The Worthless $20 Billion Metric

According to TNS Media Intelligence, online advertising spending will climb to $20 billion in the U.S. in 2006, equivalent to 13 percent of the total anticipated ad spend of $150 billion across all media. TNS is one of a dozen or more organizations that track and/or report on interactive ad spends, all of whom have different methodologies, categories and driving assumptions, and which naturally produce different actual forecasts.

As a former research analyst who used to help produce these very forecasts, I've always been uncomfortable with them. Not just because of the methodologies or categories or assumptions, but because of the practical value of the resultant data. In 1999, 2000 and 2001, the purpose behind building these forecasts was largely press-driven. Press mentions were a rich currency then, because organizations would try to build credibility by tying themselves to this media-bestowed authority. Find a forecast that supports your growth plan; put it in your deck; pitch to investors and clients. Rinse. Repeat.



But what's today's currency? It's not mere data. Go to any conference or seminar on metrics, and the first thing you'll hear is "there is too much data--our job is to sift through it all and find the useful nuggets."

Increasingly, "useful nuggets" are not industry-wide, but proprietary. The percentage of the auto industry's budgets devoted to interactive is a fact interesting to publishers in general, but not actionable to any one publisher in particular. No, actionable data isn't discovered serendipitously by looking at the same industrywide research as all your competitors, and somehow exhuming a vital insight everyone else missed. Rather, it's created through custom programs designed to yield data as well as results, that can only be achieved through pan-partner collaboration.

In New York, there is a little dessert shop in the EastVillage called Chikalicious. It opens around dinnertime and stays open until they run out of food, which seems to happen just about every night. When I lived nearby, I used to pass by several times a day, and saw the woman I assumed was the proprietor there most of the day when the place was empty--prepping, baking, testing, tasting. I didn't know her, never met her, never even went into the place (mostly because it was always too full when it was open), but I think I glimpsed her vision and watched her hard work, and witnessed the results. And every time I saw her, I was proud of her. Good for you. You figured out how to do it, and then you actually did it.

I felt exactly the same way earlier this week when I read that MTV has formed Viewser Labs, a consumer-research group that's a collaboration among a host of internal functions at MTV, as well as clients and agencies. Good for you, MTV. You figured out how to do it, and you're actually doing it. You're not waiting for a solution to be delivered to you and your 10 nearest competitors simultaneously--you're creating it yourself AND tightening relationships with your customers.

I remain a big fan of syndicated and other industrywide research, and believe it's a great way to take the pulse of the industry. But I think its value is as a jumping-off point, not a conclusion. Because the most dear currency amidst today's media upheaval is not data or even actionable information--it's innovation.

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