Astute Sampson builds the momentum at Barb

The Barb chief executive has plans to help reshape the landscape with his determination to deliver cross-platform measurement. By Alasdair Reid.

Sampson…‘there will be debate about how we get to solutions – but there are commonly held views about what the challenges are’
Sampson…‘there will be debate about how we get to solutions – but there are commonly held views about what the challenges are’

There’s a widespread perception in the media business that being the boss of a joint-industry research outfit is a particularly thankless task – one almost guaranteed to make you tear your hair out.

That’s mainly because every decision you make has to be cleared through a committee of stakeholders who just happen to represent competing media companies – people whose public enthusiasm for collaboration is matched only by their cheerful readiness, behind the scenes, to stab each other in the back.

So inertia is often the order of the day – which can be terribly frustrating at a time when technology is evolving so rapidly that you can barely hope to keep up, even if you’re at the top of your game.

Happily, though, none of the above seems to apply to Barb. Not currently, at any rate. Its chief executive, Justin Sampson, still has most of his hair – and he’s been in the job seven months now. In fact, he’s doing a rather good job, agencies say. Barb is evolving faster now than it has ever done, arguably, in its whole history; and it seems astonishingly unscarred by infighting.

"That’s just not something I’ve seen since I’ve joined," Sampson says. "Of course, there will inevitably be debate about the detail of how we get to solutions – but there are commonly held views about what the challenges are."

Sampson also says he has been remarkably lucky in that he has inherited a lot of the pioneering groundwork that was undertaken by his predecessor, Bjarne Thelin. But media agencies suggest that he is being somewhat modest with this claim.

Sampson, they say, brings an ideal mix of experience to his role. He has worked for a joint-industry body (he ran the Radio Advertising Bureau for 12 years until 2004), a major broadcaster (ITV, where he was the director of customer relationship management) and three research companies (ICM Research, Kantar and, most notably, AGB Nielsen, which held the main Barb contract until the end of 2009).

Thus he is well-versed in the art of the possible in this sector – and, some observers say, makes astute use of a natural gift for diplomacy. He has impressed many in the agency world by drafting (and sticking to) an ambitious timetable for developments this year. "There’s a desire for more pace and more momentum – that’s what I’ve tried to bring," he confides.

Witness Barb’s latest initiative. Two weeks ago, it revealed it had hired Kantar Spring to collect census data for TV viewing via all computer devices, including tablets.

"It’s a significant step in our ambition to deliver cross-platform measurement of content," Sampson says. In fact, it’s the first stage in Project Dovetail, a new label for Barb’s continuing commitment to enhance its established panel data with new techniques for measuring viewing on various mobile and fixed-line digital devices. Measurement of internet viewing was begun last year when 700 of the Barb panel’s 5,100 homes were upgraded to include a web-TV meter for measuring viewing on PCs and laptops.

It is also gearing up to begin field tests of an app that will capture data on viewing via tablets and smartphones.

In mid-July, stage two of Project Dovetail will see Barb invite research companies to tender for a contract to begin integrating these new data sets into the established viewing figures. Sampson has set himself the target of launching an integrated reporting system by the end of the year.

So, yes, he is relatively satisfied with his tenure so far – but says he is well aware that the challenges will continue to come thick and fast.

For instance, there has been trouble brewing this year on the big-data horizon. In the past few months, we’ve started to hear rumblings from digital-economy prognosticators who argue that, in the (not so distant) future, we will have no need for a relatively small viewer panel such as Barb when we will have swathes of behavioural data relating to the IP address of every single video screen in the country.

'You have to ask yourself who is going to control the data? The answer may be people who have their own agenda'

Does that sort of talk dismay Sampson? No, not really, he responds. The market, he suggests, is always going to need an honest broker. "If you don’t believe in the future of JICs [joint-industry research bodies, such as Barb], then you have to ask yourself who is going to control the data. The answer may well be people who have their own commercial agenda," he says.

And he sums up: "What panel data isn’t so good at is getting granularity down the long tail [of audience reporting]. What it does do, though, is give a representative and demographically identifiable set of data. We’re working [via Project Dovetail] to deliver the best of both worlds."

The lowdown

Age: 47
Lives: Streatham Hill, London
Family: Rachel and two teenage boys, Alex and Tom
Interests outside work: Liverpool FC, learning Italian and keeping the weight off
Must-have music: Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Paul Weller
Desert-island luxury: A perpetual supply of Amarone
Last book read: The Forgetting by David Shenk
Motto: Non magni pendis quia contigit (You don’t value things that are easily obtained)