The Viewing Report

Online: Towards objective measurement

26 April 2016

Pete RobinsPete Robins, Founder, agenda21 and Chairman, IPA Digital Media Group

I bought my first online campaign in 1996. I made up how to do it.

The site I bought some ad impressions from at the time faxed me over a web trends report of all the files that had been delivered by their web server. I looked for my gif file name and wrote down the number. I was confident this was all correct as quite frankly I had nothing else to go on. At that time there were absolutely no standards on anything to do with online. None.

I had no idea that 20 years later there would follow a whole range of impassioned discussions around a myriad of things such as standardising formats, adserving, measurement, brand safety, fraud, viewability and latterly ad-blocking.

Equally I had no idea that bodies like the IPA, IAB and ISBA would have spent the last few years huddled together in rooms trying to establish cross-industry, cross-body, cross-border rules about what constitutes the base level of measurement standards and expectation, without getting everybody cross.

The UK is now the most advanced market in the world based on share of advertising spend aligned to digital platforms and, I would argue, the most advanced when it comes to intuitive media planning and buying. To the people involved in the everyday planning of ad activity across the everyday three-screen digital world of desktop, tablet and mobile, video is an ever increasing part of everyday life.

But of course it’s not just a three-screen world, as TV is and will continue to be the big brother for some time yet.

However, while we are advanced we’re not very well joined up; well, certainly not as joined up as we’re going to be. There are technical and territory-protecting reasons for this, as well as a whole bunch of stuff to learn about cross-platform planning and evaluation.

The recent broadcaster developments in partnering with bits of digital tech are to be applauded, but the holy grail of cross-platform understanding and optimisation at a granular level is very difficult. We’re all playing with probabilistic and deterministic modelling, which is a struggle to say let alone do, and we’re all trying to get better at it at pretty much exactly the same pace.

It’s also a reality that media-neutral planning doesn’t really exist, as planners and clients all have their personal biases. Business models, both agency and media owner side, can place false restrictions on true neutrality based on their own agendas.

However, there is at the most basic level of media planning still a need to understand audiences, reach and frequency alongside confidence of delivery and associated costs for that validated delivery. But we’re not quite there yet.

And whether you like it or not we have to deal with the consequences, and opportunities, that the greater level of granular data digital activity gives us to plan, buy, learn, twist and turn. But as we’re seeing, the paradox of this detail is that it’s also telling us some quite painful, meritocratic truths: smart trumps clout.

We need an objective gold standard; this will take time to work through, something at odds with today’s speed of media. 

I used to be frustrated that TV could only be bought against audiences that increasingly seemed too blunt. But maybe I was alone in that as I’ve basically never met a client who didn’t want to be on the telly; and I can’t say that about digital advertising.

However relatively simplistic the targeting, advertisers like TV; in fact they like it a lot. And part of that has to be about confidence of the delivery, robustly and independently verified. It’s a good lesson to take note of.

But regardless of platform, size of screen, the cleverness of the adserving tech used, the microscopic data all this investment creates, and the various trade bodies shouting their medium’s worth, we are firmly in an age of video. There is no going back, which is great.

So where now? It’s an agency’s job to give their clients leadership, to act with agility with increasing speed. Clearly many will have their own opinions, but one of the things I believe we need in this video-led world is a snippet of commonality.

It’s an opportunity for a solid, objective view on the whole video-led market and this is where a body like JICWEBS plays a crucial role to agree a gold standard. It’s also where something as trusted at BARB can too.

These things take time to work through, something at odds with today’s speed of media, but the time investment is needed to get this right. And crucially it still allows agencies, tech players and media owners to embellish, to apply their own special entrepreneurial flair and ideas; which is, after all, how we’ve gone from faxing nearly pointless numbers all those years ago.

Pete Robins

Pete is the co-founder of media agency agenda21 and chairman of the IPA’s Digital Media Group. Twenty years after buying his first online campaign, he reflects on the need for more objectivity in online measurement.