Poster Boy of Engagement Exits ARF

Plummer's Push to Find Metric for Tactic Ends Amid 'Disappointment'

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An industrywide engagement metric, that ever-elusive concept that has baffled some of advertising's brightest minds, took a major hit last week when one of its leading proponents, Joseph Plummer, the Advertising Research Foundation's chief research officer, stepped down from his post.
Joseph Plummer
Joseph Plummer

Mr. Plummer was reticent about his exact reasons for leaving the ARF, but said there was "disappointment that we were unable to achieve what I hoped we would when I came there."

As ARF's poster boy for bringing precision and measurement to engagement, Mr. Plummer was at the forefront of moving the industry from a reach-based ad model (one characterized by TV's gross rating points) to one that tried to capture how consumers reacted to ads (rather than simply reporting on whether they were in a position to see those ads). But the concept of engagement has been stymied by competing interests.

"Engagement has turned out to be such a controversial and ambiguous and sometimes contentious word," said David Marans, exec VP, IAG Research.

In 2006, it was arguably the industry's biggest buzzword. As web marketing and its precise measurements of online behavior became more prevalent, traditional media started to feel pressure to prove its influence. All eyes were on Mr. Plummer at a 2006 ARF event when he unveiled the advertising group's definition of engagement: "Turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context."

Some media executives were less than impressed with what came next. "I don't think the industry knew what to do with [that definition],"one media executive said.

The industry has been far from united in its intent to switch to an entirely new way of deciding where to place advertising. Unsurprisingly, competing interests have blocked one clear picture of engagement from emerging.

Traditional media players, cowed by what online media can deliver in terms of return on investment, are hesitant to commit to an engagement measurement that undermines their business models. "Some of the older players are being threatened -- it's been much more about defending their turf," said the media executive.

No magic bullet
"A lot of industry associations have too many competing industries -- the publishers, producers. ... It's a big, hairy, confusing issue. ... It's not one where you are going to stumble upon the holy grail of engagement," said Andrew Swinand, president-chief client officer, Starcom USA.

Robert Barocci, CEO of the ARF, denies there are any snags in the engagement initiative, calling it "very successful." He said Mr. Plummer's departure is a result of his need to pursue other interests, and pointed out that Mr. Plummer is staying on as editor of the Journal of Advertising Research.

"Everybody is disappointed, but he's 66 years old and he's got other interests, and we respect that," Mr. Barocci said.

Others were less enthusiastic about the industry's progress toward a common engagement measurement. "We are behind where we were a year-and-a-half ago," another media executive said.

In the absence of a consensus, media companies, agencies, publishers and researchers have started to develop their own proprietary metrics and definitions for engagement. But they don't always match up philosophically.

Importance of medium
IAG Research bases its engagement measures on recall of over 5,000 panelists a day of various program details. Its research has shown strong correlation between the engagement score of a TV show and the recall of ads in the show, which may suggest that the medium is more important than the message.

But other researchers with a stake in engagement, like Brad Fay, chief operating officer of word-of-mouth market-research and consulting firm Keller Fay Group, said the message's ability to resonate with consumers should be the key measure of engagement. Mr. Fay, naturally, prefers measuring engagement by word-of-mouth. "It's hard to come up with measures that would work for every objective in every category in every brand," he said.

Starcom's Mr. Swinand prefers thinking about engagement as a way to reach consumers when they are most receptive to your message. "The key is, how do you make sure what you are saying is contextually relevant from a content and contact standpoint," he said.

Rebecca McPheters, president of McPheters & Co., spent much of 2006 spearheading the launch of an engagement survey for the publishing industry,, which failed to lure enough backers to go forward. She leans toward using a more action-based evaluation of engagement. "A lot of people are looking for warm and fuzzy measures that show how [consumers] relate to [ads]. But what really should matter is how many people will be exposed to the ad, will they actually see it, and most important, will they respond to it."
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