When researchers embarked on an initiative to upgrade media measurement, the fund-raising process looked reasonably easy. CEOs at the likes of NBC Universal and WPP Group were enthusiastic backers.
But that was before the economic tailspin.
"This was pre-Lehman Brothers, pre-recession and we got a tremendous amount of support from the CEOs financially," NBCU research chief Alan Wurtzel said last month. "We honestly had to scale that back."
Despite the retrenchment, the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (CIMM) has 14 charter members committed to annually putting up $100,000 apiece for two years. The group includes seven owners of TV networks; four agency holding groups; and three advertisers.
But CIMM is actively searching for more members, hoping to increase its budget beyond the $1.4 million a year ($2.8 million over two) it appears to have in pocket.
CIMM is looking to seed pilot studies on how best to capitalize on set-top-box data -- and measure viewing across the TV, Internet and handheld devices.
"The whole idea is -- let's just start from the beginning," said Wurtzel, a driving force behind CIMM. "If you were inventing measurement today for a world that exists now and is going forward, what is the best way to do it."
CIMM's funding, however, could leave it with only a modest amount to accomplish its goals. Its $1.4 million annual budget (so far) must cover the salary of a soon-to-be-hired managing director and general operating expenses.
Recruiting new members could prove challenging, and at least in one instance, not because of the economy. An executive at one company said the business would take a pass because it was left out of initial conversations. "Now they are looking for additional members to get enough money to do the research ... we do not plan on joining," the person said.
But Scripps Networks Interactive, the parent of Food Network and HGTV, is set to sign on. "We expect to become a member in the next several months," said research chief Mike Pardee in a statement. "It is a long-term initiative and commitment with great potential for the media and advertising business." Agency Carat is also expected to officially join soon. Separately, at least one other major entity is moving through the application process and another is mulling it over.
CIMM, which is incorporated in Delaware as an LLC, has adopted a two-tier system for membership. Voting members pay the $100,000 a year and gain a seat on the board of directors, while non-voting participants can join for $25,000 annually. The voting members will determine the projects that CIMM green-lights.
CIMM is committed to a membership that draws from the three legs of TV media-buying -- the networks, agencies and advertisers. Network operators include ESPN/ABC and Discovery, while agency owners include Publicis and WPP.
But most major content providers and agencies are already on board, so the most fertile area for attracting new members -- and money -- would seem to be from marketers. Only three leading advertisers - Procter & Gamble, AT&T and Unilever -- have signed on. "We are considering the opportunity," said State Farm Advertising Director Ed Gold. "But I believe since OMD -- our long-time media agency -- is going to be a part of this, they're going to be looking out for our best interests."
But Jack Wakshlag, head of research at CIMM member Turner Broadcasting, indicated that the coalition is on firm financial ground during a conference call last month. "We've got enough to begin and a commitment to do more when the time comes," he said.
In September, when Wurtzel appeared at an Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) event, he made an appeal for new members and said he hoped to announce a significantly larger member base by the end of the year. The NBCU veteran has been serving as CIMM's de facto chief.
Once the permanent managing director is hired, the group will issue requests for proposal (RFPs) in both the three-screen measurement and set-top-box areas. Independent research firms will then apply for funding to work on projects. The RFPs will be placed on CIMM's yet-to-be-launched Web site.
CIMM has already spent some of its budget. Working as a consultant, former Lifetime executive Tim Brooks helped develop a framework for the RFPs, canvassing the CIMM members to get a sense of what they hoped the research would yield and whether they had any specific goals.
However, if CIMM finds it difficult to increase its budget, will it get the results it seeks?
Its projected figure is considerably less than the $3.5 million the Council for Research Excellence (CRE) gave Ball State University's Center for Media Design and Sequent Partners for a year-long, high-profile study on video use. The CRE is backed by Nielsen, but functions as an independent industry think tank.
One CIMM board member said it is too early to speculate on what can or can't be accomplished. The group is committed to being nimble and working creatively with what it has. "(But) hopefully we will get more people to want to participate, which will make the money a non-issue," the person said.
"It's possible to be careful and considerate and come up with some tests within the budgets that they have," said Bruce Goerlich, chief researcher at Rentrak.
With a likely interest in applying for a CIMM contract, Rentrak has experience in both multi-screen and set-top-box measurement. Other established research companies -- TNS, TRA Inc. and even Nielsen -- could also seek CIMM funding and maybe supplement projects with their own funds.
"We look forward to seeing that RFP to determine how we might respond," said Mark Lieberman, who heads TRA, a company that uses set-top-box data as a platform to explore a link between TV viewing and in-store purchases.
Nonetheless, when he spoke at the ARF event, Wurtzel seemed intrigued by the prospect of CIMM moving beyond the establishment. Maybe finding a better mousetrap off the beaten path where Apple or YouTube got going.
"There's a guy in a garage in Silicon Valley that might be producing some sort of technology right now that we could apply, but we don't know where he is and he doesn't know how to get to us," he said.
The likes of TNS and Nielsen can easily get meetings with top media buyers and sellers to market their services, Wurtzel said, but CIMM can help new kids on the block gain exposure.
In a sense, CIMM could be tabbed as an angel investor -- with one major difference. It wants insight and guidance, not profit.
Researchers that receive its funding and develop promising new systems can sell them on the open market. CIMM will hold no financial stake, or own any patents.
In a twist, CIMM members might even have to buy the services they paid to develop.
"If one of these germinate into a viable company, then they will have something to go out and sell to the media companies, agencies and clients," said Lyle Schwartz, head of research at GroupM and a CIMM board member.
In addition to the full board, CIMM has an eight-member executive board. The managing director will report to that group, which will have a greater role in nuts-and-bolts oversight.
The executive board seeks a balance representing the three industries involved in CIMM. Four members come from media companies (which make up the bulk of the membership) -- and two each from agencies and advertisers.
MTV Networks researcher Colleen Fahey Rush and Fox's Audrey Steele are two representatives on the media side. Executives from Unilever and AT&T occupy the two "advertiser" seats. Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, from Interpublic, is CIMM's treasurer and has one of the agency seats. Wurtzel has elected not to sit on the executive board.
While some CIMM members have been reluctant to comment about their involvement in the initiative, Wurtzel said "the whole idea of this thing is not to have it be a secret club."
At the ARF gathering, he emphasized it will take a so-called sunshine approach. Results from the research and studies it funds will be made available widely and for free.
Which raises the question, why would a network or advertiser pony up the CIMM membership dues?
Wurtzel acknowledged the conundrum at the ARF meeting, but likened the group to "public television" -- or an industry service, and said he hoped companies would join because "they think it's important to underwrite this and they want to have a better involvement."
Only full CIMM voting members will have final say on which research projects are funded.
There have been a host of unsuccessful efforts to get the industry to work jointly to find smarter methodologies and technologies. But Wurtzel said at the ARF event that what distinguishes CIMM is the involvement of networks, agencies and advertisers.
Also setting it apart is the hoopla caused when it was first billed as a Nielsen challenger. "It isn't," Wurtzel said. But he recognized the spotlight it is under.
"These things begin with a lot of publicity, a lot of interest, a lot of excitement -- and then the question is do they have legs," he said.