Making sense of media is impossible without accurate measurement. What a paradox that online, a sector that is meant to be more accountable, has done such a poor job of agreeing common standards.
As Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, said in his speech to the US Interactive Advertising Bureau in January, digital advertising is 21 years old. It’s time to grow up.
Media agencies have been given a hard time for a lack of transparency in what Pritchard calls the "murky" supply chain, but media owners could do better too.
It is too much to hope that Google and Facebook will stop marking their own homework and open up their platforms to unrestricted third-party scrutiny. However, following a series of missteps involving flawed metrics and poor viewability standards, both tech giants will now allow the US Media Rating Council to audit its numbers in limited fashion.
Traditional media owners operate in a more trusted environment with a history of third-party measurement but, when it comes to their online operations, they should be clearer about comparing apples with apples. When The Sun’s online monthly unique users overtook those of the Mirror last month, Rupert Murdoch’s title was able to count SunBingo.co.uk, DreamteamFC.com and UKHolidaysinTheSun.co.uk towards its total based on comScore data. That prompted the Mirror to retort, with some justification, that it was still ahead of The Sun in terms of its online audience for news, even if the gap is closing fast.
Measurement questions aren’t confined to online. ITV claimed at its 2016 results last week that, while net ad revenue declined 3% and broadcast and online revenue fell 1%, "we again outperformed the UK television ad market as a whole". Yet Thinkbox reported that TV ad revenues rose 0.2% last year. (ITV points out Thinkbox counts other revenues such as sponsorship.)
When it comes to audiences and viewability, the move to common standards is painfully slow. The Publishers Audience Measurement Company’s efforts to provide universal print and online metrics for UK publishers will only come into force in February 2018.
Yet every media owner has the power to change the conversation now. The Financial Times has just unveiled its own commercial charter, with guarantees to advertisers about viewability, brand safety and ad fraud, and hopes other publishers will follow suit.
Advertisers should demand higher standards. If they withheld their adspend, it would be language that every media owner would understand.
Gideon Spanier is head of media at Campaign.