Upfront 07

Politics Are Easy, Commercial Ratings Are Hard

At the ANA TV Forum: Searching for the Accountability Answer

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If networks and agencies saw things the same way they do politics, the commercial ratings debate would be a lot less complicated than it was at this week's Association of National Advertisers TV Forum in New York.

Morning moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" kicked things off yesterday by polling attendees on their picks for the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton by a majority of 66% over 33%, a ratio that was replicated when asked about Republican hopeful Rudy Giuliani.

"I salute you," Mr. Matthews told the crowd. "You're young at heart, idealistic and have high hopes for America."

Mr. Matthews was similarly optimistic about the category growth in advertisers for his own show, which he said has gravitated away from pain-relief pharmaceuticals to more sexually oriented health products. "That means my viewers are still in the game and happy people," he joked.

Keeping the quips moving
If Mr. Matthews' goal was to stir up a little controversy among the crowd with his ribald remarks on sex and politics, then the forum's first speaker, Joseph Tripodi, senior VP-chief marketing officer at Allstate Insurance, did his best to keep up with his comments on one of his key competitors. "Insurance is more than just a funny ad. If you get on the phone and call a gecko or a caveman, they're probably not going to answer the phone," he said, making cheeky reference to Geico. "It's important we present a unique message that is timeless and relevant to the brand."

Allstate has benefited from a recent series of ads narrated by "24" actor Dennis Haysbert that incorporate a mix of irreverent humor and brand messaging that rephrases the company's 50-year-old "You're in good hands" slogan into a question -- "Are you in good hands?" The spots also play well online: "Unlike Viacom, I really want my content on YouTube," Mr. Tripodi said. "We sold 1.8 million Your Choice auto policies. If consumers are prepared to pay a premium, then it's not just a commodity."

Keeping the focus on the brand is something many advertisers have lost sight of lately, Mr. Tripodi said, presenting high-school archetypes to illustrate his point. These included the Class Clown, which is an ad that thinks everything is a joke and nothing ties into the brand or product (i.e. Outpost.com and GoDaddy.com); The Jock, which gets lost in strained sports analogies that don't successfully tie back in to the brand (i.e. Jack Nicklaus and the Royal Bank of Scotland); and the Prom Princess, which is all about image and no substance (the Gap ads with Aubrey Hepburn, Paris Hilton's infamous Carl's Jr. car wash spots).

Commercial ratings debate
Just after Mr. Tripodi finished questioning the appropriateness of an ad's content, the next panel, hosted by Andy Jung, senior director-advertising and media services at Kellogg Co., instead put the focus on ratings for commercials -- the big debate within the TV industry. "The more we understand how commercials work in programming, the more entertaining they'll be and the more the consumer will understand them," Mr. Jung said. "We don't want to use this as a copy mechanism."

Mr. Jung also echoed the voices of respondents to an ANA survey released last week that found a 92% interest in commercial ratings among all members, a large portion of whom would like to see brand-specific ratings via second-by-second data as opposed to program-based ratings. "We need to understand how to make our advertising more effective. If consumers are not seeing ads at the right point in time, they're going to shop elsewhere."

Neilsen's ratings data won't be available until May 31, just missing the deadline for this year's upfront, but that won't stop several key players from incorporating similar metrics into this year's upfront deals anyway. In a panel moderated by Ad Age editor in chief Jonah Bloom, John Muszynski, CEO of Starcom, said he used his own commercial ratings data for three different deals in last year's upfront. "We can't wait for the rest of the results to come in. We had to push very aggressively for second-by-second data on the West Coast," he said.

Faith in medium's accessibility
Yet Mike Shaw, president-ad sales and marketing for ABC, said he approached several agencies with the same data last year -- including Mr. Muszynski -- and they showed no interest. But that hasn't changed his faith in the medium's accessibility, regardless of the preferred measurement. "TV is more accountable than a park bench or a matchbox," he said, making light of the move toward quirky out-of-home ads. "I'd love to see some sales figures from the advertisers tied to us. It's not something shared, but I'd love to see how some our joint ventures sold in the marketplace."

In the absence of commercial ratings, Mr. Muszynski looked to digital to play a key role in this year's upfront in terms of its proven measurement. "It gives the advertiser a greater addressability and acceptability. There's better accreditation metrics -- we've been begging for this for years and years. ... We're not advertising for the sake of it. How about answering the damn question [of who's interacting with your ad], and that's what digital can provide."

Mr. Bloom then posed a question to his panelists on their forecast for the upfront five years out. "From a research standpoint, the business is going away from actual, counted viewers on set-top boxes to accountability," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer of Group M North America. "More TV on the national side will be more addressable, which will solve issues like engagement." Mr. Shaw also predicted video on demand will play a greater role in deals, given its success among consumers for its instant accessibility.

Flexible relationships
VOD was discussed during the following panel by Beth Comstock, president-integrated media at NBC, who reintroduced the term "viewser" to the ANA members. "Consumers have a more flexible relationship with content now," she said. "More than half of Americans will watch videos online. They're connected, engaged and in control. They want to participate with media, not just hang out at the watercooler. They're in an engaged world."

Ms. Comstock's findings in the digital space led her to create three rules for engaging viewers online: be completely consumer-centric, gather insights at every step and create experiences unique to the medium. "Too often advertisers repurpose 30-second spots from TV. I don't think that's good enough. Streaming is a rich, immersive environment and we need to use different creative in different ways."

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