MEDIA: PERSPECTIVE; Overuse of media research leads to state of insecurity

In my job, I get to see rather more media research than a sane man ought. It usually comes in two categories: the irrelevant (‘Hey, Dominic, we’ve got some really interesting research which proves that 77 per cent of all millionaires subscribe to the Big Issue and we’d like to offer it exclusively to Campaign) or the pointless (‘Hi. Gemma from Sloane PR here. Did you get our press release which shows that readers of Harper’s Crche have more disposable income than Loot readers?’). If it drives me round the bend, then what on earth does it do to the poor old media buyers? By and large, I would exempt standard industry research from this criticism, although sometimes it appears to be built on such shifting foundations that it is difficult not to be suspicious of it. But that, more often than not, is a question of methodology. It doesn’t take much to fix except a willingness on the part of the media owners to dip their hands in their pockets.

In my job, I get to see rather more media research than a sane man

ought. It usually comes in two categories: the irrelevant (‘Hey,

Dominic, we’ve got some really interesting research which proves that 77

per cent of all millionaires subscribe to the Big Issue and we’d like to

offer it exclusively to Campaign) or the pointless (‘Hi. Gemma from

Sloane PR here. Did you get our press release which shows that readers

of Harper’s Crche have more disposable income than Loot readers?’). If

it drives me round the bend, then what on earth does it do to the poor

old media buyers? By and large, I would exempt standard industry

research from this criticism, although sometimes it appears to be built

on such shifting foundations that it is difficult not to be suspicious

of it. But that, more often than not, is a question of methodology. It

doesn’t take much to fix except a willingness on the part of the media

owners to dip their hands in their pockets.



The row this year about National Readership Survey sectional data is a

case in point. And the current Rajar argy-bargy fits the same pattern.

But the only thing that’s really wrong with Rajar is that the diary

system is too outmoded to cope with the growing number of stations and

the way we consume radio. Think about it. You’re supposed to mark down

your listening in sub-60-minute chunks. My personal venom at the moment

is directed at mobile phone ads, so whenever I hear one I switch

stations. Driving home one night last week, I must have switched

channels a dozen times in a 15-minute period. Would I have bothered to

make a note of all my changes? Come on. I can’t even remember which ones

I listened to. But none of this is significant enough to undermine the

basic currency of Rajar. All it needs is a little updating.



However, the row underlines a fundamental problem in the way our media

is traded. We are moving towards the tyranny of a numbers-based,

research-driven system. In part, I suspect, this has something to do

with the fact that we live in an information technology age, where

measuring these sorts of things is relatively easy. But the fact that

you can measure something doesn’t mean there’s any point in doing so.

The other driving force is, I think, a basic insecurity on the part of

media buyers, who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have to be able

to justify everything they do with research. Thus, if they buy a space

in Harper’s Crche, they have to find a piece of research to back them

up. Naturally, media owners prey on this insecurity and are only too

happy to provide this basic level of comfort. But it doesn’t make for

better media planning and buying.



‘Bunny’ Barton, my school maths teacher, used to tell me that ‘fools use

research like drunks use lamp-posts - for support rather than

illumination’. It may be the only thing I ever remembered from my maths

lessons, and I’m sure Bunny lifted it from a book, but it’s highly

appropriate today.



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