PIB's review, unfortunately, didn't lead to action. "The consensus seems to be that we should leave it the way it is," then-PIB President Robert Farley said in early 1990. But, as one media buyer pointed out at the time, "The most important figure is not dollars; it's pages. Pages are always true."
Or at least they used to be. As the current controversy surrounding Conde Nast Publications' Currency makes clear, the credibility of PIB's page counts is also now questionable.
Conde Nast sold 47 ad pages in Currency but will add more than 500 pages to its overall PIB count since the supplement was distributed across all its titles. Conde Nast wasn't wrong to appeal an earlier PIB ruling that disallowed the pages since the publisher had gotten prior approval from PIB on labeling the supplement. But the absence of clear rules regarding multititle supplements underscores a bigger problem.
If Conde Nast can sell 47 ad pages and be credited with 500-plus pages, how can pages be a relevant reflection of performance? As Cathie Black of Hearst Magazines -- which resigned from PIB after Conde Nast won its appeal -- told Advertising Age, "While the revenue information has always been in question, it now seems that the total ad page counts have become meaningless."
The flap also makes clear that the ad-page race remains heated even though publishers claim they view profitability, not ad volume, as the true measure of success. For better or worse, PIB's rankings are often used by advertisers and the media to determine who's hot and who's not.
PIB must undertake another close examination of its overall system of tracking revenue and pages. Only this time, it has to take action by developing a system that more accurately reflects modern-day business practices. Or it can do nothing, and watch its data become totally inconsequential.
The news that Anheuser-Busch gave tacit approval to production of speculative TV commercials for its Budweiser brand raises some troubling questions. Spec spots are not new -- aspiring directors and agency creatives have shot them for years to showcase their talents -- but when a blue-chip marketer such as A-B suggests its agency shop certain storyboards around to see if any producers are willing to produce them with no guarantee of payment, that's another story.
Some claim this reflects more than just a desire to hold down rising production costs; what's really at issue is the current state of agency/client relationships. In the days when top account management and creative executives were seen as genuine strategic partners on a brand, this sort of stunt would probably have been unthinkable.
Yet these are different times. Advertisers don't seem to value their agencies' contributions the way they used to, and their concept of loyalty is constantly being redefined. Brand assignments are parceled out to a roster of agencies; then the agencies are played against each other in a way that serves to demotivate a shop's best people rather than bring out their best.
It's not surprising, then, to find a number of agency people feel A-B's behavior is, at best, disrespectful -- not only to the creatives at Bud agency DDB Needham Worldwide but also to the production houses they work with. At worst, they find it onerous. They're not alone.