Time To Fight With Intelligence, Not Sabers and Muskets

I came up in a media world that was on the last legs of the era so brilliant depicted in MAD MEN.  Misoygnistic clients guiding subservient negotiators to pay as little as possible to buy time and space where options were often quite limited , especially on television (we didn’t call it video then).  I distinctly remember the sage advice one particularly elitist female colleague gave me as I moved up from secretary to assistant buyer:  “Treat the reps like children, and make sure you a whole bunch of really good lunches before you cut a deal”.

Yes, I confess that I learned quite about about high quality steaks and aged whiskeys at venues like Smith and Wollensky’s and the 21 Club.  I never did experience the joys of the bar car on the 6:37 out of Grand Central bound for Greenwich, but I sure knew that’s when and where the really big deals went down, often after the plebians departed the train in Westchester County, leaving the heavy lifting to those who could afford the more favorable tax benefits of Connecticut.

The good thing about that era, besides the expense account perks, was that negotiators needed people like myself who were more skilled and adept at knowing what data was meaningful and how knowing it could be “weaponized” to achieve the desired results.  Salespeople in particular were rewarded on results, and results were far easier to achieve without letting something as silly as numbers getting in the way.

Today, the likes of those running sales teams are far more likely to have the profile of Paramount Global’s John Halley, who became the conglomerate’s President of Advertising last year, taking over for a 40-year veteran who cut her teeth in the same Stone Age-like media world that I did.  Halley’s resume is far more imposing that hers was, and certainly mine.  Wharton MBA.  More than a decade of corporate management at Viacom in roles overseeing ad sales finance, operations and advanced solutions.  And chairman of Open AP, a collaborative effort among sellers that describes itself on its website as being (b)uilt on an open philosophy and anchored in collaboration, OpenAP helps advertisers connect their message with the right audience for a more relevant and meaningful viewing experience.

So it’s understandable that as he heads into his first upfront as the general in this war between seller and buyer, and at a pre-upfront, in-person conference of the first U.S.-based Joint Industry Committee, Halley is more than a bit concerned that the most established provider of data and currency, Nielsen, and its chief tival for such business, Comscore, have put a damper on his party.  As MediaPost’s Wayne Friedman and Joe Mandese, two of the more experienced and savvy reporters on the beat, shared last week, Halley was indeed a mad man:

Following back-to-back salvos from Nielsen and Comscore earlier in the day, the fledgling U.S. “JIC” opened its upfront-style event Thursday afternoon on an escalatory note, with one opening panelists describing their moves in explicitly war-like terms.

“In my mind, it is sort of weaponizing the MRC. There’s no other way to look at it,” Paramount’s President of Advertising John Halley said in reference to Nielsen’s and Comscore’s statements endorsing Media Rating Council accreditation as a requisite for being a trading currency.

“Saying that JIC certification should require MRC accreditation just doesn’t really make sense,” Halley added during the opening panel that kicked off the event.

What’s especially fascinating about this unholy alliance is realizing what role protecting a system that has economically benefitted the advertisers is perhaps at the crux of all of this.  As we’ve previously mused, Nielsen has been the default negotiating and proof of performance measurement platform for decades, warts and all.   And they’ve benefitted more from the side of those who buy than those who sell.  A February 2016 article from RBR.com (Radio and Television Business Report) that attempted to answer who are Nielsen’s top revenue-producing clients reported the following:

Nielsen Holdings recently filed its annual report with the Securities and Exchange Commission and what RBR+TVBR learns about its customer base by examining the filing may surprise you.  Typically, more than 70 per cent of the company’s revenue comes from its Top 10 clients, which includes the Coca-Cola Compamy, NBC Universal, Nestle S.A., The Proctor and Gamble Company, Twenty-First Century Fox Corporation and the Unliever Group.  

Our long-term client relationships are made up largely of multi-year contracts and high contract renewal rates”, Nielsen tells the SEC.  The average relationship term with its best clients is 30 years.  

Halley is a relative newcomer to all of this,  as are many of those in charge of advertising at key networks and platforms he now competes with.  They weren’t around for the Mad Men and bar car era, and they’ve frankly got way too much pressure being put on them to deliver results in spite of massive splintering of audience across platforms and devices, economic downturn and corporate desperation.  They are survivors of an unprecedented purge of talent and experience, at least for now.

So when an initiative such as the JIC, which has operated successfully in numerous other countries around the world, throws a party that two traditional vendors decide at the last minute not only not to attend, but indeed issue press releases casting doubt on the entire initiative, Halley decided to saber-rattle a bit more than usual.  As Friedman and Mandese’s recap continued:

Paramount’s Halley noted that Nielsen historically has “put multiple products in the market without MRC accreditation” and that its fledgling Nielsen One “panel-plus Big Data” service is not yet accredited, although it is under MRC review.

Early on Thursday, Nielsen — and then Comscore — issued statements to clients endorsing that potential new currencies be audited and ultimately accredited by the MRC.

Currently, none of the new multi-currency rivals are even in the MRC auditing process.

Paramount’s Halley, and others on the panel, described the JIC as being focused on the process of gathering technical requirements and certifying new currencies in order to accelerate the selling process — as well as to ensure they can be integrated into media-buying processing systems such as Mediaocean’s to guarantee business can run smoothly.

In other words, change is necessary.  More than ever.  Jobs and livelihoods depend upon it.  Nostalgia clearly needs to take a back seat more than ever.

It’s data like the kind that a good friend of mine, a successful showrunner and executive with multiple decades of experience, pointed out to me that teams like those run by Halley can now rely upon to extract optimal value for audiences that actually do watch and consume.  As Shelly Schrodel, vice president, strategy, VMLY&R Commerce pointed out:

Marketers believe boomers are unlikely to switch up brand choices, with only 5% of U.S. advertising targeting them, according to Havas Group. And yet, boomers have the greatest wealth, drive the most actual spending, and aren’t as hidebound as marketers think.

Boomers are starting life anew, post-empty nest or retirement. Mintel notes one in four boomers post-pandemic are prioritizing new purchases, 17% are prioritizing learning new skills, and 15% prioritize keeping up with technology. Boomer divorce rates are skyrocketing (more than one in three Americans divorcing in 2020 were 55+, according to the Census Bureau), and those boomers who previously deferred to a spouse when making product choices are seeing brands anew. 

Marketers often cite the lower lifetime value of boomers, but on average, the youngest boomer women can expect to have 26 years of shopping ahead. Their generation’s estimated spending power of $70 trillion  far exceeds the $33 trillion that the Federal Reserve projects in Gen Z disposable income by 2030.

As my friend, who supervised shows that attracted millions of viewers despite their older skew, pointed out, buyers tend to ignore these facts just because they have been used to a world where paying for any viewers over the age of 50 was considered an unnecessary concession.  In the days where choices were more limited and the sophistication of the older consumer was less developed, perhaps that was true.  It’s not now.  And there’s plenty of data available from sources other than Nielsen and Comscore to prove it.  Plenty of them attended the JIC conference to showcase it.

And as Ed Papazian of Media Dynamics pointed out, the goal of these “upstart” companies hasn’t been to outright replace the likes of Nielsen and Comscore, but merely to add insights and, ultimately, make them both more accountable and progressive:

I happen to agree with Halley when he says that MRC “accreditation for the so-called “alternative currencies” isn’t necessary. Why? Because they aren’t “currencies”. They are mainly “qulitative” add-on metrics many of which probably could not pass the MRC’s tests. In effect, these are sales promotion ploys and its up to the time buyers when they get involved to ask the right questions and make decisions about accepting the data or passing based on what they learn. This point applies to virtaully all of the qualitative measurements that have long  been used by media sellers—such as Starch ad readership studies sponsored by magazines or scanner panel studies which track product purchases among claimed subscribers to publications or homes that “watch” TV for TV ad sellers. How many of these are MRC accredited?

As I keep pointing out, the TV sellers have a perfect right to introduce non-audience metrics wherever it suits them so long as a standard measurement—which must be “audience” —exists as a base  for all buys. The mistake we are making is confusing  the discussion by labelling these add-ons—some of which may have merit—-as “currencies”.

As usual, Papazian is nuanced and a voice of reason.  But he is now just a well-respected consultant.  Those still in the trenches, such as those cited by another respected consultant, Tony Jarvis of Olympic Media Consultancy, paint a more vivid picture of the panic setting in:

As Sam Armando, EVP Publicis Media, said at an earlier M-CCC (not a JIC) meeting, “Measurement NOW” organised by Paramount, “I’m scared”.  We should all be based on some of the, respectfully, misguided comments reported here especially MRC.  MRC was established by a Congressional Committee to provide the industry minimal research and measurment standards and independent in-depth audits of ratings services and other media databases.  In the digital media world this process has never been more important.  Certification is not auditing independent of whether the certification requirements are “acceptable” or not; and whether the auditing Standards are acceptable or not.  

JICs, which have been operating extensively worldwide for many years, independently manage and own the data currency and its copyright for a single credible objective trading currency on behalf of the industry.  JICs have well established operational parameters and values and save $millions. Perhaps a Congressional Committee might well favour a JIC approach when there are $billions at stake? 

Who’s really correct?  I suspect all sides have some degree of a legitimate argument, even those that are motivated to be parochial about it.  With factors such a stoppage in original production and a possible recession both looming layered onto all of this, I believe it’s more crucial than ever for all sides to take a breath, look at the calendar, and realize it’s 2023, not 1983 or 1963, and consider all possibilites to glean as much insight and intelligence into this upfront.  Certainly, the ostrich-like approach that Nielsen and Comscore took at this time is anything but forward-thinking.  More than ever we need to get on the same page, in the same room, and appreciate what we all bring to the table.

Note to both sides: Plenty of experienced people, both veterans like moi and recently laid off digital experts of younger generations, are readily available to buttress your flanks should you need it.

And based upon what has been reported so far, Lord knows you need the help.

Embracing change is the key to progress.  It always has been.  It always will be.  It’s time to put the muskets down and bring more data savviness and intelligence into this war.

But, hey, if you do still want to do all of this over a decent steak and a cocktail, don’t let progress stop you from doing so.  After all, none of would be here were it not for that and the old 6:37 out of Grand Central.

Until next time…

Leave a Comment