Bob Wootton: Lead 2020 // Accenture audits // Is cross-media where it's at?
The Ad Association's Lead 2020 reflected a growing tension in adland, writes Bob Wootton. Plus: Accenture quits auditing, ditching ABC and trying to fathom Project Origin
Quips about perfect vision and a Government that can actually get stuff done aside, I’d foolishly hoped we might have seen ‘peak woke’.
Alas, 2020 has kicked off with more of the same fixations. I’ve no issue with the thrust, just the runaway emphasis as many seem to have parked their day jobs and become full time virtue-signallers. Silly me, I thought we were supposed to help sell stuff.
The Advertising Association’s excellent annual Lead 2020 event reflected this tension.
Last year’s event saw a welcome if overdue recognition of the issues that dog our industry, notably trust and ad bombardment. This year Credos leader Karen Fraser OBE skilfully developed the theme to identify the challenges we face in restoring advertising in consumers’ minds.
There’s a widespread belief – and not just of our own making - that our industry punches above its weight and is well-placed to prompt and achieve positive change. Even the consumers she’d interviewed felt this.
Her work linked into their perceptions to prioritise industry responses. Bravo - something for industry truly to get behind.
Panels of the usual senior talking heads resurfaced questions about words vs actions, practice and experience. We were told users could now alter the way their Facebook data is used by third parties. I’ve tried and can’t find the controls. Again.
Lest we think ‘digital’ is clean, the Information Commissioner’s Office informed us that running one deep learning algorithm consumes the same energy as five cars. Oh, and that the ICO, the Competition and Markets Authority, DCMS and EU all have the RTB industry deservedly in their sights...
And we learned that Diageo’s managers are encouraged to align their “personal purpose with the company’s”. I don’t know about you but I find the idea that everybody has to have a ‘personal purpose’, let alone align it with their employer’s, rather sinister.
Simultaneously, The Guardian announced it will no longer take advertising from petrochemical companies. (See also Dominic Mills).
Is it right to single out only the extractors/refiners/sellers of fossil fuels? It identifies them as key perpetrators of climate change and their admittedly vigorous lobbying as extinction denial.
But what about all those who use and consume them, like the companies which process these extracts into materials like plastics, medicines and agrochemicals and the automotive companies that continue to market gas guzzlers? Or travel?...
It argues fossil fuel is like big tobacco, but tobacco is unnecessary, addictive and toxic in any dose whereas petrochemicals and their derivatives are essential to society.
In addition to our industry’s excellent self-regulatory system (before you condemn the ASA and Clearcast, please consider the alternatives) there have been instances of media owners refusing to carry certain ads, though seldom advertisers, on the basis of ‘editorial judgement’. And of advertisers boycotting certain media after critical treatment in them.
The Guardian’s decision was reportedly informed by a Greenpeace petition which garnered 125,000 signatures, many of whom might well be its readers.
It will cost it (some) money, a principle not being a principle etc. One commentator quipped that advertisers’ campaign reach won’t suffer.
Will others follow? There are neither such clear editorial sympathies nor readership overlaps but we should never underestimate the online lynch mob.
(Witness ITV terminating distinguished veteran anchor Alastair Stewart for an ill-judged but hardly incendiary tweet, a judgement now subject to question and backlash itself).
The Co-op bank weighed in with a very on-brand tactical ad in support. Other self-styled ethical brands may capitalise while it’s still warm, though few mass-marketed brands could withstand the deeper scrutiny this might provoke.
But could The Guardian’s stance even be a restraint of trade? Tobacco is the only mass-consumer product completely prevented from advertising by legislation.
An end to conflict of interests
So Accenture is withdrawing from media auditing services.
The seed of the operation was its 2005 acquisition of Media Audits, the pioneers back in the 1970s and for many years the dominant force in pool-based auditing.
Accenture soon realised that brisk competition prevented it earning the kind of margins it was used to from its “marketing sciences” practice and never really made much of its acquisition, allowing others, notably Ebiquity, to overtake it.
It’s been on a long, slow path of attrition ever since as pool-based auditing has become more and more archaic in an online-dominated, targeted and personalised media world.
Accenture has instead built and built its marketing operations to offer most aspects of agency services – in so doing claiming to have become the largest digital agency network in the world. Thus it has become increasingly conflicted by having an operation that audits, searches and selects media agencies for advertisers.
Competitors have been right vociferously to draw attention to this conflict. Accenture’s withdrawal will have little impact, either on Accenture’s incomes or on the market, which is well-served by several extremely capable competitor-alternatives of different complexions and guises.
More from ‘newspapers’
Having sat on the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ Council for two decades, The Telegraph’s decision to cease providing ABC-audited circulation data didn’t surprise me.
Fluctuations in a title’s sales (aka circulation) have long been used by media traders to temper less frequent readership data. I’ve always considered this mischievous because it’s meaningless maths - just because a paper sells more or less copies doesn’t mean its researched profile follows pro-rata.
The Telegraph is now led by Nick Hugh, a digital native with a different outlook and regard for legacy trading systems and practices. And as revenues migrate from print to online, so focus on print sales diminishes.
And ABC is an ongoing truce between advertisers, agencies, newspapers and magazines. The latter seek different things but amortise the cost of auditing them under a single framework. Citing dwindling revenues, each – especially their trade bodies which represent them on the ABC’s Council – push to get it done for less (and less), driving it towards the point of failure.
Some more traditionally-inclined advertisers and agencies will rightly demand alternative reassurances before committing spend, and The Telegraph promises PwC to this effect. But many won’t bother - the question is whether that indifference applies merely to seeking trading reassurances or to using the publisher altogether.
Worse, if The Telegraph or others withdrew from funding the ASA...
Is cross-media where it’s at?
I’m still trying to fathom Project Origin, the ISBA-led cross-media research initiative launched last autumn.
The world’s first manifestation of the World Federation of Advertisers’ (or whatever they’re going to be called) Cross-Media Measurement Principles, it’s certainly ambitious. But all my experience in media research tells me that with ambition comes complexity and cost, and I can’t figure out who’s paying.
The only obvious parties with deep enough pockets are the big online players. Their participation comes with strings attached, whether it’s parleying respectability amongst advertisers over privacy and safety issues or simply engineering a scheme which favours them. Other media should be very wary of this.
Meanwhile, BARB soldiers on with its Project Dovetail which ‘only’ embraces ‘extended’ TV viewing while Sky is pressing ahead with its C-Flight initiative which captures all live, on-demand and time-shifted commercial impressions on every viewing platform.
Expect a lot of noise in this space, hopefully more light than heat…