Passing the Measurement Buck

This post is based on an article in The Media Leader published on 23rd October 2023

I didn’t go to Adwanted’s ‘The Future of Media’ event the other week – it seems inappropriate for an old guy who started his career in the full-service era to attend anything with ‘future’ in the title. As one delegate put it: “This is The Future of Media, not the future of 1980s ad agencies.” 

But, and there’s always a but, it does no harm to learn from past mistakes.

And here’s one waiting to happen: “Ultimately, the room appeared to agree in principle on redefining the importance of measurement”.

What’s wrong with that? Surely measurement is key?

Indeed, it is, as I should know better than most. Early on I worked in an ITV station’s research department. Later, I headed the media research function at an ad agency and sat on both technical sub-committees and management committees at various JICs. And I was responsible, with Dr Simon Broadbent in persuading the TGI to add what we called ‘lifestyle questions’, developed as a proprietary Leo Burnett study, to the industry survey where they sit to this day.

If there was a Media Mastermind (actually there was such a thing once) my specialist subject would be: ‘audience measurement initiatives I have known’.

So why am I saying the consensus that we need to ‘redefine the importance of measurement’ is wrong?

Because it’s passing the buck. It’s easier and far more politically acceptable for those leading agencies to blame ‘measurement’ than it is to talk about failures in transparency in trading, acceptance of fraud, and the end result – a lack of trust.

Instead let’s talk about measurement in the certainty that we’re kicking the can down the road.

Agencies have form when it comes to talking big on measurement.

Years ago, some decided that the TGI was both essential and too expensive. They decided to group together to produce their own superior version. That went precisely nowhere (with apologies to Jim Kite at UM who did actually do something about it for a few years).

Then the agencies decided to group together and start something through the IPA. Luckily for them the IPA Head of Research back then was the brilliant Lynne Robinson who came up with Touchpoints.

This it was agreed was a great idea and to keep it untouched by vendor biases it would be funded by the agencies. That did happen for (I think) one cycle. Touchpoints is still a great idea but it’s no longer the agencies’ great idea.

On the vendor side, what about the sterling efforts of the media marketing agencies – Thinkbox, Radio Works, Magnetic, Newsworks?

They’ve certainly done excellent work over the years – but how much of their output and findings have translated into how media is traded?

Observe the reaction to ISBA’s Origin – an initiative that moves the ball forward both in its scope and ambition and in how it’s funded.

Are the buyers and sellers behind it, supporting their clients? With a few notable and it must be said significant exceptions the reaction has been rather disappointing. The broadcast vendors seem to want nothing to do with it and the agencies (ironically) moan on about how long it’s taking.

As if creating and delivering a new planning tool from nowhere is something that can be done in the odd lunch-hour.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be on stage chairing the advertising session at the annual asi audience measurement conference, widely recognised as the best of its type. The future of measurement will, as always, be very much front and centre. How many agencies and advertisers will attend to contribute to the debate? Very few.

‘After Cannes we have no budget left’ is the typical agency response. Which is more important? Hobnobbing with clients or contributing to improving measurement? The answer of course is both – yet one seems more important to the guys running agencies than the other.

Finally, what about effectiveness measures? Nick Manning has argued convincingly that that’s where the future lies, and I agree with him. But who’s going to drive such initiatives? Surely the agencies, as unbiased professional advisors should take the lead.

But as we all know the agencies aren’t trusted, nor are they seen as fit for future purpose. If your holding company looks the other way whenever transparency, or fraud is discussed, why trust them with accessing and analysing your proprietary data?

There are certainly ways for agencies to lead their clients in commissioning and applying effectiveness measures. They can also do a lot of pragmatic things to regain trust, which really should be their number one task.

I’m afraid showing up to an event and throwing a hospital pass to under-resourced research guys isn’t the answer.

Especially if the kernel at the heart of your ambitious plan for the future is to change the description from ‘measurement’ to ‘impact’.


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