Part of the solution, said one top media agency executive, ironically may be for marketers to spend more money. Specifically, Jean Pool, executive vice president-COO North America at Universal McCann, said marketers are selling themselves and their media services agencies short by not compensating them to deliver higher returns on media investments.
"We have shrinking margins, and it's all about money," said Pool, summing up a point-of-view shared by agencies, marketers, and media executives alike during the day-long event that in some way or another focused on three essential letters in the modern day marketing mix: ROI.
The focus, and the assumption that agencies aren't necessarily always doing their best to be accountable and deliver the greatest ROI, made some of Madison Avenue's elite a bit touchy and led to a surprising amount of finger-pointing.
"I think it's extraordinary that we have to answer that question," said panelist Cindy Gallop, president of Bartle Bogle Hegarty. "We absolutely believe in being accountable. But there are costs."
Universal's Pool went as far as saying that ROI goals are not necessarily the agencies' responsibility. "Ultimately it is the responsibility of the marketer,' she said. "We are your partners."
She asserted, "We think accountability is important. But we are part of a whole."
Bartle's Gallop noted that her agency often requests that performance clauses be included in all agency's compensation agreements to ensure there is an explicit understanding of ROI goals between the agency and its clients. "It's astonishing to me how many clients don't want to do it," Gallop said.
Panelists agreed that retail clients were most apt to share immediate, actionable data than in the past. But some clients are not as equipped to enable agencies to be held accountable. "Marketing departments are not always tapped into sales departments," Gallop said. That fact makes it very difficult to get reliable sales results from advertising.
While many marketers are getting better about sharing information, Universal's Pool indicated the accountability also suffers from outside research sources such as Nielsen data, which can be costly and don't always deliver the information and insights necessary to achieve a marketer's ROI goals.
"Our margins are tighter than hell," said Pool. "What about the margin of Nielsen and other research partners?" Pool and others complained about Nielsen's inflexibility on pricing and its often unmanageable data.
When brands do take the time to ensure that ROI is measured, Gallop said that clients and agencies still suffer at times from the current business culture, where looking back is often avoided, particularly when results may be poor. "It is human nature to not want to hear what it is you did badly," she said.
The integrity of media buying data also was challenged during a separate panel discussion at the forum, which suggested that even some of the most basic information, including when, where and whether ads actually ran, can be suspect and can lead to discrepancies that disrupt how media companies bill, how they are paid and how agencies are compensated.
"We need a level playing field where everybody sees the data," said Richard Alcott, a former agency media executive who is now president of sales and marketing at AudioAudit, one of a cadre of new companies that electronically verify media buys. "The process today is highly manual, highly inefficient, and frankly inaccurate."
"Free your agencies from paper," echoed Abby Auerbach, executive vice president of the Television Bureau of Advertising.
Auerbach concurred with Alcott's push for a more universal billing and tracking system among agencies and media companies, which frequently employ proprietary data formats. "We want all computer systems to speak the same language," she said. "We want to eliminate discrepancies."
But standardized, computerized billing systems may not go far enough, according to Harold Geller, senior vice president, eBusiness Solutions, at AudioAudit rival Verance. "There is a communications problem," he said. "Electronic [reporting] only goes so far."
Geller alluded to the recent print media circulation scandals, warning that diligence was needed to avoid similar fallout in TV and radio. "How long is it going to be before the same questions are being asked about broadcast?"
Geller put some of the responsibility at the feet of the many clients present in the room. "The voice of the advertiser has been relatively silent," he said. "That needs to change."
The group also debated the need for and the access to commercial ratings, or minute-by-minute ratings information. Once again, Nielsen was criticized harshly for providing high cost, slow, and inflexible data in this area.
As for the interactive world, most agreed that the medium is much farther along given the real time accuracy of its data collection. Greg Stuart, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, announced that the medium's metric of choice was close to enjoying a standard definition, promising that the "world's first global measurement standard for consistently measuring an ad impression," was just two months away.