FORUM: Can direct response provide a trading currency?

In the future, buying newspaper space will be closer to a science than an art. Press advertising will be a direct response business. We will not need official circulation figures. They are just too much trouble. The situation is as simple as that. Or is it? Are objections being raised? Alasdair Reid investigates.

In the future, buying newspaper space will be closer to a science

than an art. Press advertising will be a direct response business. We

will not need official circulation figures. They are just too much

trouble. The situation is as simple as that. Or is it? Are objections

being raised? Alasdair Reid investigates.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations system may well survive the damage that

has been inflicted by the Telegraph-Times dispute. Institutions like the

ABC don’t disappear over- night, no matter how badly their credibility

is dented. But last week’s rapprochement, instigated by the Telegraph

between itself, Times Newspapers and the ABC, sheds some comforting

light after weeks of unremitting gloom.

The Telegraph’s proposal seemed reasonable. After all, relative values

stand right at the heart of the ABC squabble. The whole point is that

not all copy ’sales’ are equal. The assumption has always been that the

more you pay for a publication, the more you will value it and the more

attention you are likely to give it.

But where do subscriptions fit into that? Subscribers are rewarded with

a discount - but it’s a discount they have actively sought and is an

indication of their loyalty to the title. Surely that is worth even more

to advertisers than conventional newsstand sales?

Unfortunately, we will never know. No fault of the ABC - raw circulation

figures just can’t measure that sort of thing. But that’s the problem

with numbers. They can only take you part of the way.

There’s only one major exception to that rule - the direct response

business, where there’s no debate about audience data or media


If you get the required number of responses, the medium works; if you

don’t, it doesn’t.

More than three quarters of press ads now carry a direct response

mechanism, proving that you don’t need cable and digital widgets to be

an interactive medium. It might just be ’for more information’, but the

beauty of any form of response is that advertisers and their agencies

can build extremely accurate pictures of media effectiveness.

Have direct response mechanisms already changed the way press is planned

and bought? Can they form the mainstay of a new buying currency?

John Ayling and Associates claims to have one of the market’s most

sophisticated planning systems for advertisers using direct response

mechanisms. Its managing director, John Ayling, points out that ABC

issues don’t generally set pulses racing among planners and buyers

’Title selection is based on quantitative and qualitative target market

readership data. That’s based on industry demographic research,

lifestyle analyses or brand-specific information. Circulation figures

are irrelevant for many advertisers - though they may be incorporated

into more planning and negotiation considerations than media owners

realise, particularly where significant trends are relevant,’ he


But Ayling predicts that the growth of press advertising used primarily

or partly to generate response will continue to have an impact. He adds:

’With more than 80 per cent of some quality newspaper ads incorporating

a response mechanism, these clients are in control. The sophisticated

among them know the relative values of titles, sections, sizes,

positions and days - based on bottom-line profit.’

’I wouldn’t say it wasn’t going to happen at all, but it’s not going to

happen very quickly,’ Len Sanderson, the deputy managing director of the

Telegraph, counters. ’For this sort of direct response data to become a

currency, it would depend on how quickly clients would be prepared to be

open with us on the level of response they’re getting.’

Sanderson also argues that it is difficult for some advertisers to

collect the relevant direct response data. Large advertisers employ a

number of buying points - collating the data from all of them will prove


Data is also collected by third-party call centres whose staff aren’t

always motivated to ask respondents where they’ve seen the ad they are

responding to. ’This is rather more complex than it seems at first

glance,’ Sanderson concludes.

In any case, we may be confusing cause with effect, argues Bob Wootton,

the director of media services at the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers. He states: ’Newspapers have already witnessed their revenue

polarising into a few sectors - mainly retail, financial and motors.

They successfully use direct response mechanisms. The danger is that by

focusing on direct response ways of doing business, newspapers will end

up with only direct response advertisers. There may be media specialists

who argue that response data can become a currency, but I suspect they

would be overclaiming to try to gain competitive advantage. They may say

they have substantial case history data but there will always be new

products, new brands, new companies. They need a universally available

start point.’

Wootton agrees that response is the whole point of advertising, but he’s

not sure that narrow definitions of the term are of any use to


He adds: ’Individual companies will continue to develop their own

measures and they deserve to reap the reward for that investment but it

isn’t a substitute for existing currencies.’

Many agencies agree. Most undertake their own work on modelling

awareness, tracking media exposure and gathering direct response data.

But that doesn’t mean the ABC should be allowed to lag behind and turn

in lower quality data. Peter Bowman, the media research director of

Mediapolis, says: ’The knowledge agencies have is being enhanced. But

the work we do for clients throws into relief the need for accurate

industry research.

’Arguably in recent years, the ABC hasn’t come up to the required

standards and, to some extent, that’s our fault.

But the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising has ind-icated

officially that it regards the ABC as a key component in trading.

There are things we’d like to see introduced - a greater degree of

transparency and data on individual days of the week.

In some respects, the Telegraph-Times dispute has been a good thing

because it puts the ABC back into the spotlight. Research is sometimes

regarded as a bit of a Cinderella until top management realise something

might be wrong - then the top guns get wheeled out to deal with it.’

’Those who actually do business off the page know that you get a steep

decline in response generated from a particular publication. You’ve got

to keep moving on. A car ad may seek to generate response requesting

test drives but that isn’t the whole point of the ad.

If we were doing a partnership deal, that would mean them opening the

books and letting us audit them.


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