck to the past,” he contends.