Adland must have common standards if we want to measure up

Standards sound dull, but they are the key to our creativity and value, new UKOM chair says.

We work in the building industry. Brand-building is what we do and never has there been more need for it, as the recent Kraft Heinz write-down brutally illustrated.

Elizabeth Fagan, non-executive chair at Boots UK as well as ISBA chair, and Phil Smith, director-general at ISBA, laid out a clear agenda for systemic change around rebuilding trust and real accountability in marketing and brand-building at last month’s ISBA conference. Measurement standards sat at the heart of this agenda. 

Today, advertising is in danger of detaching itself from the very standards, principals and measures that have previously made it such a powerful driver of brands, companies, economies and indeed culture.

Agreeing on the problem is of course always easier than solving it. We need to turn sentiment into action and every player has a role; it is an ecosystem challenge.

Collectively, we have allowed some of the founding pillars of our discipline to be undermined or ignored. 

Over the past few years, new languages and "currencies" have emerged that often have a limited relationship to the true efficacy of what we do and a close relationship to self-interest.

At what point did we decide that advertising context had nothing to do with what a person would think about the brand? At what point did media become about ever-more niche optimisation rather than effective scale and impact? When did agencies start blaming clients for diminishing revenues?

Measurement, accountability, transparency, brand safety and trust are all variants of the same greater challenge. 

The erosion of the perceived efficacy of advertising has been created by the whole industry itself playing fast and loose with these potent ingredients.

Common base measures and standards underpin every industry that has ambitions towards scale, trust and credibility. It is that simple. They are an industry’s version of a country’s currency.

Undermine a country’s currency and we all know what happens. Similarly, when industry players undermine or ignore the base standards in their industry, at best a dysfunctional system results, at worst it is an open invitation for legislators to intervene.

Accountancy, finance, pharmaceuticals, automobiles – many an industry has trodden this path and had their test.  

Advertising, media and technology faces such a test today. 

Time for a reset

The digital transformation of advertising has brought with it an amazing opportunity for our industry to better serve clients and their consumers.

However, there has also been a close correlation between the development of digital and the erosion of consumer and corporate trust. This is because too often base standards and measures have been replaced by less proven metrics and new spurious standards.

By way of example, when the proven correlation between advertising reach, brand growth and scale are ignored in the new advertising "optimisation economy", we have a major problem.

When our industry relies on selling a short-term advantage in an often-illusory reduction to the cost of "conversion", can we be surprised that clients start to view advertising as a discretionary expenditure to be managed rather than an investment in brand and corporate growth?

This is not to dismiss smart ways of refining media and advertising to gain competitive advantage. It is simply to say that this is not a reason to abandon industry-wide currencies and standards that provide a bedrock of security for clients. 

Clients’ responsibility is to insist on seeing such industry-ratified data before spending a single pound.

However smart the data-driven thinking, asking what media context your advertisement is appearing in, how many people a trusted third-party source tells me saw it and how you cap frequency still seem like pretty smart questions to me. 

Frankly, we sometimes make this harder than it needs to be.

The UK is at risk of falling behind

Too many media measurement currencies are siloed, with not enough energy being placed into joining up and simplifying this core area. In fact, the UK is in danger of falling behind other markets, which are making more progress in this area. 

One of the biggest transformational forces in business has been the shift from channel focus to customer focus, but too many of our measures in the UK are still siloed in a channel world. 

Thankfully, ISBA, supported also by other trade bodies such as the IPA, Advertising Standards Authority, Association for Online Publishing and Internet Advertising Bureau have been raising this up the agenda and seeking to address this area. 

Of course, when it comes to addressing such challenges and converting sentiment to action, only money talks. 

Every pound spent without third-party-audited data on audience, viewability and so forth is a pound going towards supporting the very forces undermining advertising’s trust and credibility.  

The ability to change this also sits in the hands of the agencies and consultants that should be zealots in insisting on the industry-recognised measurement stamp of approval on media plans.

Clients should not be spending a single penny on self-marked homework. We must not leave it to legislators or indeed siloed self-interest to determine standards in our industry.

It must be up to me, you and the rest of our profession – who have the belief that advertising and media creativity has the power to transform brands, businesses and economies – to lead such change.

Iain Jacob is chair of UKOM, the industry body for online audience measurement

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