Media agency colleagues often perceive their counterparts in research as less-than glamorous number crunchers, carrying out a function clients want thrown in at no extra charge.
Adding further negativity to the picture are the inevitable critics who question researchers' motives and methodology, such as Kelvin MacKenzie in his infamous battle with Rajar. The field of media research is certainly not without its detractors.
Yet the mood around the table at Gordon Ramsay's at Claridges was mostly upbeat when the cream of the UK media research fraternity gathered to discuss the top issues of the day.
In an increasingly complex multimedia world, where consumers have more technological choice than ever, the consensus was that both currency and effectiveness research would only become more important. Hamish Pringle, director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, summed up the paradox facing research, particularly for media agencies.
He said "Just at the point where the business needs to be going to premium to invest in all this, it's being driven into commodity."
"The whole thing is becoming incredibly complicated and agencies need to be investing in econometric modelling and databasing and data mining and all that stuff. But procurement is saying ‘this is a commodity business' and the major media planning and buying account moves are moving, I think, on price mainly and not really on this added value."
This is a scenario that Jo Rigby, head of OMD Insight, is only too familiar with.
"I reckon that four out of every five pitch documents we get will say ‘what research tools are you going to throw in for free?'" she said.
Sue Elms, managing director of Carat Insight, suggested that the answer might be to house an agency's research metrics arm in a separate division, as the likes of Carat and OMD have done.
But Pringle insisted this scenario was potentially damaging in the long run, particularly in cases where "separate" meant shipping offshore to destinations where you can hire MBA graduates for a pittance.
"First of all, we've separated creative from media, now we're segmenting media into media and planning and next we're segmenting planning into planning and analysis," Pringle said.
"At each stage we're leaving a legacy of commodity trading and trying to add value in the next. Most people would say that, actually, when it's all together, you get the most dynamic situation because planning is affected by buying and vice versa. If you export it into Greece, how can you do that?"
Yet Pringle believes that media research has never been more prominent and this was partly driven by the demands of the City and increased focus on publicly traded media companies.
He noted that the release of the latest radio-listening data from Rajar has become a major event in the Square Mile these days and there is much debate about the timing of the figures. "The City realises that the share price is a function of how those media are doing and… the data that comes out of media research is a key indicator of that."
"You shouldn't underestimate the fact that these are trading currencies and the people that it matters to most are the money people at the top of the tree."
Effectiveness research may be sexier, but good currency measurement is absolutely fundamental – and, for this reason, it's often one of the most controversial areas in media.
Pringle said it was important to understand that media currencies are an "approximate truth" rather than an exact science.
Had Kelvin MacKenzie, chairman and chief executive of the Wireless Group, succeeded in his lawsuit – alleging that Rajar's delay in introducing electronic measurement had unfairly damaged his business – Pringle said it would have been open season on currencies everywhere. "One of the reasons we resisted him as strenuously as we have is that what if other people did the same elsewhere?
"These are essentially not-for-profit mutual entities. If you get someone actively campaigning against them, it gets very difficult to operate them because they don't have the resources, they don't have the infrastructure and the people leading them get bored and go some place else. It makes life very, very difficult."
But there was general agreement that the existing currencies are struggling to keep up to date with new developments.
Gary Roddy, ad sales research controller at IDS, the sales house for Telewest's content division Flextech, said Barb was a prime example because it did not properly measure interactive and digital television. "We've got all this new technology happening and the main industry currency – which is Barb – just doesn't cope, can't cope and realistically hasn't got any hope of coping with it because they haven't got the investment," Roddy said.
"Barb still can't measure interactivity properly and there's millions and millions of pounds now being spent on interactivity.
We're talking X amount of years before it's possible and between £1m and £10m to measure it, if not more, but they don't know [how much] because they don't know how to do it."
One possible alternative is the Sky View panel previewed by BSkyB at the Media Research Group conference in Madrid last year. Although Sky has stated the panel would not be an alternative currency to Barb, the people sitting around the table at Claridge's had their doubts.
As Pringle said: "One thing I do think is clear, is that they're not clear. All the right noises were being made and then James Murdoch, in front of a very big audience, talked about Sky View in a different manner and he did talk about it as an alternative currency and that was confusing," he said.
But for many, the real question was how much information the broadcaster would actually share.
Darren Rubins, business director at PHD, said he was intrigued by Sky View, but would take the figures with a large pinch of salt. "I would say, from an agency perspective, that if Sky come back to us and say that it's realised that Sky [programming] is twice as important or effective, then we're not going to pay twice as much, because we'll default straight back to the common currency,"
Rubins said. "If they're half as effective, of course we'll be interested – that's the reality of agency life."
Flying the flag for the currencies at the dinner was Chris Boyd, chief executive of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Boyd bristled a little at Pringle's suggestion that currency data was an "approximate truth" and argued that ABC data was different because it was based on an audit, rather modelled data from a panel.
The main debate at the ABC was frequency of data, with many media agencies arguing for monthly magazine data and weekly or daily newspaper data, a suggestion vigorously resisted by most publishers.
"There are some agencies, like MediaCom, which say they want it weekly or whatever it is and others that say we'd be in information overload, we wouldn't know what to do with it," Boyd said. "We'll provide, we always say, hourly data if you want it – but the big question is how much information do you actually want?"
Meanwhile, the IPA is attempting to integrate all this media-specific currency data to generate a 360-degree view of a consumer's media habits, with its £1m TouchPoints survey. Pringle said this was designed for the benefit of media agencies but he believed media owners would eventually subscribe as well. "If agencies are using it in any significant way to plan and buy their multimedia campaigns, if you're a media seller you've got to know the data your counterpart is dealing with. If and when it becomes a market reality, virtually everybody will need to buy it."
Judging by the buzz at the table, agencies are excited already.
"For the first time, it will allow us to talk confidently to clients about the effect of a multimedia schedule. We've never been able to do that with any confidence before," said PHD's Rubins. "That's what clients want, they don't want to know what the coverage or frequency is of newspapers or TV; they want to know what the total is. I'm quite excited by it. We could go further and talk about the effectiveness but I think it's a fantastic development."
For Carat's Elms, the TouchPoints project is interesting but similar to the agency's proprietary Consumer Connection Survey.
"Our dilemma is the duplicative nature of it," Elms said. "I think it's a brilliant initiative and if I was a small agency, I'd be really delighted because no one can afford to run their own CCS or TGI."
Christina Hartley, group ad marketing director at IPC Media and the outgoing chairman of the Media Research Group, said it was great to see a multimedia hub survey actually happening.
"I've been in business for 16 years and people are always saying ‘we need multimedia research' and I think it's great to see agencies finally put their money where their mouth is,"
Hartley said. "It seemed historically the agencies were asking the media owners to do it and there was no rhyme and reason why media owners would, unless you're a multimedia company."
Hartley said research has moved up the agenda "hugely" over the past three years and had moved on from a few years ago when there was a "point of PR-ing research for the sake of PR-ing it, rather than usefulness."
OMD's Rigby believes the increased importance of research is largely driven by client demand. "From an agency point of view, there's so little else to differentiate ourselves because we've all got the same as everyone else and it [research] has become almost the most competitive field," Rigby said.
Carat's Elms agreed, adding that the particular relationship that a client has with its media agency is a factor behind the increased emphasis on agency research. "From a client side, we're the people that provide a lot of continuity and where brand managers keep moving and changing and ad agencies are all about the next sexy TV ad, we provide an impartiality and stability, a sort of rootedness.
"The bottom line is we've got to deliver the audience and the response and we get judged on that. So, in one sense, that makes us boring, steady partners, but it also gives us this bigger remit."
PHD's Rubins said that clients are demanding effectiveness research in order to justify bigger marketing budgets.
"What's happened now is that, in a lot of companies, marketing is their single-largest investment and therefore the opportunity to try to demonstrate the return on investment is absolutely critical," Rubins said.
"They're looking to us now as their largest single source of investment to actually demonstrate how that's working."
Rubins enthused about PHD's neuroplanning project, which in simplistic terms involves brain scanning data to show the effect of media consumption.
"We have quite a good understanding of how media affects the brain – affects long-term memory, short-term memory, desirability, all of those things – and this, for me, allows us to go and have a completely different debate with clients and creative agencies about the role of media," he said.
"Neuroplanning and other types of effectiveness research is what I'm really interested in because it's what makes the difference to our clients."
However, his peers were sceptical that brain scans would actually provide anything new from a media research perspective. "I don't think it tells us anything that psychology hasn't already told us, but I think anything that gets us away from conventional thinking and linear models and assumptions, anything that questions those assumptions is really great," said Carat's Elms.
IDS' Roddy said the unwillingness of clients to share results was holding back effectiveness research from his firm's point of view: "It's really frustrating because we've got virtually all the way there but at the end of it clients – and you can see why they don't want to tell it to their competitors – stop it progressing and getting any further," he said.
Elms said it was possible to measure effectiveness, but it was getting more complicated.
"There are millions more contact points now, millions more influences, including experience and competitor activity," said Elms. "We can evaluate it and we can quantify it, it's just bloody hard. It's data heavy and you don't get a good margin out of it, which is why research companies don't do it."
Yet more evidence that research doesn't work as a commodity business.
Research on the agenda
"There's so little else to differentiate ourselves because we've all got the same as everyone else so research has become almost the most competitive field." Jo Rigby
"Where brand managers keep moving and changing and ad agencies are all about the next sexy TV ad, we provide an impartiality and stability ,a sort of rootedness." Sue Elms
"I think there was a point of PRing research for the sake of Pring it rather than usefulness."Christina Hartley
"In alot of companies marketing is their single largest investment and therefore the opportunity to demonstrate return on investment is absolutely critical." Darren Rubins
"You shouldn't underestimate the fact that these are trading currencies and the people that it matters most to are the money people at the top of the tree." Hamish Pringle
Recruiting the right people
Recruitment is shaping up as one of the big issues for the media research sector, which many still perceive as boring, back-office work. Jo Rigby, head of OMDInsight, said there was a dearth of experienced candidates because of a lack of recruitment back in the 1990s recession.
"I tried last time I recruited to encourage planners to apply for the job and that would have been seen as the worst place in the world for a planner to go," Rigby said. ABC chief executive Chris Boyd said clients often resented paying proper remuneration for research staff: "One of the issues with these industry bodies is that you're almost like a trade body of the trade bodies and people think why should these people have salary increases?"
Hamish Pringle, IPA director general, said the MRG could try to attract new graduates by presenting at the IPA's annual careers advisers' day, but the average starting salary at a media agency made it difficult to attract the brightest candidates.
"One of the key things you can do is offer them money," Pringle said. "You're probably not hiring that many people and the discount to the market that agencies offer makes it very, very hard for you."
"If and when it becomes a market reality, virtually everyone will need to buy it." Hamish Pringle
"People are always saying we need multimedia research and I think it's great to see agencies finally put their money where their mouth is." Christina Hartley
"I am quite excited by it because for the first time it will allow us to talk confidently to clients about the effect of a multimedia schedule." Darren Rubins
"I think it's a brilliant initiative and if I was a small agency I'd be really delighted." Sue Elms
Around the table
Christina Hartley, group ad marketing director, IPC
Gary Roddy, research controller, IDS
Hamish Pringle, director general, IPA
Chris Boyd, chief executive, ABC
Jo Rigby, head of OMD Insight
Sue Elms, managing director, Carat Insight
Darren Rubins, Business Director, PHD
Tim Burrowes, editor, Media Week