An Existential Threat

This week’s post builds on remarks I made from the stage at last week’s asi Audience Measurement Conference in Nice. 

I make no apology for revisiting material I shared when we last met in person in 2019. We are not progressing sufficiently in addressing the big issues, and we need to ensure we protect the consensual principles we have applied to the majority of industry audience measurement for decades. 

I felt that then, I feel it now. 

That is not to suggest that the JICs should have carte blanche to stagnate (not that they are doing so; well done to BARB for adding Netflix), but it does mean that we should not take for granted the benefits that come from all sides of the industry sitting down together to solve common problems. 

The phrase ‘an existential threat’ is not one I use lightly, but the largest, most influential media players on the planet – the online platforms – no longer have common cause. 

This is simply a reality. The arguments around Google trying to join BARB if only BARB would bend to Google’s will, have long gone. 

The notion of creating an online JIC to which Google, Facebook et al could all sign up to an agreed set of measurement standards looks a way off (at best), although the fact that many of the major online players have signed up to ISBA’s Origin programme is undoubtably a sign of progress.  

Meantime advertisers and their agencies still need to plan, still need to buy, and still need to evaluate effect. 

Measurement of audiences is a cornerstone of these activities. It is not the whole edifice, despite what some may believe, but it is vital.  

Edifices without cornerstones tend not to stand up for long. 

If the industry cannot find solutions, then the various players will find their own. The endpoint of which is multiple currencies, a concept that we have lived through before, that wastes time and focuses effort and money in the wrong place. 

A famous UK Media Director, Rodney Harris once said: “Media research is not designed to find out the truth. It is a treaty between interested parties”​. 

If you cannot sign a treaty the consequences that follow are not appealing. 

Natural tensions between buyer and seller, buyer and planner, planner and advertiser have historically always been solved peacefully. Techniques were found, systems improved, compromises made. 

But now we are into what is much more a political and financial discussion, with technique and measurement standards pushed to one side. 

There remains one faction of the media industry focussed on accuracy and doing things right, but unfortunately this is the faction from whom ad revenue is drifting away.  

The new giants could not give a fig for accuracy – if you doubt me how come Facebook manages (and not just once) to ‘reach’ more people in a particular demographic than exist in living breathing form? And then to try to explain that this is perfectly normal and justifiable. 

Online consensus groups do occasionally pop up. I am grateful to Bob Hoffman, whose new book ‘Adscam’ points out the following. 

“In April 2017 … a group of big-time advertisers, publishers, agencies, and media announced a coalition (The Coalition for Better Ads) to ‘rid the internet of annoying ads’.  

“In 2011 … the IAB, the ANA and the 4As (announced an initiative) called ‘Making Measurement Make Sense’.” 

I may very well read the wrong trades, but I heard little either at the time or more recently from either.  

As Bob puts it: “It is now five years since the establishment of the Coalition for Better Ads. Have they rid the internet of annoying ads? Try not to laugh.” 

It may seem ‘angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin’ stuff to be concerned about arcane audience measurement techniques but remember that the most effective way to drive eventual change is by starting a topic far away from the frontline. 

As the Chinese proverb has it: ‘The flapping of the wings of a butterfly can be felt on the other side of the world.’ 

Dismiss the technical experts, ignore their advice, their worries, and concerns and before you know it, we all have a problem. 

No common standards of measurement, means less accuracy in evaluating true effect, leading on to no justifiable business reason to build brands, and every reason to focus 100% on performance metrics. 

This is not a happy place for the industry to be headed.  

  1. I think its also worth bearing in mind that the buy-side community is, like all stakeholders, hardly blameless in this..over the past 15yrs how many experienced research professionals have been let go and replaced with ‘analysts’ – analysts who focus on taking data at face value and putting it into all manner of fancy looking charts without the industry knowledge and expertise to demand similar standards to traditional media. How many buyers of media allowed themselves to be seduced by metrics that contained 9zeros in the answer – when just like the online networks they really knew better. How many buyers of media expected their data to be provided for free or demanded scope of measurement over quality of measurement? I think the truth is that we are where we are because all stakeholders (buyers, sellers & researchers)allowed this to happen…but lets also remember that there are online measurement committees (if not admittedly JICs) to which the global platforms are engaged (UKOM springs to mind). In a slight defence of the global platforms for a moment, where would the WFA Cross Media initiative be without the rather significant engineering and data science resource currently donated to the industry for that initiative? I also believe that at least some of the uncertainty is driven by a regulatory environment that could hardly be described as conducive to long term investment in data which as an industry maybe we need to do better at lobbying our cause. What gives me a good deal of hope are seeing more advertisers taking audience measurement seriously again having taken a bit of it in-house & are focussing on supporting their own trade-body’s efforts on measurement, seeing how fast Origin is moving in the UK and how fleet of foot BARB is being with OTT. I think the future’s bright..Rome wasn’t built in a day, our bedrocks JICs weren’t either and industry cross media won’t either. I’m always reminded of that old and still true adage: you can have your data cheap, fast, good….pick two.

  2. Thanks Andrew – I don’t disagree with most of this.
    If I was a global platform and the WFA came calling, asking for help I think I would take every opportunity to offer my expertise and massive resources in return for taking the lead in shaping future audience measurement.
    That’s what I meant by the butterfly proverb – offer help you can easily afford to shape the future of this part of the industry around your needs. Control this piece and you shape the future world…!
    I’m also amazed, genuinely at how the broadcasters can’t see what’s happening. They fuss on about not wanting to join Origin, and how their measurement is so superior to everyone else’s (which it may well be), whilst ignoring the fact that FB, Google etc have until very recently been doing rather well and eating their ad revenue lunch!
    No doubt they’ll still be fussing on when there’s no revenue left!

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