Media Researchers Live In Interesting Times

The past few years have witnessed a proliferation of new audience data from Nielsen as well as other research companies. But are agency media research departments adequately staffed to optimally analyze, understand and use this new data? Most of us are familiar with the ancient Chinese proverb, "may you live in interesting times" That sentiment is very appropriate in the field of media research.

For years, the industry has groused about Nielsen being slow to produce more and better data. Well, they're producing lots of it now, with more planned. But guess what? There may not be enough people employed in media research departments at media agencies to do comprehensive, compelling analyses. (Starcom may be the exception.) And the demands on their time are likely to grow as additional communication channels are measured and audience data becomes more granular. Exciting times to be sure, but daunting challenges exist.

With so much new data to evaluate and explain--such as commercial ratings, product-placement exposures, engagement levels, DVR playback, etc.--do agencies have sufficient manpower? It wouldn't surprise me if media research executives are kept awake at night (and distracted during the day) pondering how to analyze and synthesize all the new data and research services, while at the same time maintaining the high-quality servicing of their clients.



(Before proceeding, let's be clear not to confuse media research mavens with market research gurus. While market research professionals contribute important areas of expertise to ROI, communications planning and consumer insights, for the most part, they aren't schooled in the intricacies of media research methodologies and their implications.)

Moreover, this staffing situation and data overload affects career contentment.

We talk endlessly about consumer engagement, but what about career fulfillment for people working in the media research field? It's frustrating when so much cool data is available, yet given the demands of day-to-day tasks, there is little time to adequately explore it.

Adding to the burden of some media research staffs are responsibilities that have traditionally been carried out by media planners--i.e., competitive analyses, targeting, and MRI coding. Part of the reason may be that planning departments are also stretched thin, and the demands on them are high, given the many new media options available. However, this unfairly burdens media research and takes time away from research responsibilities.

In the past few years, the media research community has spent extensive time with the topics of viewer engagement, commercial ratings and DVR playback. But there is also looming data for other media. For example, large amounts of data on Internet audiences are available from Nielsen NetRatings and Comscore. IAG generates recall and engagement scores on a daily basis. The out-of-home industry is producing more precise data based on GPS-like devices. In-store media may get a boost from Project Apollo. Arbitron's PPM will provide out-of-home viewing data for local TV for the first time. MRI is unveiling an additional magazine measure that will provide audience data on a more frequent basis. Plus, there is the imminent data juggernaut that will become available from set-top boxes.

The situation isn't as dire for research staffs of publishers or broadcasters, since their work is mostly limited to one medium. It is media planning/buying companies that are more challenged because they must evaluate all media and other avenues of communication, and thus are expected to be conversant in all applicable research.

Because of overburdened staffs, it's questionable whether media agencies are getting full value from the huge investments they make in research data. Multimillions are invested annually, but agencies probably aren't able to optimize their investment. If the staff is stretched thin, it can't find time to be immersed in all aspects of a research project. And most of the data has a short shelf life.

Here's one solution: Perhaps each major media agency could champion an issue and every year discuss its findings at an ARF conference to benefit everyone.

This isn't to say that fine work isn't consistently being produced. (The media research committees of the 4As, ARF make vital contributions). Most large media agencies can boast well-respected media research directors who oversee important work for clients. They do their best to keep ahead of the curve, provide valuable perspective, and suggest where future research should take us. However, even more great work could be generated if additional inquisitive minds were brought on board.

The intricacies of media research may make it seem maddeningly tedious and un-sexy for non-researchers, but it's a crucial component for any media company. It provides the foundation of media decisions. If media agencies want to properly service their clients and keep media research as a viable and rewarding career choice, management must nurture their media research departments and provide the help needed to prepare them for the mountains of new data on the horizon.

Rob Frydlewicz, formerly media research director at Carat USA and FCB New York, is president of RAF Consulting in New York.

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