When the National Readership Survey announced almost a year ago that it was linking up with the Internet Advertising Bureau to explore ways of developing a single online planning currency, it felt like an extremely ill-timed April Fool.
Even the NRS chairman, Simon Marquis, admitted there was something surreal in the whole business - it was, he suggested, like "Nasa asking Henry Ford for help in a mission to Mars".
But the NRS has always worn its bumbling image almost as a badge of pride. Last week, it emerged that it was not going be able to release, as promised, readership data on the London evening freesheets, thelondonpaper and London Lite. The figures were expected on Monday, but they were spiked at the 11th hour and will not be available until 13 September.
London has always been a rather fraught issue where the NRS is concerned because it can't persuade enough people to sit down and participate in the lengthy face-to-face interrogations the NRS has traditionally used to gather data. The NRS has tried to get around this by offering £25 incentive vouchers, but it still struggles to involve the demographic groups that advertisers are most interested in - younger, middle-class people in gainful employment.
Still, for the past few years, the NRS has been promising to modernise and make itself more flexible and develop new ways of web-based data gathering. Does this latest debacle not only dent its overall credibility, but also prove it's failing in its attempts to make itself fit for the 21st century?
Absolutely not, Roger Pratt, the managing director of the NRS, says. He explains that last week's London glitch was due to unavoidable minor technical discrepancies in the data. The decision to delay illustrates the uncompromising nature of the survey's drive towards unimpeachable accuracy. And, he adds, stories about difficulties in recruiting a representative London sample have been exaggerated.
But should agencies be confident in the survey's ability to modernise itself? "I hope so. No doubt in the long term there will be changes to the ways in which we collect data - we are developing a website questionnaire. And, of course, once we have that, it is easier to recontact respondents and ask them supplementary questions," Pratt says.
That's not how Ian Clark, the general manager of thelondonpaper, sees things: "During the evening rush hour it's almost impossible to find a Tube that isn't full of free newspaper readers - yet the NRS only interviewed 15 readers of thelondonpaper in January. It is na•ve to think that buyers will wait until greater sample sizes have built up before using the data. Radical reform is urgently needed."
And much of that is echoed by Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat: "These titles have been around for almost a year now. Our clients have used them and we've been waiting all this time for accurate data. Free newspapers are the hottest subject there has been in ages in the market, so this controversy is hugely disappointing at a time when the NRS says it's trying to modernise. Maybe the publishers should look at using someone else to produce independent readership figures for the free titles."
But Lynn Robinson, the research director at the IPA, argues that the two publishers involved have blown this up out of all proportion. She concludes that the intense commercial rivalry between Associated's London Lite and News International's thelondonpaper continues to catch relatively innocent bystanders in the crossfire.
She says: "A couple of months ago, the credibility of the Audit Bureau of Circulations was brought into question over the alleged dumping issue. Now it is the NRS's turn. Essentially, the NRS is designed to provide readership data for large, national publications, which it does very well. The robustness of its data declines as the publications become smaller and more specialised. In this case, we are dealing with two regional freesheets."
NO Roger Pratt, managing director, NRS
"If agencies know surveys elsewhere, as I do, they will know that the NRS is the best of its kind in the world. We are expanding and going beyond a straight estimate of a head count."
YES Ian Clark, general manager, thelondonpaper
"For many years the NRS has been upheld as the gold standard for research, but the methodology has not kept pace with consumers' media and social habits. It is severely constrained by stakeholders."
YES Dominic Williams, press director, Carat
"I can't buy the technical explanations it's given - they just prove to me that the NRS isn't flexible. I don't see how it can believe it's the best in the world - this clearly shows that it's not doing very well in its attempts to modernise."
NO Lynn Robinson, research director, IPA
"The NRS has rightly stepped in to defer publication of this month's planned interim data. In early September, the NRS will be able to deliver much more robust data on these two regional titles - a very sensible decision given the all-consuming rivalry surrounding them."