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By Leah Montebello
From production to climate change, Jo Coombes, Project Director of AdGreen, explains how she plans to make production teams carbon literate, inspiring them to reduce emissions and waste.
Carbon Calorie Counter
“It’s a bit like going on a diet: you want to weigh yourself first so you know where you are starting from. The next step is looking at the calorie intake, then working out what you need to cut out. It’s the same principle with emissions from production activities – some have a bigger impact on the overall footprint than others. Knowledge is power, you need to know what is happening so that you can make the right decisions”
Jo Coombes’ lightbulb moment for AdGreen came in 2014 when she was flicking through a magazine on holiday and came across an article on BAFTA’s albert, an environmental organisation aiming to encourage the TV and film production industry to reduce waste and its carbon footprint.
“I was a Production Manager at the time and I had seen first-hand how much waste there was on set, and like a lot of people I thought: what are we doing and what could be better? I was really inspired by albert”, she says.
Now Project Director of AdGreen, Coombes’ UK initiative unites the advertising industry to eliminate the negative environmental impacts of production, and enables the community to measure and understand waste and carbon impacts with their upcoming carbon calculator (set to be released 29th of September).
But Coombes’ journey to AdGreen started in music production, and whilst she loved the people, she felt that creative production was more for her; “coordinating so many moving parts seemed much more exciting”.
Describing herself as a “total organiser”, Coombes took on freelance Production Manager roles at the likes of Stink, Blink and Park Pictures, before eventually moving to the Edinburgh-based production service company, LS Productions as Head of Production.
Whilst at LS Productions, she received a Grammy’s Best Music Video nomination for her work on Harry Styles’ ‘Adore You’ video, and claims that she had no intentions of leaving her post, despite continuing to raise awareness of sustainable production at a grass roots level – as she had done from the start.
However, in Spring 2020, Coombes was approached by the Advertising Association to discuss bringing the project in-house at the trade body. After a summer fundraising – only possible as she was furloughed due to Covid, Coombes had no choice but to take up her “dream role” and make AdGreen a reality: launching AdGreen 2.0 as part of the AA in September 2020 with backing from the likes of Unilever, WPP and adam&eveDDB.
Levy and carbon calculator
In her own words, “AdGreen provides tools, resources, training to the advertising production community so they can measure and reduce their carbon emissions”.
To this end, AdGreen launched the voluntary AdGreen Levy in June this year, which is a recommended 0.25% of the cost to produce an advertising asset – be it a motion, stills or audio project. The levy is paid to those producing work for the advertiser (in most cases a creative agency), and then passed onto AdGreen each quarter, so that they can continue to deliver their various resources for the industry. As Coombes says, “the more advertisers who contribute, the lower we can make the levy percentage”, and this feeds into the more collaborative mindset needed for sustainable practices.
Crucially, AdGreen don’t frame themselves as a consultancy, largely because Coombes “wanted to create something that would be available to all production teams, whether they were able to allocate some budget to it or not”. The Levy enables AdGreen to provide not only tools and resources, but also training free at the point of use for those in the industry, enabling the growth of a carbon-literate workforce adept at producing work on a reduced carbon budget.
She continues, “It’s very much the ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ idiom. The more people understand how to do these things [reducing emissions] themselves the more best practice they take onto their next job, and so on”.
Indeed, for Coombes, change in production needs to come from everyone in order to have a long-lasting impact. “For us it’s about as many people as possible, doing as much as possible, as quickly as possible”, she emphasises.
This is something that has been well-received by the industry, and as Coombes explains, “When I started talking about AdGreen in 2014, it was like knocking on a closed door. Now it’s like I’m being pulled through an open door”.
The demand for AdGreen’s resources, tools and training has been increasing steadily, and she says “we almost can’t go fast enough right now”. Whilst this is a great position, it is perhaps surprising that Coombes is spearheading this project with the help of only a handful of dedicated team members. Nonetheless, this arguably makes the reach and impact of AdGreen even more impressive.
Ambition for AdGreen
Despite a small team, the ambitions are large. On long-term goals, first and foremost for AdGreen is enabling the industry to reduce emissions. However, at the moment, “we need to know where we are starting to understand the work we need to undertake”. This makes the launch of the carbon calculator crucial for Coombes.
As she explains, “It’s a bit like going on a diet: you want to weigh yourself first so you know where you are starting from. The next step is looking at the calorie intake, then working out what you need to cut out. It’s the same principle with emissions from production activities – some have a bigger impact on the overall footprint than others. Knowledge is power, you need to know what is happening so that you can make the right decisions”.
Whilst also enabling production teams to measure the impact of various forms of transport, different materials, and disposal of waste, the carbon calculator will include electricity carbon factors for different territories across the globe, meaning even if you are working in a studio in the Ukraine or Cape Town you can use local electricity factors to track the associated emissions”, Coombes explains.
Therefore, whilst it is a UK-based project (for the moment…) the tool can be used to measure the impact of campaigns and projects produced around the world. “We have designed the calculator so it is collaborative. So obviously the more companies involved the better – and the more the dataset will grow”, she says. Once the tool gains traction after it’s launch, AdGreen plans to analyse the dataset to assess where infrastructure projects can support a faster shift to net-zero, and then work with production suppliers to facilitate these changes.
Relationship with sustainability
As a child that won awards for saving animals and embracing school recycling initiatives, Coombes describes her passion for sustainability as something that “was definitely in me from the start”.
She explains how the waste generated on music and creative productions was hard to ignore: “I reached the point where I couldn’t really carry on doing the job without trying to do something to change the way we worked”.
Discussing the general shift towards climate consciousness and sustainability, she believes “it’s not going anywhere”. Coombes urges, “Floods, heat waves and forest fires are happening this week… this will become more ingrained in our everyday lives as time goes on, and it will end up changing the way we work, live, socialise, everything”.
In fact, Coombes notes how companies are much more engaged with climate data and hiring for roles that are specifically designed with sustainability in mind. This is something she predicts will continue as climate legislation becomes more rigorous and industries are forced to adapt.
On her personal relationship with sustainability, Coombes states, “It’s been overwhelming, but in a good way… AdGreen has now surpassed what I ever thought it could be: we have a bespoke tool for the industry, we’re discussing global rollouts – I suppose there are worse problems to have than not quite being able to keep up with demand!”
Also praising the use of virtual production and reduced travel for creative output, Coombes sees the most exciting part of her work as transforming a workforce and making the industry more carbon literate. “We’ve had people who have turned up on our AdGreen course because their boss has told them to take it. At the end of the two hours their whole mindset is transformed and they’re emailing us asking what more they can do and how they can help”, she explains.
Watching the “penny drop” for some individuals during AdGreen’s training sessions, Coombes can’t overstate the power of education and the feedback loop she has fostered.
Clearly passionate about the industry she is trying to transform, Coombes says, “Advertising is a perfect fit as it allows me to create change in an area I’m interested in, I get to work with great people, and I get my nerdy organising kicks behind the scenes”.
With this deep desire to sort things out, Coombes is trying to completely shake up the way production does business, and to give them the tools they need to grow sustainably.
When asked what her TED Talk of choice would be, she says with a wry smile, “I would probably do it on how Excel formulae can change your life in amazing ways – it’s my absolute favourite and so underrated!”
Jo Coombes is Project Director of AdGreen
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