Column: Research Roadmap - The Promise of Project Apollo

  • by June 22, 2005
By Jim Kite

Is project apollo the "holy grail" of media research that some say it is? The two industry heavyweights behind the research, Nielsen and Arbitron, definitely think so. They promise that it will soon be possible to measure advertising return on investment (ROI) in a way that directly affects the bottom line - by sales and not by impressions, exposures, or clicks.

The technology used to capture this data not only sounds cool, but when implemented properly, is also very precise. By supplying participants with Portable People Meters (PPM), encoded signals from various broadcast and audio channels will automatically be picked up and transmitted back to a central storehouse. The data is compared against the products that participants purchased and scanned using Arbitron's Homescan technology. The appeal is obvious - accurate, comprehensive, measurable ROI.

Yet Apollo has suffered setbacks in the past few months. The most notable was the announcement that its launch has been scaled back to a pilot, albeit a sizeable one - 6,250 households at a cost of $14 million. The pilot may start without broad client support. Some industry pundits immediately seized upon the chance to deride Project Apollo. Marketing consultant Al Ries called Project Apollo "off base" on In his critique, Ries used Project Apollo as a platform for advancing his theory that public relations and word of mouth, rather than general advertising, are at the core of product sales.

This is understandable, even expected. Ries is approaching Apollo from a fundamentally different marketing perspective. Yet other marketers who firmly believe in advertising as an effective communications vehicle have expressed doubts as well. Despite all of our talk about the rapid pace of change in the advertising and media world, we continue to invest in outmoded research tools. It doesn't add up. The obvious risk of a project like Apollo is that we might unearth results that reveal that our ads aren't as effective as we've always believed them to be.

For advertising to thrive, we must embrace vanguard thinking in the area of research. Here's why.

Apollo, far from being "off base," is spot-on in its holistic approach to media measurement. It promises to capture message receptivity and subsequent buying behavior for the general population, as well as sub-groups, including key influencer targets. If the Apollo project moves from test to industry standard, clients and their agencies will have far stronger measures on what media works and why. Simply put, if we believe in our work, this shouldn't scare us.

For starters, Apollo will collect single-source data for TVand radio, but it will expand to encompass a whole range of traditional and nontraditional media, including the Web. Indeed, this list of media will only lengthen to include virtually every form of consumer communication.

Some worry that in an Apollo world, consumers would be bombarded by short-term promotional campaigns at the sacrifice of long-term brand building. This argument suggests that Apollo will stifle creativity as advertisers push short-term promotions. But what's stopping advertisers from doing that now, especially as the effects of coupons and promotions are far easier to evaluate today than other means of communication?

I would argue that multimedia will spawn "cause and effect" data and more experimentation. The industry will have more confidence to experiment with new media and media mixes knowing they can be measured. If Apollo becomes an industry standard, I suspect we will see more multimedia campaigns and a greater diversity in message execution. Apollo shows great promise, but still must clear validation and philosophical hurdles. Not least, the fact that the allure of directly linking a marketing message with a purchase can ignore the fact that many brand sales are built over time, and aren't simply the result of exposure close to purchase. The Apollo consortium should evaluate tools that monitor the longer brand-building consequences of communications, not just the immediate link between message and sales. Otherwise, critical buy-in from company CEOs won't be forthcoming when the pilot results reveal that a linear relationship between ad spending and sales is not so obvious.

Jim Kite is executive vice president, director of Insights, Research and Accountability at MediaVest USA. (

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