Most striking was the way the opening panel - a first ever discussion between the CEOs of the world's biggest marketing research companies - reacted to a question about Google's future role in their business. Responding to an audience question from Nielsen BuzzMetrics executive Max Kaeloff on whether Google would likely appear on a similar ARF panel in the next few years, the research chiefs implied Google effectively was already there.
"I think Google will be on every panel across many industries," acknowledged David Lowden, CEO of London-based research giant TNS. "Clearly they have moved into our traditional space. They are providing information with regards to trends in the marketplace. I think the exact amount of involvement that they will have in research is very much an open question but they do have a significant amount of data and information. It may be that they partner with somebody to analyze that information."
In his first significant public speaking role, recently installed Nielsen Co. CEO David Calhoun acknowledged Google's encroachment on Nielsen's traditional turf of TV audience measurement vis a vis a recent deal with satellite TV service EchoStar that will provide advertisers with the kind of clickstream data historically associated with Google's online media buys. However, Calhoun implied that Nielsen is looking at Google more as a potential friend than an enemy.
"Our only choice is to think about Google as creating opportunity," Calhoun said, repeating, "Our only choice."
That was a sentiment shared by others at the ARF conference, including Eric Salama, CEO of WPP's Kantar Group, implied that Google's effect on marketing and media research might be even more profound that simply providing new databases and research analytics. He said Google is actually "fundamentally changing the way that people out there interact with media and consume information" and that Google and similar online search companies "are probably impacting the way we need to interact with consumers to get information."
That was a theme echoed by Steven Fredericks, CEO of TNS Media Intelligence, and author of the new book, "StrADegy: Advertising In The Digital Age," during a luncheon keynote that predicted that "search entities" such as Google, Yahoo and potentially others that have yet to emerge, would ultimately become the gatekeepers of all consumer information and insights.
"Google or some other entity becomes the equivalent of the electronic program guide. It is the ultimate electronic program guide," he said, suggesting that consumers would ultimately indicates their "intentions and interests" to marketers via search engines by "self-tagging" their behavior.
Fredericks described this world as a "digital dream" that would explode the economics of mass marketing and mass media and would replace it with a far more efficient marketplace based on behavioral targeting that would make advertising "independent of content."
In that world, he predicted, research companies like TNS, Nielsen, Kantar, Gfk, and others would need to shift from conducting surveys and managing databases to mining insights that generate results for marketers.
Fredericks envisioned that in that future marketplace, ROI would become instantaneous - much the way it already works in the world of online search optimization - and that advertising would also grow independent of conventional media platforms. Instead of placing ads in TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and other media, Fredericks said it would be placed in terms of its format: "audio, video and text."
Google also emerged as an equalizing force during an afternoon panel discussion featuring top advertiser and agency executives. Marissa Sison, director of advertising, sponsorship & events effectiveness at General Motors, described the current relationship between marketers and consumers as being in an "information asymmetry," and that Google was helping to fix that in a way that would strengthen, not weaken the relationship.
By arming consumers with access to greater information about products and services, Sison said Google is helping to overcome much of the "fear and loathing" that consumers feel when having marketing messages catapulted at them.
One of the industry's most influential media buyers, Starcom MediaVest Group chief Renetta McCann, concurred, suggesting that Google clearly is her friend, not her enemy, and is actually helping agencies like SMG regain some control in the communications process.
Noting that consumers have grown more "unpredictable" as a result of overall media fragmentation and the plethora of on-demand technologies, McCann said, "Search is consumer behavior. If I can get consumer behavior, then they become a little more predictable. If they become a little more predictable, then guess who's back in control?"