Media Forum: Should the ABCs change?

Should the ABC give advertisers what they want, Alasdair Reid asks.

Things move slowly in the world of joint industry media research. Arguably, this is because the big surveys tend to be run by committee structures that are designed to make the United Nations appear like a model of nimble decision-making. Take the Audit Bureau of Circulations, for instance.

Initially constituted to reflect the best in business models practised in its launch year (1931), the ABC has a chief executive (currently Chris Boyd), but the important strategic and policy stuff is thra-shed out by the ABC Council.

This council has 33 seats, five of which are allocated in perpetuity to trade body organisations. The council meets four times a year and one of its sub-sets, the management committee, meets with similar frequency, while an independent chairman is selected by a panel of Council members every three years.

It's not that easy being the chairman, because the media owner representatives on the Council are alive to the possibility that they're about to be stitched up like kippers by their advertiser and agency co-councillors, or vice-versa.

But now and again, something stirs. In recent years, agencies have been getting ever more vociferous in their demands for greater frequency in reporting periods. They'd like daily figures for newspapers, and monthly ones for magazines. The ABC decision-makers have pondered this, including it, for instance, on the agenda at "Blue Sky" brainstorming sessions with the survey's various stakeholders.

Then, in April of this year, things sprang into action when the ABC Council commissioned Douglas McArthur, the former chief executive of the Radio Advertising Bureau, to produce a report.

Last week, he delivered. The bottom line is that the print industry is still stuck in the last century when it comes to the quality of data that it offers to advertisers.

For some, this will not be a shock. Tellingly, McArthur was debarred from making any specific recommendations, but the message that emerged from the ABC Council last week was that McArthur's report would be central to talks about constructing a schedule for outlining a map for possible change.

Highly encouraging. But is it time to inject a smidgeon of urgency into the whole process? Possibly, Bernard Balderston, the associate director of media at Procter & Gamble, agrees. He says: "There is the perception there is room for change."

And Balderston would like to see swifter progress now that McArthur has filed his report. But Steve Goodman, the managing director of print trading at Group M, argues this needs proper debate. The report, he says, will make that process far more productive.

He comments: "It's possible to lose sight of the fact that the ABC is extremely well-run. It is sometimes assumed that due to the media coverage, the ABC accepts that agencies are always calling for changes, and that the media owners are always looking to block this."

On the other hand, Nik Vyas, the group press director at ZenithOptimedia, points out that publishers are building multiplatform brands - so they need to be more consistent in their attitude on the level of information they provide. He explains: "We have the polar extremes of publishers telling us what's been delivered for our clients on their digital properties, then reporting vaguely on what's happened over a prolonged period of time in their paper products. Of course there are differences, but it's not as if more frequent data is difficult to obtain."

But Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Emap Consumer Media, argues that ABC issues have to be seen in the context of wider media research issues. He wants to see an enhanced National Readership Survey, and research that might reflect the overall penetration of multi-platform media brands.

He concludes: "We want to ensure that if new data becomes available, it does so in a contextualised way. But we have to acknowledge the way the world is moving. Where the ABC is concerned, yes, I'd like to see things proceed."

YES - Bernard Balderston, associate director of media, P&G

"There is a feeling that there is a need for more frequent data. We support Douglas McArthur's report and we would encourage the relevant parties to instigate the changes sooner, not later."

MAYBE - Steve Goodman, managing director of print trading, Group M

"For progress to be made, things have to be right for both sides. We are now all very clear about the things that may need to change. We can now have a far more informed debate about these."

YES - Nik Vyas, group press director, ZenithOptimedia

"Digital is driving advertising accountability. Therefore, it is unsustainable for publishers to continue to provide such infrequent and general data when it comes to their paper products."

YES - Paul Keenan, chief executive, Emap Consumer Media

"This issue has been around for some time now, and I think that it's time for the industry to act, provided that we do things that aren't just totemic. We have to add value to the whole media process and ensure we're not flooding the market with data no-one wants to use."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.

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