Is Origin the media industry's version of HS2?

Is Origin the media industry’s version of HS2?

Isba’s cross-media measurement plan is too big to not work. But advertisers are restless and frustrated.

The UK leads the world in media audience research. But there are warning lights flashing.

If you doubt the UK’s track record, have a look at what passes for TV audience research in the world’s biggest ad market, the US — or what is now perpetrated globally by the platforms.

Our research leaders’ knowledge is in high demand across the globe, which is why they go to so many conferences. (Charmingly, they seem to put aside their scruples about the costs of overseas travel, about which few proselytise). Many of them rather like a drink and a gossip. Cheers to that too.

But the tectonic plates have shifted.

Elusive ambition

The tech platforms have grown to siphon off way more than half of all adspend. Even the legacy media players who had the biggest swaggers now find themselves having to compete for what used to fall in their laps.

Meanwhile, an emboldened advertiser cohort has been driving towards cross-media measurement. Led globally by the World Federation of Advertisers and now being implemented in a few leading markets, notably by the Association of National Advertisers in the US and ISBA in the UK, whose interpretation is called Project Origin.

I’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of it. It’s garnered a higher profile than most media research initiatives lately.

While undoubtedly seeking answers to the right questions and doubtless entirely well-intentioned, it’s, er, contentious.

Amidst its carefully-couched public declarations around frameworks, roadmaps, templates, heads of agreement and statements of intent, there’s lots of talk about being ground-breaking. Ambitious, perhaps, but difficult to get your fingers under the bonnet unless you’re already underneath it.

What is under the surface?

As media director of Isba for 20 years, my perspective is this:

  • I’ve much experience of the high cost and slow speed of such projects
  • I’m seriously impressed that our national advertiser body has managed to touch (some) major advertisers for big additional chunks of money — over three years now — in a way I and my then colleagues never could…
  • But I’m uncertain about what might, or might not, surface…
  • And doubtful as to whether the necessary advertiser funds will continue to flow into it
  • That said, I’m fully prepared to take my hat off to them — and eat it — if the initiative flies and stays aloft.

Well, we don’t have long to wait now. Origin’s first outputs are due to be launched in the first half of next year. That’s only plus or minus seven months away, a mere trice in the ponderous, cautious world of media research.

Meanwhile, many of those aforementioned decent folk are restless. Apart from the few involved who will obviously toe the party line, amongst the rest it provokes dark mutters of portents.

Quietly mutinous, even.

The project doesn’t seem to have a lot of enthusiasts beyond its slightly opaque funding base.

Is this because the advertisers have taken matters into their own hands in response to what they perceive as a lack of progress across the JICs?

Perhaps they were as frustrated as I sometimes was about their lack of influence over media audience research. (This stemmed from their decision to cease any direct funding, and thereby relinquish influence and control when previous TV measurement body Jictar gave way to Barb in 1981 and continues to date).

I frankly doubt this. Over my 20 years representing the advertisers I found it tough to generate much real interest in media-audience research (outside the occasional veteran usual suspects at P&G, Mars and, sometimes, Unilever).

It may make good fodder for ambitious marketers’ international conference grandstanding, but follow-through? Nah.

Stakes are high, but what about chances of success?

Barb’s constituents remain leery of anything which dilutes our very stringent long-standing definition of TV (ad) viewing. Hence their embrace of their broadcaster colleagues’ alternate, Cflight, about which we are soon to hear much more.

(Meanwhile, Nielsen — yes, the people who’ve ‘done’ US TV audience data for ever — are now peddling their Nielsen One cross-media solution).

Reputations are on the line. It’s a major plank of ISBA’s stated workplan and is led by an ex-leader of WPP’s trading arm, GroupM. You don’t get many of those to the pound.

Yet in an interview at the Future of Media with Barb CEO Justin Sampson, moderator Justin Lebbon ranked Origin’s chances of success at only three in 10.

(Respected analyst Ian Whittaker then told us that tech companies’ adspends are slowing as they move from growth to cash retention strategies, suggesting structural, not cyclical, downward change to these important budgets upon which the industry has come to rely).

Rather like HS2, it’s got too big to not work (but then it didn’t). To stretch the comparison, will the industry have much truck with an audience research solution that stops at Gospel Oak and only goes as far as Birmingham?

The stakes are high, purportedly around £25m a year. At the moment. That’s a lot of regular money for a fairly small cadre of major advertisers, even if they only have to bear half of it (the platforms are funding significantly).

Imagine what Barb or IPA Touchpoints could do with a step-changing extra £25m a year. They do and the answer is a whole lot.

The annual highly-regarded ASI conference takes place next week.  Industry guru Brian Jacobs is chairing the advertising session has some relevant views.

Expect further dark mutterings, whether in the hall or on the fringes.

Many readers might think I’m worrying about being savaged by a dead sheep, to reference an ancient quote.  I prefer “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5 : 5) ….

Bob Wootton spent 40 years working in advertising, first as a media buyer at some of the UK’s leading agencies before joining the trade body ISBA in 1996, where he was advertising and media director for 20 years. He is also the founder of Deconstruction, a media and tech consulting business, and presents The Guitar Show on YouTube.


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