Four A’s Gives Television an F

Lack of ad measurement is driving advertisers to other platforms

The nation’s largest advertising agencies blasted TV networks for their lack of accountability and warned that new- media alternatives will continue to grab TV’s market share.

Speakers at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (Four A’s) annual conference in Orlando, Fla., last week urged the TV industry to adopt a system for measuring how many viewers watch their ads. The Internet is accountable, say advertisers, while television, with the largest reach of any medium, is not.

While the Four A’s has pressured Nielsen for such data in the past, it focused the blame on the TV industry this year. Universal McCann Executive VP/COO Jean Pool, the conference’s “presider,” took aim in her opening remarks. “You must share the data or be seen as trying to hide a dirty little secret,” she said, challenging the industry to develop and disclose research on commercial ratings. “That attitude puts you in the sphere of the dinosaur.”

The TV industry also caught heat for its turnout, though it was represented by Discovery, MTV, Lifetime and A&E, among other cable networks; a large number of ABC staffers; and representatives of various local stations.

The networks, in their defense, insist that they’re creating such research to track whether viewers see their ads and are further developing ways to put their content on other platforms, such as broadband, where ad engagement is more easily tracked.

ABC, for one, said it will launch a broadband application called My ABC this spring, where viewers can watch free episodes of top-rated shows online, with three ads per episode that can’t be fast-forwarded through. The network has also spent months on a research application, tentatively named the Best Consumer Prospect Rating, that will show advertisers how well their spots deliver the message to viewers.

The network and others are loathe to commission and release commercial ratings without ground rules on what the agencies will do with the information. If, for example, research finds that some spots are not well-viewed, can advertisers pull those ads? Where does the blame lie?

“Clearly, the agency people would say it’s the network’s fault if ratings for their commercial fell off, but it might be that your creative wasn’t up to snuff,” said one senior ad-sales executive from a cable network.

Networks are also concerned with footing the bill for such ratings. “We pay 90% of the Nielsen bills. Are [agencies] going to start paying 50%?” said ABC President of Ad Sales and Marketing Mike Shaw. “It’s a two-way street.”

Networks can address the accountability issue in two ways, said Wall Street expert Tom Wolzien: figure out how to give the ad industry the feedback it wants, or rethink TV’s role—recasting it as more of an entry point, not a final destination, to platforms like the Internet. He likened that to the way the movie industry uses theatrical releases to build a brand, and then makes money on it when people buy DVDs.

“The problem with accountability is, if I buy an ad and I don’t know who’s watching it, I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “The more you can target that, the better.”

Pool, who chairs the Four A’s media policy committee, contradicted herself repeatedly throughout her speech. She called the trend of local stations’ using their morning talent to hawk products “prostitution,” then advocated more advertiser involvement in program development. She also pushed for à la carte cable, blasting cable companies for cluttering the dial with low-rated networks, and urging networks and stations to stop “throwing crap on the air.” But then she told advertisers to spread their ads among lower-rated programs: “Maybe somebody would actually remember the commercial in a less loaded environment.”

Media planners know that’s easier said than done. “We can’t go out and buy those secondary programs,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP of Starcom Entertainment. “Our clients won’t let us.”

The theme of the conference was “Now, Soon and the Future,” and the future was well-represented by the tech companies at the conference. Google sponsored e-mail kiosks, and a session, The Shape of the Modern Media Organization, focused on how agencies should adapt to meet clients’ needs on new platforms.

And with Yahoo! announcing that it will solicit more content from users, rather than create mostly original content, and cable network Current saying it will program viewer-created ads, there was considerable chatter about the consumer’s emerging as a programmer—not just as a target for programming and advertising.

Said Yahoo! COO Daniel Rosensweig, “There’s been a giant shift from mass media into my media.”