MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Media research is vital as the buyers go for big muscles

Has the world gone mad? Two weeks on the trot now the trade press

has run stories about the tug-of-love war between OMD Europe and

MindShare for the media researcher Sheila Byfield (result: Byfield is

staying with MindShare). Next, a hiring war breaks out over bought

ledger assistants.

That may be hard on researchers, but it illustrates the general

perception that media research is about as exciting and important as

paperclip purchasing. The smart people know, however, that that isn't

true. That's why, for example, OMD Europe has made media research a

critical part of its strategy, together with communication planning, new

business and client servicing. At OMD, the chief executive Colin

Gottlieb's vision is to put media research high up in the management

structure. MindShare clearly feels the same.

Gottlieb is absolutely right, and I guess that most media agencies would

agree - in principle. It's funny though, when you come to it, how few

high-profile media researchers there are. Byfield is one, and at Carat,

Phil Gullen and Sue Elms take the role. At Initiative, Sue Moseley, the

progenitor of tvSPAN, fills the slot. Ivor Hussein, late of Western, is,

I believe, alive and well, but has slipped below the horizon.

And therein lies the truth; that while agencies pay lip service to the

importance of research, it has become back office when it could be front

of house.

A large part of the reason, I suggest, has to do with the internal power

structures of media shops. The standard route to the top is through

account management or buying, which means that it's the revenue barons

who climb the greasy pole. While that does not mean they marginalise the

significance of research internally, they are unlikely to see it as

having a valuable outside role.

I find this odd. These days media buyers are obsessed with muscle.

Trouble is, as everyone bulks up, they become indistinguishable. Even I

struggle to stay on top of who's where in the league tables (not that I

get that excited about who's fourth and who's fifth). So what chance

does a client have? A media shop that can build a reputation for

producing research that is both far thinking and insightful can gain a

real advantage. Adding brain to brawn can make for a compelling offer.

They are not mutually exclusive qualities.

Back in the last recession in the early 90s, when media departments cut

staff like they were going out of business (and some were), it was

notable that Carat didn't just keep its research department alive, but

actually invested in it. Not only that, it made a point in its annual

report - a document pored over by City analysts for tell-tale signs of

financial excess - of stressing how much it spent on research. Yes,

that's the same Carat that is now Europe's biggest media buyer.

- Claire Beale is on maternity leave.