Goodbye media auditing; hello independent media analysis
Nick Manning makes the case for consultants to offer a more analytical form of media insights and data scrutiny
Independent media consulting is a niche market where modestly-sized companies compete vigorously for their slice of a limited pie. It’s a valuable business for clients but not the most glamorous nor dynamic part of our industry. It rarely troubles the front pages but there has been an outbreak of activity recently that promises interesting new initiatives are belatedly on the way.
The withdrawal of Accenture from the market has been partly responsible for sparking a modest feeding-frenzy. Ex-Accenture staff have started two new companies, there has been some merger activity and a new venture in the under-served area of contract compliance auditing.
This flurry is in stark contrast to the stasis of recent years. The core of independent consulting has long been media auditing and the core of the core was pool benchmarking.
This process dates from the Seventies, and aims to compare an agency’s media buying performance versus its competitors on a like-for-like basis, primarily on TV where the bulk of the money was spent and where airtime was in restricted supply.
This was valid while TV was dominant, media choices were limited and agencies competed for the same space. Now however, media is planned, sold and bought in new and myriad ways and creating valid like-for-like benchmarks, even for TV, has become much harder.
Biddable media has made benchmarking obsolete and the media agencies have also got savvy at managing their way around targets and benchmarks, as you would expect.
With pools becoming less reliable, the focus shifted to year-on-year tracking and while this can be useful, it lacks context when comparisons are internal and changes in media usage can render trends meaningless.
A nice sideline in pitch guarantee-setting emerged for a while, with increasingly surreal rounds of TV cost bidding as an auction, often requiring global reworking at 24 hours’ notice and daring the media agency networks to win the business at all costs and then set their investment or ‘productivity’ departments to rustle up enough cheap or free inventory from wherever they could find it to close the gap.
Even this source of revenue for media consultants will dry up as TV becomes internet-delivered and the skill in using TV changes to audience identification across advertising-funded and subscription options, not ever-lower prices on linear TV channels that deliver increasingly small audiences and largely miss younger ones.
While procurement people like the apparent (but largely artificial) year-on-year savings, they are increasingly becoming an albatross around the client’s neck.
Another good source of revenue is in media modelling, usually via econometrics. This can be very powerful as broad brush-strokes but struggles with the nitty-gritty and time-sensitivity of digital analytics.
As the world gets ever more obsessed by ‘agility’, modelling is struggling to adapt. The canard of long-term branding versus short-term performance is no longer so relevant in the digital world, and attribution techniques have failed to provide the expected new revenues.
The consultancies have been successful in extending their propositions into pitch management, data and technology advice and more recently operational and organisational change, including in-housing of media, even if their actual capabilities and experience of such services were somewhat overblown.
Expertise in these areas is not a media discipline but more akin to change management, where independent media consultants lack expertise. Even technology consulting has limited capacity with Google so dominant in the tech-stack.
It’s hard to guide a client through digital transformation when you haven’t been through your own, and the management consultants hire well-paid experienced operators who have.
One media consulting operator wanted to ‘start a revolution in the advertising media industry’ and ‘launch a courageous game-changer value proposition’. This sounds fine on a website but less compelling in real life when not supported by a concrete difference.
Attempts to move upstream are bound to fail unless the necessary investments are made in ‘rock star’ consultants, systems and processes; none of the independent media consultants have the wherewithal to achieve this and even the best PR cannot hide the lack of resources within most of the independent players.
Pointless well-crafted Powerpoint isn’t the answer and the consulting field is replete with well-resourced players.
The new ‘soft’ consulting services do not provide the more lucrative recurring revenues that media auditing can deliver and the market for broader media consulting is now over-supplied, especially with new players arriving and hungry for business. Everyone is saying the same thing and pricing for profit won’t get easier. Pitch management is on the wane as advertisers realise that there are better alternatives.
The move towards broad consulting actually masked the true shortcomings of the independent media consultants, one being the failure to develop the right technology platforms to independently track digital media performance, an area where client demand was strong without market solutions.
And despite a plethora of independent consultants, the media market is no more transparent today than in the past.
The variables and lack of transparency involved in programmatic trading in particular should be a God-send for the independent operators and the vested interests of the supply-chain absolutely demand impartial analysis. But platforms that aim to track programmatic have only belatedly been developed and several years of progress were missed.
Meanwhile, there is a massive opportunity for a pioneer to reinvent this market, as many are saying they will do but without specifics. There is a large gap for a leader to become the ‘go to’ data analytics and insight provider for advertisers on a continuous basis, using sharp-end statistical techniques that marry large and complex data-sets through the most advanced platforms. A Microsoft 365 licence is not enough.
A good place to start is at the beginning; media auditing was always a ‘rear-view’ mirror and has ended up as a tool for procurement to score media agency performance and pay bonuses (or levy ‘maluses’), often several months late. But this has little to do with present-day brand communications.
Today’s marketing teams require upfront guidance and predictive tools that aim to improve performance before the money is spent across multiple platforms, not all of them paid-for, aligned with continuous data analytics and insight to track progress and ‘course-correct’.
There is no reason why an independent consultant can’t provide impartial advice on the array of an advertiser’s needs before the event, at planning stage, and then also analyse the results thereafter, with lessons being applied throughout using advanced technology platforms and analytics.
You wouldn’t buy a house without a structural survey or make a financial investment without a rigorous advanced analysis of a fund-manager’s performance. Media should be no different, especially given the huge amounts involved.
- What is the projected business delivery of the proposed media mix based on prior history?
- Have the proposed media channels been chosen with the best use of relevant, accurate research and data, with prior learnings applied?
- Have the best available programmatic trading tools been selected and their methodologies properly vetted?
- How have the media costings been derived and are they in line with agreed contractual terms?
- What are the stretch targets for effective engagement (eg viewability)?
There are many such areas for analysis in the modern media age of multiple choices. Advertisers cannot take for granted that their media agencies and other transactional partners make all the right decisions and provide all of the data and information necessary to inform well-judged choices.
An advanced review programme makes subsequent data analytics more relevant.
While there is constant pressure to turn planning and buying decisions around quickly, it is surely better to invest in media well rather than quickly. Today’s technology tools, under-applied by the independent sector hitherto, can be pressed into action to make review and approval processes faster.
Let’s call this ‘Independent Media Analysis’. It’s not a great name but it’s better than some of the current alternatives.
And it’s not ‘Media Auditing’.