The Illusion of Precision: the Future of Media Measurement

With All the Data We Have These Days, We Should Be Finding Answers to Basic Advertising Questions -- but We're Not

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I don't know how often I hear somebody say, "Advertising was much easier 20 years ago." For most brands, the annual plan consisted of figuring out how much TV could be bought after commercial production, which was usually limited to 10% of the media budget.

One truth then was "to spend enough on TV to maximize reach and frequency before even thinking about a second medium."

Another truth was brands looked bigger to the consumer if you were in two media. It was that simple.

As for creative, a good score on 24-hour aided recall meant that the ad was OK. But, even with high recall scores, major advertisers were reluctant to say more than whether the copy (note the word) was associated with market-share gains or not.

No cause and effect, then ... as now.

The truth is that none of the things we held as "truths" back then were indeed truths. Same then, as now. And, yet we soldier on, because we have to. This has been called the science of muddling through. How proud can we researchers be of that ?

The big CMO dilemma includes questions such as: What about measurement of all these new platforms? Should my brands be participating in social media? What does it mean that Coke has 36 million Facebook followers? Mobile phones seem to be creating a rebirth of discounting; how can I avoid that ? Is ad recall more or less important than likability? How can I rely on marketing-mix models that don't take social media or emotion into account? Can search help my CPG brands?

With all the data we have these days, I think we should be finding answers to some of these questions. But we're not.

One of the leading thinkers in media research wrote:

"The dilemma of the digital age is that so much is either not measured or measured inadequately, and yet the perception is quite the opposite. The constant stream of data points that are available today create the illusion of precision, and it is generally accepted as such.

"I sat in on a Marketing 50 conference earlier this year, and I was shocked at how low on the totem pole the issue of media measurement and planning was. And yet the success of a marketing message depends on it."

At a recent ARF Industry Leader Forum, in answer to the question, "What is the most intractable problem you have to deal with?" Nick Sorvillo, global research head at Kraft Foods, responded, "Of the more than 100 touch points that can influence the purchase of Kraft brands, I don't know which five to buy. And how the five I buy will affect the ones that I don't or can't?"

These are questions that can have answers -- unlike the ones that have been asked by CMOs for years that don't have answers, such as "How can I optimize my marketing mix to maximize results?" One prominent research head told me recently that both those italicized words should be banned from CMOs' vocabulary.

So let's start answering the right questions. Some of them are $1 trillion questions.

One company that I know of that is putting significant resources toward answering these critical questions is Google. It has initiatives like the Advertising Format Impact project, which evaluates the differences in impact of multiple video formats across multiple platforms, and the multisponsor ARF Arrowhead Project, which measures the role of social media in the purchase process.

The industry needs to focus on providing real answers to real questions. Inertia and staying with the status quo must be driven out of the way. The days of the illusion of precision must end.

Bob Barocci is president-CEO of the Advertising Research Foundation.

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