Is the game up for media auditing?

Is the game up for media auditing?

Auditing might still have a place in the UK media sector, but it’s not set for growth, writes ISBA’s Bob Wootton.

I was around when the idea of media auditing – as in getting and pooling advertisers’ bought TV costs and assessing their relative performance against the pool – was first conceived. By which, I mean I was in the office next door.

The world’s first media auditing company was Media Audits, now found deep within Accenture. There was only one commercial TV channel back then, but it was sold by fourteen separate, allegedly competing regional broadcasters.

Advertisers and their agencies used to obsess about each and every spot they bought, not least because many lunchtime and late night spots delivered audiences that we swoon about in peaktime nowadays. (One schedule I bought back then achieved its reach target in a single spot, a centre break of Crossroads which yielded 72 housewife TVRs, or 72% unique reach in 30 seconds albeit at only one OTS!).

This early media auditing took a while to get going, but it wasn’t long before enough big advertisers were auditing to give the pools some credibility. It was boosted by the fact that (almost uniquely in the world) we have a tradition of ‘publishing’ broadcaster revenues into which we can divide audiences from BARB to give us average market prices. Alongside the pools these were, and are, a staple component of both media cost forecasting* and auditing.

Unsurprisingly, agencies hated auditors and often challenged them but to diminishing effect. By the mid-80s, most agencies had grudgingly accepted auditing, partly because the battle was lost and partly because there was a new front, with the new media independents leeching away our lucrative accounts for lower fee and price promises.

As auditing matured and the pools and historic databases grew, it began to offer commentary beyond pricing, evaluating schedule ‘quality’, cost and speed of achievement of reach and effective frequency.

By this time, media consultancy billetts – now ebiquity (lower case all round) – was a player in the space and invented the ‘rack’ which combined price and ‘quality’ measures and which still prevails today.

Later auditors sought to expand their services to offer second opinions on agencies’ media plans (not too successful as I recall) and agency search and selection (a bit more successful, though also eliciting many agency allegations of improper play as they managed pitches that their own audits had sometime precipitated).

Forays into other media were not particularly auspicious. National press lent itself reasonably well to auditing even though there are more inherent variables, but magazines less so; and by the time they got to radio and posters (out-of-home to you youngsters) it was a couple of desultory slides bundled in for nothing before lunch to sweeten and maintain the auditor’s client relationships. Or so I’m told.

But all the way through, auditing relied on intermediated brand advertisers – in other words those who couldn’t measure the precise performance of their media from direct response data. These brands sought the surrogate comfort of knowing that they were buying ‘better’ than their ‘peers’. (Even if sometimes everybody happened to be getting ripped off!; and by ‘peers’ I might mean sector competitors but more often just other advertisers of similar size and ‘clout’).

Sorry for the long recap, but as ever history offers some insights for today, where the three relevant defining characteristics are:

1. Consolidation of media buying

If the assertions that there is little difference in the price at which the big agencies buy media are correct, auditing has an evolved role. It enables the advertisers, and especially the procurement people who now dominate the deals, to see how well they are performing within their agency’s buying pool. Most of the smarter ones get this now.

However, a new argument has also emerged because some of the agency groups’ buying pools are bigger than the auditors’, so the logic goes that the buyer sometimes has bigger and better intel than the auditor.

2. Migration away from ‘interruptive’ spot advertising towards ‘engagement’ through sponsorship, partnerships, placements, native and so on.

3. The rise of ‘digital’ (sorry, that poor descriptor again)…

…neither of which lend themselves to the like-for-like comparisons which auditing offers because each instance is unique and bespoke.

Moreover, even for intermediated brands, digital channels are the ultimate performance media, throwing back huge amounts of data and partly removing the need for comparative audits. And Google and Facebook know much, much more about everybody’s business and offer their own tools too – impressive if taken with an appropriate pinch of salt.

So it seems to me that auditing still has a place but is not really set for growth, at least not in the UK. Elsewhere, there is still good business to be done – in some markets, advertisers engage auditors literally to help them determine if their media plan has even been bought!

No surprise, therefore, that media consultancy is taking on a new hue. The established players are turning further towards marketing ‘sciences’ – return on investment, econometrics, analytics, dashboards. And latterly – and entirely logically – content verification tools which analyse delivery, viewability, safety and perhaps even financial transparency in the murky online world.

And both the established companies and some more recent entrants – some ex-auditor and some ex-agency or – client – are focusing on agency search and selection, pitch and contract advice, and best and most effective practice in the management of (probably several if not many) specialist agencies.

I should know – ISBA is also active in these spaces and we’ve never had so many live briefs. We’re also rolling out our new model media contract, which probably won’t win us any popularity contests – except amongst those we speak for.

TV commercial production consultants continue to prosper – not surprising given the costs and risk involved in many commercials and the steep rise in demand for other forms of audiovisual content. And literally as I started to write this, I learned of a new entrant in the events and out-of-home space too.

It’s clear that there is a lot for advertisers to have to worry about these days, so they will seek the reassurance they need in order to have confidence in a value chain that displays some pretty ‘chequered’ behaviours.

Never seen that before…

Friday evening’s Gogglebox was a great one with the EastEnders live murder denouement and all.

And in the first centre break, the new ad for EE’s new set-top telly box, with its very competitive four-channel record and swipe functions.

It stars Kevin Bacon – and Gogglebox’s own Christopher and Stephen, hairdressers of Brighton parish.

There used to be unbelievably strict rules preventing talent appearing in both ads and host programming. I once had a radio campaign shelved because my ad’s voiceover was on the opposite breakfast show, for chrissakes.

Things have certainly relaxed in the ‘digital’ world!

*not that it helped many people in the Q1 2015!

Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising at ISBA. Twitter: @bobwootton.

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