The MPA, seeking to salvage the report while defusing the controversy that threatened to overshadow its results, is giving the document to the ARF for study and arbitration. The research foundation joins the American Association of Advertising Agencies in getting involved in the matter.
The draft report questioned some data from the two leading researchers of magazine readership, Simmons Market Research Bureau and Mediamark Research Inc. Simmons exploded over the criticisms, and suspected a political motive. Company President Ellen Cohen refused to hand over additional material about its research to the MPA Technical Committee.
The MPA's decision to give the report to the ARF caught the research company off-guard. But a still infuriated Simmons last week reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the foundation.
"This is the first I'm hearing of this, and I'm a member of the ARF board," Ms. Cohen said in a statement released after she was contacted by Advertising Age. "The MPA never called Simmons to let us know. We think that lacks professional courtesy."
However, a Simmons spokesman said the company is pleased that the report is finally going to a third party.
"We've given the ARF our research in the past," he said. "Maybe that's where this belonged in the first place."
At the MPA, Exec VP-Marketing James Guthrie said: "Our point is to give the report the attention and the importance we think it deserves. We don't want to see it go down the rabbit hole with the seeds of doubt planted by Simmons."
It will be up to ARF President Michael Naples to rise above the fray. Although his foundation will try to arbitrate the dispute, there's no guarantee any of the participants will abide by its conclusions.
"We're not interested in the politics," Mr. Naples said. "We're interested in the research questions."
An Ad Age editorial on Aug. 22 had called for just such a move by the MPA.
"We saw the Ad Age editorial," Mr. Guthrie acknowledged. "It was a direction that we were already headed in."
Industry reaction varied.
"I think it is terrific," said one magazine research executive.
But an ad agency research executive said turning the report over to the ARF "is a good idea if something happens, but if it takes forever to come to a conclusion, everyone will forget what the problem was. The ARF can be like the judicial process."
No course of action is mapped out yet at the ARF.
"We're going to take a look at the report for the first time, make an assessment and see what we can do to help," Mr. Naples said.
At the heart of the controversy is Simmons research that shows the actual number of magazine readers has stayed constant over the years, while the larger potential audience from which that number is drawn has decreased. MRI research also showed actual readers were constant, but that the larger, "screen" group was increasing.
MRI explained its methodology to the MPA's satisfaction, but the magazine group's draft report called the Simmons variations "perplexing."
Meanwhile, a Sept. 23 peace summit called by the Four A's will proceed as planned. The MPA, Simmons, MRI and the ARF have all agreed to attend.