MEDIA FORUM: Should we rethink the role of audience research?

With Caroline McDevitt stepping down as chief executive after five years, is it time for Barb to review its modus operandi, Alasdair Reid asks.

All things considered, Caroline McDevitt had a rough old time of it as the chief executive of Barb. But then you could argue that this was inevitable. It goes with the territory.

It's one of those potentially awful responsibility-without-power jobs.

Though you are nominally in charge of the committee that is the Barb board, you have no real power base. The real decision-making power is retained by the shareholder broadcasters (the main commercial channels plus the BBC) and you have to run around doing their bidding, confused though it may be, wearing a permanent but unconvincing smile.

Well, no longer. Last week, McDevitt resigned. The immediate reaction in some quarters was surprise, not so much that she had actually gone, but that she had lasted so long. McDevitt was tight-lipped as to the timing, which immediately prompted all sorts of pessimists to speculate that more bad news was on the way.

Perhaps she had been desperate to get out for ages but had agreed to honour the full five years of her contract, which expired recently. After all, the shareholders had made the Barb chairman, Nick Phillips, the fall guy last year, and to lose two executives would have been seen as careless.

But one way or another, McDevitt's tenure has done her reputation no good at all. She was brought in to oversee the move from the old Barb panel of 3,000 homes to a new 5,100-strong panel, more suited to the demands of the digital multi-channel age. Unfortunately, just about anything that could go wrong did go wrong. The panel was supposed to go live, after a period of extensive trial and debugging, on 1 January 2002, but panel recruitment is still not complete at the moment. It's getting closer with each month, but there's still no cigar.

What does the industry think of McDevitt's departure and what should we expect of her successor? Is Barb still a problem seeking a new attempt at a solution?

Bernard Balderston, the associate media director at Procter & Gamble, says McDevitt has actually done a very good job. "She emerges with considerable credit," he states. "It depends on where you place the responsibility, and obviously as the chief executive she must share some of that responsibility, but on many issues it wasn't her decision that was final - for instance, in the choice of which research contractor to use. The sample didn't get there quickly enough and that is something for which the Barb board is jointly responsible and she is possibly tarred by that brush. But those who know the truth of the situation know she has done a more than fine job."

So what sort of person should be appointed as her successor? "It's a different job now than it was when she first came in, when they were on the cusp of changing contract," Balderston argues. "Now it's more of a case of 'let's keep things rolling along'. There is an element of keeping up to speed with changes in the marketplace and looking at what the future will look like, but at this stage it is a less interesting challenge to the one Caroline faced when she first came to the job. The new person should have a reasonable knowledge of research and highly developed political skills."

Mick Perry, the chairman of Magna UK, admits he doesn't yet have huge amounts of confidence in Barb. "Perhaps we have all been led to expect too much, but did it really have to take all this time to get this far? On the other hand, I suppose the whole issue has sort of settled down to the extent that it has almost gone away. If it wasn't for the fact that Caroline is leaving, we wouldn't be talking about it."

Perry believes that the new person will not need to be too immersed in the technical side of research issues. What we need now, he says, is a good business manager to keep momentum going and, equally importantly, keep the industry informed.

Steve Platt, the managing director of Carlton Sales, agrees. "We're pretty much close to the full panel," he says. "Last year the figures were not good, particularly for ITV, but it has all evened out. I'd agree that Caroline did a pretty good job given the difficulties. Too many promises were made and it was impossible to deliver. Now it's pretty much on an even keel. The job now is to keep it there."

But some in the industry don't think that's good enough. David Fletcher, the head of research at Mediaedge:cia, says it's time to revisit the fundamentals of what the industry needs from audience research.

He comments: "Barb is fundamentally limited by the different interests on the board. The advertising industry has different demands to the broadcast industry and the broadcast industry is itself split between the needs of the programming people on the one hand and the advertising sales teams on the other. So there are pressure points on both sides. The weaknesses of Barb are volatility of data and the accurate reporting of smaller audiences, but we forget that actually these are issues at the edge. We forget that because we are always pushing at the edge."

Fletcher argues that we should refocus on the main headline audience figures rather than getting obsessed with increasingly microscopic sub-demographics. But he acknowledges this sort of approach is hard to deliver, even if everyone is agreed that it might be desirable. "Sometimes researchers are so far down into this that they can't see the wood for the trees. Having all this extra data doesn't help you buy a better schedule, it just gives you more to do.

"It's easy to point a finger but we didn't help ourselves by wanting too much in terms of detail. The thing is, the consultation process has already started and it is important that people are engaged with that as early as possible. The problem is that you run into technical issues very quickly and that can mean losing sight of the strategic issues."

Lynne Robinson, the IPA's research director, tends to agree. She states: "The industry has to decide what data it needs, and in what delivery format, in order to operate an efficient and accountable market in the future, particularly given the structural changes that are taking place among both buyers and sellers. The nature of television viewing is set to change with the increased use of interactivity, the introduction of the new generation of personal video recorders and viewing via PCs, all of which will impact on the nature of a television commercial.

"It may well be that in the future, Barb will consist of several complementary services if it is to provide comprehensive coverage. The role of Barb chief executive has never been easy and it can only be more challenging from both a media research and business point of view in the future."