Media owners have never been entirely comfortable with the whole notion of media auditors but that discomfort is turning to high anxiety in an age of media-neutral communications planning, where advertising is but one of a whole range of ways of reaching your public. Media auditors, they say, have a narrow field of vision and crude measuring techniques to boot. They make it difficult for media owners to develop subtle and sophisticated propositions.
Some agencies share that anxiety, though it's almost impossible these days for them to be seen to be criticising the auditors hired by their clients. Mike Hope-Milne, Capital Radio's director of brand sales, is under no such constraint. In recent weeks, he has been presenting his views to media agencies and has also been seeking backing from the Radio Advertising Bureau. His line is that auditors don't understand the effectiveness of radio as a medium: though they are well equipped to measure ratings, coverage and frequency, they are missing the point of radio advertising by assessing cost rather than the overall effectiveness of campaigns.
He continues: "Ratings-driven measurement no longer reflects the way commercial radio works or the value it offers to those who plan creatively. If we want radio advertising to continue to deliver cost-effective communications, then we need to work together. From the media auditors' side, this should involve employing experienced senior radio people. From the media owner side, we need to work more closely with these companies to ensure they are kept up to date with research, case studies and any other new and relevant findings related to campaign efficiency."
Is he right? And do his comments apply to other media too? Stuart Taylor, the ad director of Guardian Newspapers, thinks so. He says: "Auditing has been pigeonholed as being all about price and position, and, in recent times, this has caused not a little paranoia in the buying community, because price becomes the yardstick. Differentiators between agencies evaporate, detail and nuance become casualties, planning becomes risk averse, all typical effects of methodology rooted in TV trading."
Taylor agrees that more dialogue is needed but only if he could be "assured it would have an effect and not just be reduced to another statistic on a spreadsheet".
The auditors will doubtless have heard this sort of talk before - after all, the price-versus-value debate has been around longer than they have. But don't views such as Hope-Milne's and Taylor's take on even greater resonance in a market where absolutely everyone is touting their media- neutral communications planning credentials? Well, perhaps. Pip Hainsworth, the UK deputy managing director of Media Audits Group, can't help feeling that some media owners bring all sorts of problems on themselves - radio, for instance, chooses to sell itself in the same sort of way that TV is sold, with share of spend being a prime consideration.
But she takes issues with the rest of the argument. She states: "Media Audits employs consultants who have planned and bought media, including radio airtime and sponsorships. Every good auditor should have an understanding of the strategy and the unique benefits of radio and never look at cost in isolation. We understand that it is the communication with consumers that matters, and the overall effectiveness of campaigns.
Our clients look to us to promote accountability and transparency - if those fundamentals are in place, media can be planned and bought with greater confidence and trust on all sides.
"We take this responsibility very seriously and our teams work with all the sales teams and the RAB, to ensure that our work is rigorous, constructive and in-depth. We support the industry in calling for more media buyers who have a strong strategic understanding of the client's business and the radio marketplace."
Ian Fairbrother, the chief executive of the auditor Fairbrother Lenz Eley, agrees: "It is true that, in the past, some clients wanted your initial focus to be on TV and then add some other media in later. But in terms of our business we tend to get asked to undertake in-depth auditing across all media, including print, cinema, outdoor and, increasingly, the internet. I can't speak for other auditing companies but here we have extensive tools and experience in the medium. I myself have bought radio. I'm surprised at the comments - people do have a go at auditors from time to time but, increasingly, agencies and media owners work with us rather than around us or against us."
"Media auditors are failing to keep up with how savvy media planners are using radio ... We have to find a solution, because the industry is in danger of slipping back ten years to trading airtime on a commodity basis with no appreciation of the value of the medium."
MIKE HOPE-MILNE director of brand sales, Capital Radio
"Most media owners' experience of the influence of auditors is confined to agencies asking for lower prices on the back of a so-called poor audit, with no background, no context and no knowledge of how this conclusion has been arrived at."
STUART TAYLOR ad director, Guardian Newspapers
"We have to question the media owners' determination to sell radio based on the TV trading model - that's to say, based on share. Surely this risks commoditising radio more than anything else, and pushes it into the broadcast departments at media agencies?"
PIP HAINSWORTH UK deputy MD, Media Audits Group
"If on the sales side at a media owner they have something compelling to say about the value of their medium, then planners will listen. Many clients are very focused on value as opposed to crude price or cost measures. This seems a bit of a pinprick to be honest."
IAN FAIRBROTHER chief executive, Fairbrother Lenz Eley.