ARF Audience X Science Day One: 'Frequency Is Crabgrass'

The winner of this year's Erwin Ephron Demystification Awards was Artie Bulgrin, who ran the innovative “Project Blueprint” for ESPN, and brilliantly managed to get Arbitron and Comscore to collaborate on it.

He recalled “our” mentor’s fundamental ad campaign reminder, “Frequency is crabgrass” along with, “Reach trumps frequency” at Day 1 of the Advertising Research Foundation’s Audience X Science conference in New York City.

In today’s massive media measurement and currency upheaval, notably in TV/video measurement, I think Erwin would have added a rhetorical question: “Frequency of what?  Impressions?”

Only if specially defined, he would have insisted, because as evident from last year’s ARF event and industry parlance, the term “impressions” has become nebulous.  

This is why ARF President-CEO Scott McDonald asked Warner Bros. Discovery’s Andrea Zapata, “What is an impression?  Not all impressions are the same.”



She demurred answering, stressing the value of long-form premium content offered by WBD and the various networks.  However, she was not alone.  

With a heavy focus on media measurement, not one industry leader explicitly defined impressions, their derivation or measurement.

The “multi-currency certification committee, M-CCC” (not a JIC) panelists did imply their various currencies would be based on “viewable impressions.”

However, this metric is solely a device/screen measure that has no actual person’s or panel measurement.  

The Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) Jackson Bazley and the Video Advertising Bureau’s Sean Cunningham underlined both the importance of persons measurement, which will be underpinned by a calibration panel in the ANA’s crossmedia measurement initiative; and the critical value of estimating true reach and frequency across all TV/video platforms and ultimately across all major media.  Why?  Because it will be the basis of reducing the “crabgrass”!

Advertisers, the ultimate media buyers, are focused on campaign results for their brands.  I believe Erwin and inevitably Bulgrin would remind advertisers that impressions not measured at the eyes/ears-on level at a minimum cannot generate an outcome and are relatively meaningless.  Consequently, basing currencies on “viewable impressions” metrics is going to generate a lot of crabgrass.  It already does.

The importance of Media Rating Council (MRC) accreditation of any media audience measurement database or currency was a recurring theme.  MRC CEO-Executive Director George Ivie emphasized the MRC’s neutrality and independence from the M-CCC and the extreme complexity and painstaking work required for any accreditations.  Based on extensive experience, he opined, “If you think you know where your ratings are going, think again!”  

Pete Doe, Chief Research Officer, Nielsen, reminded the audience of the fundamental importance of a massive TV/video viewing panel when using or integrating the various big data media metric sources.  The latter are notably set-top box information, aka return path data (RPD), and automatic content recognition ( ACR), data.  ACR & RPD clearly have limitations and biases on top of which they indicate content rendered or device tuning which generates “viewable impressions,” and importantly, “should not be projected beyond their footprint.”  

It is not surprising therefore that while Nielsen remains in “discussions” with the M-CCC it will not submit to its certification currently.  As Doe suggested, “Nielsen is very well placed to create the currency of the future.”  

Additional insights from the day included the observation that media’s “context matters” when it comes to influence on amplifying the impact of the brand’s ad, courtesy of WBD’s Heather Coghill and MediaScience’s Daniel Bulgrin.  

“The Challenge of Churn” on subscription video-on-demand subscribers (SVOD) by Magid’s Mike Bloxham and Tony Cardinale provided a fascinating examination of how the success drivers are changing and now challenging the SVOD marketplace in its fight for revenues, subscribers, loyalty and share.

4 comments about "ARF Audience X Science Day One: 'Frequency Is Crabgrass'".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 27, 2023 at 8:36 a.m.

    Tony, Erwin  was renting space from me at the time he developed his recency theory using professor Jone's Nielsen scanner panel data for a number of packaged goods brands as his basis. So I talked with him in some detail about what the data actually represented. What Jones reported was that a home "reached" 2+ times per week by a brand's commercial did not buy twice as much of the advertised product as a home "exposed" only once  with "exposure" defined by set usage, not viewing. Yet the media costs for 2+ "frequency" were also 2+, making the extra "frequency" seem inefficient relative to results gained.

    This was the genesis of the notion that "frequency is crabgrass".  However, as I pointed out to Erwin, in reality,  many homes  classified as "being reached" once, were not reached at all. About 50-60% of the time the targeted consumer wasn't even the person watching the program carrying the commercial. But even  if the buying decision maker was watching the show, chances were that only half of these people also watched the commercial. In other words the ideal frequency per week ---relative to media costs ---was a zero frequency for most of these households. And taking it a step beyond, many of those 2+ frequency homes which were "reached" with "redundant" frequency---aka "crabgrass"---were in reality reached only once.

     My point is not to make light of what Erwin was saying---we were long time associates, partners in a business venture and friends. Rather, I'm giving an example of how misleading "impressions" can be when all that is measured is that the ad mesage appeared on a screen. Back then---in the mid 1990s----the media world was blindly accepting "audience" data as representing opportunity to view and all too often this slipped into the assumption that the ad message was actually viewed. Sadly, unless attentiveness is incorporated in our  evolving TV "audience" surveys we will be making the same mistake again.

  2. Tony Jarvis from Olympic Media Consultancy, April 27, 2023 at noon

    I think you are going to love my Op Ed and conclusions on Day 2 although there was a bit of a bombshell dropped by a major social media player!  The battle lines are clearly drawn on currency bases.  Now if only the industry would listen to you.  

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, April 27, 2023 at 12:45 p.m.

    Looking forward to it, Tony.

  4. John Grono from GAP Research, April 28, 2023 at 1:11 a.m.

    Yes please Tony!

    And Ed, your frequency comments and explanation are very elucidating and they run parallel to all my learnings over the past ... well ... a long time.

    But I notice that the phrase from JPJ "What Jones reported was that a home "reached" 2+ times per week..." was relating to household reach.   The conclusion is that therefore frequency's impact is less valauble than reach.

    I have a quibble at the magnitude of the impact.   A household may have been reached twice, but they may have been two different occupants.   On a a 'potential purchaser' basis the reach is 1 for each viewer to the ad while the 'home reach' is 2.

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