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New Rules of Engagement

As the nation’s largest advertisers gathered last weekend for the annual Association of National Advertisers (ANA) conference in Phoenix, they had more on their minds than cocktail parties and tee times. They were thinking about the role of three letters—R-O-I—and the new standards of accountability on Madison Avenue.

The highlight of the event was a report benchmarking the best practices big marketers use to achieve accountability. While detailed findings of the report were not available at press time, the early top lines suggest Madison Avenue firms have their work cut out for them. It’s no longer enough that agencies and media outlets create ads and content to attract consumers. The new corporate marketing mantra mandates that they not only prove they reached consumers but also account for precisely how many they reached, whether consumers were engaged by the advertising, and even whether they were influenced by it.

Describing the report as an “important strategic direction,” Bob Liodice, president and CEO of the ANA, said it was the next step toward “true accountability” in the marketing process, especially for advertising.

Madison Avenue has gotten the message, and so have major media outlets. Both groups are scurrying to come up with the means of proving the results of the ads they plan, buy or carry on behalf of national advertisers. Most have to do with how they measure the audience exposure to media—not simply whether viewers watched a TV program or read a newspaper, but whether they saw the ads, and if those ads generated results.

While agencies continue to pursue their own methods, two industry-wide initiatives have been launched to ensure that media delivers on all those counts. One is MI4, a new task force created by Madison Avenue’s Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) to help define and develop methods for measuring “engagement,” or a state in which consumers are actually paying attention and are involved with media and advertising content.

The second initiative, unveiled during Advertising Week in New York recently, is an attempt to gain control over the way media audiences are measured in the future. Dubbed the Audience Measurement Initiative (AMI), it’s the result of a year-long series of meetings sponsored by ARF to deal with the issue of audience-measurement accountability. It’s also a response to the growing outcry against Nielsen Media Research’s dominance of the TV ratings market, as well as scandals that have arisen concerning newspaper and magazine circulation statements.

The ad industry is downplaying the formal structure of AMI, fearing that ratings suppliers such as Nielsen will see it as an attempt to form a Joint Industry Committee. JICs, which operate successfully in other markets around the world, represent the interests of all the buyers of media ratings—advertisers, agencies and the media—and control the standards and suppliers of the research, issuing specifications and asking suppliers to compete for the business. When ARF explored developing a JIC about a decade ago, Nielsen threatened an antitrust suit, and the foundation backed down.

Even if it’s not officially a JIC, AMI will, in fact, have a fairly formal structure, with a full-time executive director and board of directors, and its members will be comprised of a cross-section of ratings customers—including advertisers, agencies and media outlets. It appears it will operate very much like the JIC Nielsen dreads, conducting primary research on new measurement methods and annual performance reviews of ratings research suppliers.

And if those efforts fail to meet the needs of ratings customers, Lifetime Television research chief Tim Brooks, an organizer of the initiative, told a group of executives a Joint Industry Committee isn’t out of the question. “If for some reason it doesn’t work,” he said, “I think we could see a JIC in this country.”