Green Element Weekly Podcast Interview with Jo Coombes, Founder of AdGreen

Jo Coombes is the founder Ad Green which is supporting the advertising industry’s transition to environmentally sustainable production methods; working in collaboration with trade bodies and other industry organisations to accelerate the adoption of best practice.

Highlights in this episode:

  • Making production sets more sustainable
  • Reducing production waste
  • Challenge of lack of benchmark and measure
  • Jo Coombes career in advertising
  • Working with brands, agencies and production companies
  • Why #greenproduction can’t be left with showrunners

Useful links


AdGreen Instagram

AdGreen Twitter

Jo Coombes Linkedin



[0:00] Will: Thanks for coming along to the Green Element podcast and talking about all you’re up to, and just yeah, it would be good to learn more about AdGreen and kind of where you see it going? What you see and what are you into? What you need, you know, in order to make it happen as well? Is there stuff that would be really useful for you and understanding how it all fits together within the advertising and marketing industry?

[0:35] Jo: It’s pretty much just advertising really, in terms of it’s really only the production side of that although we have done some work on sort of the content side of things as well. But yeah, it’s predominantly production, predominant at the moment, sort of guidelines for production companies to use, and agencies that are sort of, more involved in the production side of things, so TV departments. And really at this point, it’s a set of guidelines and it’s a case of production teams doing what they feel they can do. There isn’t really any stipulation that they have to do it, it’s mainly those who are more interested, for one reason or another. And it’s kind of being driven, it was being driven a long time by freelance production people who felt they could go in and make those changes. And there was, sort of, spreading the word I suppose, because you know, you’re doing a short two-week contract, then you move on to another company, and you take that sort of lesson or skill or experience with you, and sort of pass it on to the next company. 

[01:40] Jo: So, that kind of helped us spread the word quite quickly, as opposed to sort of converting each production company one by one. People sort of got around quite quick, so that was good. And I would say we’re definitely in a good place with phase one, if you like. In terms of there’s a lot of awareness of what we’re doing, but there isn’t as much action as we might like. And there’s no kind of standardization of what’s expected. It’s really kind of optional and how much you think you can do, or you feel is appropriate or what you’re happy to ask the client to, sort of, you know, talk about do, it is, quite very optional.

[2:28] Will: Do you think that comes down to cost? Do you think that’s largely down to cost of the client not paying for it?

[02:36] Jo: I think it comes down to the myth of cost. And personally, you know, I was a production manager myself for a long time, now head of production, I don’t think anything that’s currently easy to do, cost you any more money. You know, for example, you have to get your waste collected anyway, I know the supplier, you know, I’m talking about, mainly in London because for my sort of background is that I’m now based in Scotland. You know, in London the main supplier to collect recycling is cheaper than what was traditionally the waste collector, back in the day and you know so that will cost you less money. It’s also based on quantity, so if you produce less waste, it will cost you less money to have it taken away, so as an incentive that actually produce less than the first place.

[03:26] Jo: You know, if you’re going to provide a water cooler and ask people to bring their bottles, you shouldn’t really be paying your caterer for water as well, as there’s a cost saving there that will offset what you need to pay out for, you know, a water cooler. But you know, these are small fry things, things like not printing call sheets, you know, we don’t put a line in the budget for paper but if we did, we wouldn’t be spending it, if you don’t print, you’re not spending it, you know and associated toner that you know.

[3:53] Will: Like, for example call sheets, we were discussing this last week, this is stuff that I had no idea and there is probably an awful lot of our listeners that don’t. What is a call sheet and like how many pages is a call sheet, is it one page, is it ten pages? 

[4:09] Jo: So, they broadly fall into two categories, if your sheet’s more than a day long, you tend to do a sort of production booklet, which can be up to sort of 10 pages. And you know, there was a trend for printing these out in four, but then became a trend to sort of do them as, eight, five books. And really, in the last few years, they don’t really get printed anymore, as far as, I’m aware, they probably do some now. But they can only fall into this booklet category, which you will see just is now a PDF booklet or they might be a one page, what we call a daily call sheet, which would just have your basic information of everyone’s phone number, the call time of when you need to be at the location, you know where that location is, that sort of vital details, whereas the longer one might have a list of every single item of kit that you’ve hired that you’re bringing on to set. 

[04:59] Jo: So, there’s sort of two main things, but we’d also print storyboards, we print scripts, and we might print risk assessments or movement orders, when we need to move locations. So, there’s quite a lot of printing involved, so having people sort of move over to looking at that digitally is quite a big shift. I mean, I guess all of these things that we’re talking about that don’t really cost much money, are all really basic things and they’re really centered around waste reduction. So, we’re not really talking about the bigger picture things, like reducing travel, reducing energy use, those are the biggest shift things that haven’t really been mastered yet, I think for a variety of reasons. 

[5:42] Jo: One is that we don’t have the technology necessarily, you know, for example, we can switch to lower the lighting, that technology is there that will reduce cost of electricity units in the studio or the amount of generator power that we need, but there’s not really a strong understanding, certainly from production about if you like generator math, so how generators work, how much power they need to draw, how much you can have on at one time and the power that you need to power it. So, we’re really driven by static in terms of lighting choices, in most cases, you know, the sort of energy aspect is secondary, because essentially you can get a bigger generator as you need that isn’t really a limitation in power in most cases on set. 

[06:33] Jo: I mean, obviously, the bigger generator, the more money, there probably are going to be, and the more fuel you’re going to pay. But that’s not really a consideration for anyone choosing lighting. And I think that’s partly because production don’t understand enough about the implications to push back on the lighting list that we might have been given. And the other thing, there is that, the newer technology, the LED technology tends to be more expensive to hire, so, sometimes people asked to reduce lists or reduce costs, and those things are quite often the first to go, because they’re more expensive to hire. But there isn’t really understanding about how they might save you money on the other end, in terms of generator size or units at the studio. 

[07:15] Jo: So, there’s kind of a disconnect between those two departments, that sort of an education piece missing. And, the other thing is that if we want to bring in cleaner technology, so this company in Canada, for example, have worked on relatively small generator units that are essentially big batteries that you can bring on set. So, you would charge them up, you know, in your office or even at a location and then you can use them on set to power what you’ve got there, but they’re quite small, they don’t really compared to the size of generators that we would bring in for a sort of commercial sized TV Ad shoot if you like. 

[07:55] Jo: So, you know, either we work with much reduced power needs or they might power other smaller elements of the shoot, such as the video village where the clients might sit, or perhaps the sort of tea table area or you know, hair and makeup sort of within one room or something like that. So, although it’s a step in the right direction, it’s really exciting. They don’t quite go to the extent that we need yet, or the lighting hasn’t sort of come down low enough that we can sort of meet in the middle. So, there’s a kind of, that’s another one, you know, in terms of switching to green energy, there’s a program that Kratzer and Albert have been running where you can switch to good energy, and it’s kind of a move to collectively joined forces to get cheaper tariffs. And that’s really great but a lot of people turned contracts or, you know, they’re in buildings where they didn’t have the control over it or they’re in such a big company, that the facilities manager is another part that they’re not sort of involved in. So, it’s getting to the right people and sort of getting in at the right time to make those switches so there’s lots of things that could happen. 

[09:01] Jo: But I think there’s education needed and a sort of general push in the industry, you know, and even sort of a steering from, you know, trade bodies in terms of this is how we’d like you to sort of act and to conduct your business going forward or from this date or whatever it might be, to try and push things forward a bit quicker, because really, it feels like there’s very little sort of, I guess, people don’t want to be told what to do. But at the same time, sometimes it does help push things in the right direction, especially when the support is there to be able to make these changes. I think it’s one thing to say, you should be doing x, y and z but if you know the supplier or service or whatever it is, doesn’t exist, it’s very difficult for you to do but if we can show people how to do things and tell them they have to, they will see much more likely to be successful. So, you know, there are a few key things I think they’re currently missing that they need to improve upon or talked more widely about.

[10:04] Will: And AdGreen, really, I mean, we’ve kind of jumped straight in at what it is that needs to be done within on-production and on-sites for filming. But AdGreen is, you’re trying to green up that area, right? You’ve got huge amounts of resources that’s on the AdGreen websites of how people can understand what it is that they can do and how they can do it and the sort of things too, you’ve got checklists, and you’ve got everything on there, haven’t you? 

[10:37] Jo: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of stuff there and I think from the beginning, it was very much, I am just me and although there are people that sort of support me, and AdGreen and sort of test things out on-set, you know, I am just me and I’m not in a position to be able to come on your shoot or, you know, advise you in your office. So, for me, it was very much about empowering other people to do what they could, you know, with a bit of help online. So, there was also is very much about kind of giving people those tools to do that, so that I didn’t need to kind of get involved at the time.

[11:15] Jo: And essentially, you know, a lot of the stuffs really simple. You know, people say, oh, can you can be our green consultant, I think, well, how hard is it just to book a different waste service, is not that’s difficult, not print. I mean, do you want me to stand next to you and just sort of, you know– In the nicest possible way, and I appreciate that people want to make that change, but really, I just wanted them to make it themselves, it’s possible. You know, because of the fact that these bigger piece items aren’t necessarily that doable yet, the things that are left are really simple. You know, so when people say, oh, yeah, we’ve got a green runner, or we’ve got a green consultant, I mean, green runners, I think, why aren’t all runners green? And what does it mean to be green? I mean, you know, essentially, it’s someone to stand next to the bins and make sure people are putting their recycling in the right one, you know, because beyond that, this poor person is the runner and no offense to the runner, but there, you know, they are–

[12:12] Will: What does a runner do?

[12:14] Jo: Well, a runner essentially, they’re invaluable people to have on set that they, in the sense of authority, you know, they’re sort of bottom of the ladder. So, to suggest that someone can be a runner and sort of transform the set is kind of, I don’t kind of buy it personally because it feels like you’re giving someone an impossible task. I mean, you know, they don’t have the authority to change suppliers, they’re on set just for that one day. They don’t do any, you know, pre-production normally. So, they are at the mercy of whatever has been predetermined by production. But you know, they’ll help with anything really, they might go on a run to the supermarket, if it’s something that’s urgently needed. They might just stand around and block a door, so people don’t walk through when we’re filming, you know, they can be doing sort of anything really, wanting to grab a print out as needed, you know, setting up sort of tables and chairs for lunch, it can be anything, but essentially, they are there to kind of support the AD team, this is the writer’s team and production, and that’s kind of their job.

[13:23] Jo: So, yeah, they are sort of not in the best position to–

[13:27] Will: I can see where you’re coming from.

[13:28] Jo: Yeah.

[13:29] Will: It needs to be incorporated across the whole culture of other shoots, I would imagine, if you look at it like a small business, where I expect the CEO or the managing director or the senior management, senior leadership team to be taking control and going what, we as an organization are going to become more environmental, the same would happen in the shoots or with hazard I guess. 

[13:52] Jo: Yeah, it does and there’s several ways it can happen, and you know, a lot of production are based on freelance teams. So, in that case, it’s about either the freelance producer is sort of a person, who does this all the time, they have a team around and that they will bring on as freelancers, who could have used to acting this way. And they will dictate down to their heads of department, who will then dictate down to their team. So, you know, you might sort of say to the DP, would you know that the lighting camera man, you know, can you make sure you sort of incorporate a certain amount of low energy lighting on this, we’re looking for sort of, you know, not have a generator or just use local power if we can, or, you know, we don’t want to use consumable, so we use things like, posterior, use cellophane gels, you know, all of that stuff just goes in the bin afterwards.

[14:43] Jo: You know, I might be saying to the art department, can you factor into your set bill how we’re going to take this apart and reuse the materials and, you know, can you allow for that in your budget and all those sorts of things. So, that’s sort of one way it can happen. And that’s certainly what I’d like to see more of and it definitely is happening. And the other aspect is the actual company has to sort of say, look, this is how we want to run our shoots from now on, and this is how we want you to do it, you know, and this is how we’re going to support you doing it. And there are companies doing that, not as many as I’d like, but, you know, I do get those kinds of emails as well as, can you come and be our, you know, green person on set, you know, so that is really nice. And those are the ones I prefer, because that has the longevity and, you know, has more sort of take up and more, sort of gravitas, I guess, amongst employees, because, you know, if it’s coming from the top, that’s what we need to see. 

[15:38] Jo: And other people would argue that, actually coming from the top means, it is coming from the Ad agency or even the client. So, the stories I like best are when the client has sort of said to the agency, we want this to be, you know, sustainable in whatever way. The agency has said, okay, great, we’ll take that on board and they will pass it down to the production. And that’s all factored in from the beginning. You know, it might be that the clients, I don’t know, promoting some new, let’s say, drink. I mean, I’ve heard I’ve heard stories and now I’ve heard a story about, sort of smashing a whole load of vegetables, just crazy things where no one thought, why don’t we compost that waste or, you know, sort of massive quantities, and you might see on screen, it looks like 10 tomatoes, they’ve done that 10 times, you know, bigger scales and that.

[16:30] Jo: So, you know, the sort of people will come up with ideas where things aren’t factored in, or we’re talking about, you know, shooting in other countries because the weather’s better when we could shoot here, if the script was slightly changed, you know, so there’s lots of considerations to take in, that really can come from the client and the agency and sort of the creative script stage before it even gets to being actually made. So, you know, really all those sorts of different cogs need to need to work together to reduce it right from the start. And the other problem we have is that, even if that was all done, there’s no way to kind of really measure things at the moment. And the other problem we’ve got is even if there was, to benchmark one out against another, or one production at another is almost impossible because they aren’t staffed, it’s not a level playing field. They’re not starting from the same point, nor different creatively, you know, have different budgets, different amounts of people on set 

[17:28] Will: Is there a way that you could normalize that data? So, bringing it all down to a common denominator. 

[17:37] Jo: I think, well, personally, I think carbon should be linked to money, in our world of budgets, and that’s kind of what I’m looking to develop, where I’m working at the moment and that would be something sort of for the autumn time for me, personally. And I think you can certainly benchmark, you know, is it a car job, is it a food job? The things where you might bring in more resources or where you might have more waste and you can sort of broadly categorize and, that’s what BAFTA have done with their album projects and Albert have an online calculator where they will take data from TV productions, so you know, programs, and they will sort of categorized into factual documentary, overseas projects, you know, drama, that sort of thing. So, they can kind of look at that and break it down to a broadcast half hour as a kind of unit. And say, we would probably do the same with, you know, broadcast 30 seconds and then be able to break it down into, you know, was it overseas? Was it a car job? Was it, food, was it– You know, so we can sort of see what the benchmarks are, or the sort of averages to sort of, then give us you know, working target or, you know, target for reduction. 

[18:47] Jo: I mean, if we don’t know where we’re at, and we can’t really work out, reducing it and then think about what that reduction looks like in real terms or, is that taking one person off the shoot or is that you know, shooting in the UK instead of South Africa? So, you know, sort of helping, I think education is one of the biggest points and it’s one of the hardest things to do because you know, that there’s not really, there are teachings of, you know, courses and stuff and actually, Albert are working a lot with some of the universities that do those. We have a course within advertising production that we teach and every year but is, you know, the lower end of production, which isn’t say, is a bad thing, you know, they’re going to be the producers of the future. But in terms of exposure, it’s quite small, it’s quite transient.

[19:45] Will: Suddenly going on, the internet connection, somebody’s going, I don’t know what’s going on, can you hear okay?

[19:53] Jo: Can you repeat that one?

[19:54] Will: The internet connections, I think is just suddenly just dropping off. I don’t know what’s going on.

[20:01] Jo: Oh, well you’re back on.

[20:06] Will: The internet connection seems to have just gone. I was wondering, have you always worked in advertising? I mean, has that been your career? 

[20:19] Jo: I have

[20:21] Will: And what got you into sustainability in the environment? What would you say your tipping point was? What kind of–

[20:29] Jo: I had always worked in advertising, I left Uni and did an internship where I was working at a music company. And I worked there for a year, in the US, and then I came back and worked at a music company in London, and sort of realized that I was really looking at one small part of the process, you know, we were doing music for TV ads, and then I realize that there’s whole world beyond that. So, kind of then start to make moves to move across the production, which I did, and I was in-house for a while and then became a freelancer. And really the tipping point was just the amount of waste I was seeing at the end of the day. And I’d always been, my dad used to call me, Sting’s right-hand man when I was growing up, like I had this sort of, I would call it, people like this and even in my family is the one who would take the bottle out of the rubbish and put in the recycling. I was that person, and I was about six. 

[21:30] Jo: And so, I think that was something that was always kind of, on my mind. I always said I was going to be a vegetarian, except on Sunday and I was going to ride my bike everywhere. Partially true, but so yeah, seeing the waste on set was really what kind of tipped me over the edge and I think, how do I kind of do something about it or see what I could do. Or I probably have to just go and do something else where I am not so, it’s not so in my face. And actually, I remember sort of first coming up with, sort of like, almost like a kind of explosion, all these notes came out of me at once and I remember I sat on the tube going to do it my friend and I was like, maybe I could do this, maybe I could do that. But at the time, I kind of just started freelancing, I was quite unsure about at the time, what felt like rocking the boat and sort of making myself known as this person, who was probably going to annoy people by asking them to do stuff they didn’t normally do. 

[22:24] Jo: So, I actually kind of shelved it in my mind, probably another six months, until I was on holiday and kind of thought, okay, I need to kind of do this, I can’t kind of put it off any longer. And I’d read about Albert while I was on holiday, I went to go meet them at BAFTA, when I got back and that sort of started it for me and I kind of saw what they had done. I was like, well, this is this is what we could do. And I mean, I’m still striving for it to be, what they’re doing, it’s not, but you know, we’re a lot closer than we were. Yeah, and that was sort of the that was the tipping point for me. It was seeing the physical waste, and everyone’s reaction and kind of, sort of the behavior around that aspect. And then you know, once you start looking, you, kind of can’t un-see it. And then you start digging deeper and you realize there were other problems and other things, and then you find out, you know, how much we’re contributing, okay, this is terrible and, you know, it spirals out of control, and then you’re awake at three in the morning and sort of trying to work out how the legal system works around sustainability in the UK, and you know, you sort of realize you’ve gone off on a tangent, but you know, it’s all connected. So yeah, that’s how I started.

[23:39] Will: So, how I mean, how do you think you can influence change through AdGreen, what is it that you want to try and achieve? Because when talking to you, you are very well connected, you know, a lot of leaders and a lot of senior people in your industry and you’ve been in your industry for a while now, so what is it that you think? How can we influence change? What is it? 

[24:11] Jo: I think for me, the problem is, I’m not even sure what the sort of pinpoint issue is. But, you know, I’ve had meetings with heads of various trade bodies in the industry, those that represent production agencies, the brands themselves and making the work. And there seems to be a lot, I don’t want to sort of talk badly of anyone, but there’s always kind of a flavor of the month cause. And I know it sounds bad to even say that and you know, in this day and age, I know your words can be really misconstrued and I don’t mean it in a negative way. But sustainability hasn’t been that flavor of the month yet, I don’t know why. And I wonder in part, if it’s because, as far as they’re concerned, something is being done and that AdGreen exists. And I have made inroads to sort of, taking a step further, getting funding so that we can become an organization that looks a bit more like what BAFTA is doing. And we have a calculator, and we educate people about carbon, and we do all these things. But for whatever reason, every sort of incarnation of how I see that happening has been kind of pass up the chain. 

[25:17] Jo: So, you know, production as a matter, or this should be an agency sort of thing. Agencies were sort of saying, oh, this should be a brand thing and the brands themselves are sort of like, this sounds great. And then it came to the crunch, you know, no one replies to you. So, it is quite difficult, and I think the lack of, you know, I do think brands have bigger fish to fry in some ways. A lot of them are dealing with massive supply chains with big logistical sort of things that they’re sort of looking into first and relatively speaking, I think the production of their advertising is quite small in terms of the bigger picture, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be looked at. So, I think the focus from brands isn’t necessarily there maybe for that reason. I think there’s a perception that it costs more money or at least doesn’t have to in its current incarnation. 

[26:02] Jo: And I think there’s just a general, I think it’s fair to say that advertising is a little bit rogue. It’s not quite so, the production side is not quite so regulated, I guess. And there isn’t sort of that general sense of this is how it has to be done. And there isn’t a sort of central point that you know, that every sort of production needs to pass through that is a good sort of, check and measure point. So, there’s quite of, in terms of how it’s monitored, I guess and that’s through no one’s fault and it’s not a sort of intentional way. But it’s just, it’s kind of evolved almost with everyone doing their own sort of thing in their own pockets of production world, although it is also very small and kind of close-knit community. So, it’s quite a kind of, hard one to explain and I guess I don’t hundred percent know why it hasn’t been sort of taken on board. I think, you know, I think really it comes down to cost, essentially, I was asking for money for something that people don’t see as a big issue or an important issue for whatever reason. 

[27:00] Jo: And so, at the moment, you know that the money that I wanted has not been forthcoming. So, it is difficult, and I think there is a reluctance from the trade bodies to kind of ask for more from the numbers and to sort of rock those boats. And you know, a time when people’s budgets are always going down, I mean, no one ever says, oh, my budget went up this year, like, no one said that. You know, so how do they find extra money to cover something that, you know, essentially, they don’t have to do because the law isn’t telling them they have to do it. So, you know, and I think as much as we all want people to want to do it, because it’s the right thing to do, people aren’t there yet. Which is a real shame, but they’re not. So yeah, I wish I had the answer, I mean, if I did, I’d be doing it.

[27:44] Will: What would you like our listeners to do and to be more sustainable, on the back of this podcast?

[27:50] Jo: I guess, it’s about doing what you can do and the things that you can’t yet do for whatever reason, it’s really about working out, why you can’t do them. And I’ve put myself on the spot here because one of the best things I’ve ever seen, was Unilever, five levers of change and I’m going to now try remembering what the five things are, but you go and look it up, it’s on YouTube. But you know, there are ways to make things done. And it’s about breaking down the barriers that are an issue to getting them done. So, if you think, oh, we can’t do this, because that’s when said, it’s about thinking, why can’t we do that? You know, and I think a lot of it is about telling people and telling people why. You know, I’ve heard stories about people say, oh, we tried that recycling thing, we put some bins in the studio and no one did it. And I said, okay, well, did you, I know it was in a studio, so did you put any signs on the bins? Did you tell your productions that were coming in that you put the bins out and did you tell them to tell their crew what you’ve done? You know, which thing is when and which thing and they say, we didn’t do any of that, you know. Did you impose a fine if they get it wrong? No. Okay. 

[28:54] Jo: So, you know, there’s, you know, so much of it comes down to telling people, what you expect of them and what the consequences of not doing are. Whether that’s personally or just sort of in a more general sense, but, you know, people have ideas and they get stuck in their ways. And, I think people can’t change, but they absolutely can, but you have to make it as easy as possible for them. So, I think that’s what I would– Hi

[29:16] Will: You keep on disappearing.

[29:18] Jo: Where did I get to? 

[29:20] Will: You actually literally finished and then it just went off. Yeah. But like, I mean, what’s your website and where can we hear more or read more about what you’re doing and yeah?

[29:38] Jo: So, the website address is [email protected], which is AD, for advertising, and then the word, green, hyphen, We’re also on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, which are all at AdGreenapa are the best places to the updates. We have a couple of events throughout the year as well, so if you join our mailing list, you get an invite to those, they are kind of free drinks, networking type events, and we bring in suppliers to talk about the issues of the day within making your production more sustainable. So yeah, that’s where you can hear more.

[30:15] Will: Brilliant, Jo, thank you so much for today. And thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and talk to us about AdGreen and what it is that you’re up to, and how you’re greening up the advertising world. 

[30:25] Jo: No problem, thank you for having me. 

[30:28] Will: Joe, thank you.

[30:29] Jo: Alright, see you later. 

[30:30] Will: Bye. 

[30:31] Jo: Cheers, bye.

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