Feeding the Monster – The Tyranny of Big Numbers

Earlier this month I chaired the advertising session at the annual asi video and audio measurement conference in Nice. This post is based on my opening remarks.

This session is all about looking at the world of audience measurement from an advertising, and advertiser perspective.

I believe we are fast approaching a tipping point. We have for years inhabited a world within which the most important, some would say the only thing that mattered was how many ‘somethings’ you bought, and at what price.

This was the world of trading; the world where the biggest number always wins; the world where ‘big’ beats ‘precise’ every time.

How else to explain the US upfront system? Or the preference (again in the US) for programme ratings as the trading metric as opposed to audiences to commercials?

How often do we see ‘oh but it generates clicks’ as a justification for some inane piece of editorial content? Why does that matter? Because in the heads of Publishers and Editors click volume equals advertising revenue. They’re not wrong, but they should be.

There can only be one reason for this obsession – a fear that numbers may go down and that if they did ad revenue would consequently and inevitably decline.

 Never mind that what we’re buying is commercials, and what we’re measuring is programmes. Never mind that clicks hardly correlate with business success.

Big is good, we must feed the monster even if all logic suggests that it’s irrational to do so.

Why else do we continue to focus on metrics like ‘views’ even though the way we define what constitutes a view varies from channel to channel?

Why does the industry ignore ad fraud within programmatic buying even though everyone knows it happens at scale? Because fraudulent clicks mean bigger numbers and bigger numbers are good.

The truth is that all of these things get us big numbers – even though they’re demonstrably questionable as well as being of limited (at best) pragmatic use in meeting our clients’ goals.

We’re now moving into a world where why things work matters as much as what works.

A world where it is not only legitimate but increasingly popular to question any association between the most basic audience metrics and business effect. To what degree do outputs impact outcomes?

A planners’ world defined by a desire to understand how people consume media, not just how many of them do so.

A world of combinations, of searching for the best mix of communication channels to meet a defined objective.

A world where we look beyond narrow advertising-funded channels to consider owned media forms, earned exposures, and formats like in-game, or in-programme product or message placements.

In this world, cross-media measures matter. And if I may put in a plea to many in this room, cross-media is not the same as cross-platform, or cross-video despite what you might hear from some speakers on this platform. Words matter, definitions matter and if we can’t rely on the professional research community to speak accurately then we’re in a bigger mess than I thought.

If we’re to plan in a truly cross-media manner, then we need the vision of Origin and similar initiatives. That’s not the same as saying everyone has to agree with every detail, but it does mean a belief that the vision is worth striving towards.

I think the opposition we’re seeing to Origin (specifically from broadcasters) is misplaced; it’s backward-looking, narrow and rooted in the old trader mentality.

Much more importantly, it does the broadcasters themselves no favours. They’re in an immensely strong position as an impactful, brand-safe, flexible medium, a point made very well by Nick Manning this week in The Media Leader. Further they have a large body of evidence pointing to the medium’s success in building brands and businesses.

They are far better off inside the tent where they can ensure that any cross-media system develops in a way that benefits them by bringing their strengths into play. 

I’m encouraged by the number of large advertisers embracing the world of planning. They want to move forward to understand not only what works but why. That way they can focus on what works.

I’ve never understood the ‘you’re either for us or against us’ mentality. Promoting tools and techniques to help planners doesn’t mean stopping measuring audiences.

Audience measurement by channel is, as it has always been, essential. Its a crucial building block in measuring advertising effectiveness. It’s not, and if truth be told it’s never been the whole house.

Relative newcomers, like the attention measurers, the smart TV manufacturers, the neuro-scientists all provide blocks – some big, some small.

We certainly need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but even the most carefully filtered bathwater needs refreshing occasionally.

  1. The vision is definately worth striving for. If broadcasters miss the boat by not participating in Origin and it’s future developments then they will be behind for decades.

  2. I agree, an error for the ages..

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