Cracking the Moby Dick Code

Do you remember reading Moby Dick in high school? Now considered an example of the great American novel, Herman Melville’s story is a classic case of a work benefiting from revisionist theory. It may also provide a lesson to the media industry today as we take on a “whale of an assignment” - that of navigating through the new research tools designed to help quantify Reach/Frequency and GRPs with online and multi-media schedules.

Captain Ahab’s grudge against Moby Dick goes back to an earlier incident when the whale swallowed one of his legs. Somewhat of a similar voyage is ahead of us as the media industry begins to consider how to deal with the current R/F/GRP debate. The questions are: who will define what’s used, when should it be defined and who should be involved in the discussion, besides determining how to construct/approve the tools.

For years, the online world seemed perfectly content to be incomparable to offline. New age measurements such as click through, post click conversion and “stickiness,” were inapplicable to traditional media measurements such as comp, coverage, demo ratings and VPVH. Today, these once-fashionable measures are now being tossed overboard and replaced by Reach, Frequency and - believe it or not - GRPs.



In all candor, the media business faces a daunting task of trying to connect and compare “old-age” tools that project audience usage in the hundreds of millions using antiquated tools that rely on eyeballing microscopic portions of traditional media vehicle usage, with “new-age” tools that measure each and every consumer individually. But Internet-based tools have gotten so good at telling how each of us REALLY behaves online that just the mention of their possible use caused a major fury in Washington and kicked off a wave of Big Brother paranoia just a year or so ago.

Can these two disparate disciplines actually be joined together when for years neither industry made much of an effort to coordinate with each other? Notwithstanding politics, is the research methodology gap between online and offline too large to bridge what’s “worked” for so long in traditional media (where the primary metrics were age and gender)? Should age and gender be the “gold standard” now that we possess online tools that can accurately measure cookie-based behavior against individual persons? And just as importantly, assuming our industry leaders figure out how to cross this chasm, how and when will this expertise trickle down to the rank and file media strategist, who has to both use and explain these tools to clients in a comprehensive manner?

Moreover, who in our midst possesses the type of mesmerizing power and control Ahab had over his crew to insure proper qualification. Each requires knowledge of many moving parts, such as which 3rd party platform to use for which analytics tool, based on which database for which audience segment for each and every brand.

It’s been our understanding that R/F tools are used best when comparing media plan options alongside each other, which allows planners to review a variety of options in the planning process. However, given the importance clients also have to merchandise media budgets for their sales people, their clients/buyers and others, R/F tools/estimates have been misused vs. the reality of the media buy.

As a result, reach/frequency estimates are often misquoted. In addition, any analyses of reach/frequency tools and GRP methodologies cannot be completely separated from the databases they are based on. Therefore, the R/F/GRP discussion must dig deeper and also cover the databases used. The advertising industry needs this in order to investigate how the various online/offline tools and databases will be constructed long term so that they are measurable and comparable against all media.

Similar to other debates involving the planning and designation of millions of dollars in marketing spend, many within the industry anticipate a challenging time ahead, especially with so many different companies surfacing with R/F/GRP tools.

For the last 40 years, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and outdoor have each been dominated by one or perhaps two research companies; monopolies which often stifled innovation and any intention to improve methodology. However, in the span of under one year, the online industry now has as many choices to measure these important metrics. These tools are supporting the belief that cracking the code on R/F/GRPs will help the online industry grow aggressively once again.

Since there’s so much riding on this topic, one must ask, “how is it going to be decided?” Is the plan to create a “standard?” by which all tools will have to follow? Have we thought about the ramifications of this? Do we want to create another monopoly in online research, which may once again kill innovation and advancement?

What should the balance of online input be from an industry that can’t sit still for more than 5 minutes before they want to change “the model” again, and that probably accepted out of date tools for at least 5 years longer than it should have. How much real insight will there be when there’s almost no understanding or acceptance over the use of cookies, in whatever version you choose (live, persistent or tbd.)

Ahab’s secret agenda - that of using his crew to accomplish his personal vendetta against Moby Dick - must not be replicated in this area. In order for this effort to gain industry awareness, support and acceptance, our research leaders must acknowledge that today’s tools for calculating R/F/GRPs online are about as comparable to offline as Ahab’s Newport R.I. whale-schooner is with today’s biofiltration fish production farms, which produce much of the country’s pesce.

Given the task at hand, a bunch of us within the media business have gotten together to develop a forum to work through these issues, to keep the rank and file media strategist aware of how the Captains of our industry are sailing through these turbulent waters. We call ourselves The R&F Group. Many of the initial groups represent companies with an expertise in offline and online media and marketing, technology and qualitative and quantitative research.

Though our companies support this public initiative, the main goal is to foster a dialogue through personal involvement, that questions, analyzes and ultimately transforms the good work the 4A’s, the ARF and the IAB are doing. We believe that for as much as our research leaders understand the issues, we personally have a great reliance on the rank-and-file media strategist and the planner cranking on media solutions in the cube - those who may have insights that only a practitioner could unearth.

Therefore, Captain Ahab’s lesson to us all should be that at this juncture in our industry, we could all benefit by helping our industry associations along by taking a more active interest. It’s never a good idea to leave very important decisions to a small handful with no feedback from the ones who will be required to carry out the task. Even with all his power and passion, Ahab could not control Moby Dick. No matter how he tried, his will was not strong enough to destroy the whale. It was more than he could handle. R/F/GRPs are just as big.

No person or company in the advertising business “owns” Reach/Frequency and GRPs. There are those that make policy for various organizations and associations, which is their right. However, in light of how little we know about how to combine online and offline R&F’s, we urge everyone within this industry to pay attention to this debate. Reach/Frequency and GRPs are abstracts which (once defined) will be universally understood and needed by marketers to help determine media spending. Given the task ahead, we urge this publication as well as others to give space to focusing on the R/F/GRP debate, as there’s much at stake.

We need to protect the media industry from Ahab’s fate, who single-mindedly put his ship, his crew and his life in fatal jeopardy as he alone tried to crack The Moby Dick Code, only to bring everyone and everything down with him.

Tim McHale is Chief Media Officer at Tribal DDB Worldwide and is responsible for all media, research and CRM investments for Tribal’s clients. For more information on The R&F Group, please contact him at

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