Media Forum: Is UKOM a web revolution?

Will the system take online advertising to a new level, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's easy to be dazzled by Google's success. Far too easy, as it turns out. Too easy for the Internet Advertising Bureau, for instance. Too easy, also, for some City analysts and a majority of media commentators.

This was rather poignantly demonstrated last week, when the IAB put out a press release revealing that, in the six months to the end of June, the UK internet advertising market was worth £1.75 billion.

The outcome was predictable. "Internet overtakes television to become biggest advertising sector in the UK," one typical headline blazed. Well, up to a point it has.

But, looked at another way, the growth of online advertising has been rather stunted. Google has changed our lives - but it will never make a brand famous. It will never help generate desire - not in a marketing sense, at any rate. Google occupies a netherworld of directory and classified advertising, a dreary back office, once you strip out the shock of the new functionality.

And another announcement last week only served to remind us all of a rather more interesting truth about the online medium - the painfully slow progress it has made, across the past decade, in developing the display advertising formats that will attract the mainstream FMCG advertisers. Perhaps partly explaining why online display advertising makes up just 18 per cent of online ad revenues.

Yet, at long last, many years after this project was first mooted, the UK Online Measurement Company, an industry body backed by the IAB with data provided by Nielsen, is to provide panel-based audience data that will make it possible for advertisers and their agencies to plan online campaigns targeting specific audiences. In other words, it will provide the same sort of planning currency that Barb provides for TV and the National Readership Survey provides for national newspapers. And now comScore plans to launch its own system too.

Will these drive the medium to a new and more sophisticated level? The UKOM system is a move in the right direction, Will Smyth, the head of digital at OMD UK, argues. He adds: "It's no secret media owners' agencies want FMCG companies more involved online, especially now there are more video advertising opportunities. The methodology looks thorough, the panel size looks robust and Nielsen has a good track record. But what it won't address are issues like engagement and how people feel about brands (in the online environment)."

However, David Fletcher, the head of MEC MediaLab, says his natural instinct is to be cautious until the data comes on stream. He says: "It has to be an improvement on what we have. If it is, it will certainly allow for more normative conversations with clients. For agencies, a central component in all new-business conversations is the subject of integration. The client wants to be reassured that you can join all the various pieces together - and it's true that, with digital, there isn't the fluency that you can get from using the comparison points of Barb and the NRS."

Will Phipps, the head of planning at the7stars, shares some of those reservations. He says: "It's a first step - and we have to welcome that. But reach and frequency data won't on their own address some of the barriers perceived by FMCG advertisers, which need to be reassured about the value that online can deliver. There still isn't a deeper understanding about how digital display works - and it continues to be a concern that this still isn't being covered off by the likes of the IAB."

But Scott Thompson, the head of digital research at Starcom MediaVest Group, is slightly more upbeat. Yes, it's just a first step; and it's also true that to sell the digital domain as a platform for packaged-good categories, planners need to move beyond relatively crude measures of reach and frequency.

On the other hand, this initiative has to be welcomed. He says: "The fact UKOM will be compatible with IPA TouchPoints 3 will also make this an invaluable tool in understanding and planning online within cross-media brand campaigns."

YES - Will Smyth, head of digital, OMD UK

"It will allow the traditional approach to planning media to be translated into online. This will be of particular interest to packaged-goods companies - and that's something that everyone wants."

MAYBE - David Fletcher, head of MEC MediaLab

"It's evidence of the maturing of the medium. That said, we'll have to see if we really get the data this promises. What looks good on paper doesn't always deliver. It will have to involve a step-change over what is currently available."

MAYBE - Will Phipps, head of planning, the7stars

"While access to data can only improve planning, measures of exposure don't provide the silver bullet. Reach and frequency are the oldest of metrics, but understanding what is effective is the only true metric we should strive for."

YES - Scott Thompson, head of digital research, Starcom MediaVest

"The establishment of a universally accepted system for online audiences is an essential first step for brand advertisers to be able to make the most of online spaces. We can now move on to 'who' rather than 'how many'."

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