Murky wa­ters

With print au­dits be­ing can­celled and TV peo­ple me­ters no longer op­er­at­ing, is trans­parency within tra­di­tional me­dia a pipe dream?

ArabAd - - CONTENTS - By Iain Ak­er­man

“Rev­enue, es­pe­cially in print, is sink­ing and no one wants to in­vite wit­nesses to the blood spill,” says Bikram Vohra, a jour­nal­ist, colum­nist and ed­i­tor based in the UAE. “Rather play ‘let’s pre­tend’ and cook up our own fig­ures and rat­ings and hope that the end-user doesn’t know the dif­fer­ence. Just keep toot­ing your horn and save a lit­tle money.”

TV peo­ple me­ters have been closed down, print au­dits are be­ing can­celled, and out­right lies are back in vogue. The old days of ex­ag­ger­ated cir­cu­la­tion fig­ures and in­flated view­er­ship claims have re­turned. What­ever hap­pened to me­dia trans­parency in the GCC?

In the UAE alone a dozen print ti­tles have re­signed from me­dia au­di­tor BPA World­wide in the past 12 months, while the un­timely demise of tview, the UAE’S TV au­di­ence mea­sure­ment sys­tem, has put paid to any hope of an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cepted TV rat­ings cur­rency op­er­at­ing in the coun­try. Such fail­ings, along­side the rise of Net­flix and other on­line stream­ing ser­vices, have only helped to ac­cel­er­ate the move away from tra­di­tional TV.

“The same client who once de­manded ac­cu­rate fig­ures and num­bers and cer­ti­fied cir­cu­la­tions (ABC or BPA) or view­er­ship break­down (Nielsen) is so con­fused by the misty prom­ise of so­cial me­dia and the ad world’s to­tal in­abil­ity to mon­e­tise on­line me­dia that ask­ing for au­then­ti­ca­tion has be­come a lux­ury,” says Vohra, a for­mer ed­i­tor of Gulf News and Khaleej Times and now di­rec­tor of editorial and cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion at New Asian Me­dia.

“The past sins of de­ceit are now a sav­ing grace. For decades me­dia lied about its fig­ures and mar­ket shares and padded them and that’s why it hasn’t twigged that the shut­ters be­ing

pulled on com­par­a­tive trans­parency now will one day cre­ate to­tal dark­ness. And this in­cli­na­tion to lie could back­fire. But for now ev­ery­one is lost in the for­est.”

Don’t me­dia own­ers, me­dia agen­cies and con­sumers care?

“Not re­ally,” replies Vohra. “Me­dia own­ers are de­light­fully ig­no­rant. They are not press barons th­ese days, they are busi­ness­men of­ten seek­ing tax loop­holes. You tell them your web­site gets one mil­lion hits and they think, ‘ooh, that’s in­cred­i­ble pen­e­tra­tion’. Tell them the av­er­age ‘stay’ was six sec­onds and no one saw your ad, they don’t want to hear it. Not that any­one is telling them that. The ad world is floun­der­ing and can­not jus­tify where ad­spend should go. To an ex­tent the mu­tual scratch my back op­tion is gain­ing trac­tion.

“Ad­ver­tis­ing is flail­ing in the dark,” adds Vohra. “What dif­fer­ence does the hon­esty of fig­ures make when ad­ver­tis­ing on­line has ‘skip in five sec­onds’ and lit­tle crosses in a cor­ner wait­ing for you to elim­i­nate the in­truder? By that to­ken the de­ceit thrives. All web-based me­dia lie with felic­ity. Hits and shares and vis­its are bun­dled into one im­pres­sive mass with no one hav­ing a clue how many stayed to read or see, or for how long.”

For Fadi Mak­tabi, gen­eral man­ager of Hearts & Science MENA, me­dia trans­parency is a hot topic. Now more than ever. Only the goal­posts have been moved.

“The no­tion of trans­parency has evolved given the new me­dia met­rics and per­for­mance-based KPIS that dig­i­tal has brought about,” says Mak­tabi. “When it comes to print, the story is sim­ple; the medium is with­er­ing away. As for TV, the medium is still mea­sured through rat­ings (CATI), but also through so­cial lis­ten­ing and on­line video con­sump­tion that mir­rors what hap­pens in liv­ing rooms. Even with­out cir­cu­la­tion au­dits, we still have read­er­ship sur­veys. The less me­dia get mea­sured in a cred­i­ble way, the less they can jus­tify their in­clu­sion in brands’ plans. Yes, the sums in­volved can ap­pear to be a de­ter­rent but not go­ing for au­dit or independent val­i­da­tion is a false econ­omy in the long run.

“And un­til TV re­search is 100 per cent ac­cu­rate, dig­i­tal will con­tinue to eat away from its share of in­vest­ments, given the ac­count­abil­ity of dig­i­tal met­rics and real-time track­ing/buy­ing.”

Ly­ing about cir­cu­la­tion fig­ures and re­sign­ing from au­dits, of course, are only two of the prob­lems fac­ing the print in­dus­try, not least the rise to dom­i­nance of dig­i­tal. But there are also prob­lems of over sup­ply, poor qual­ity, and the myth of editorial in­de­pen­dence.

In such cir­cum­stances, the role of me­dia agen­cies as independent, re­li­able, un­bi­ased ar­biters of me­dia place­ment is more im­por­tant than ever.

“Clients ob­vi­ously care about trans­parency and ac­cu­racy in me­dia and so should the en­tire in­dus­try,” says Mak­tabi. “[But] a con­sen­sus and align­ment on agen­das can be hard to find. The other thing is the costs of na­tion­wide me­dia re­search, like peo­ple me­ters, are sig­nif­i­cant, par­tic­u­larly when ad­ver­tis­ing in­vest­ments have fallen by 35 per cent over the last three years.”

The re­al­ity is that independent third party ver­i­fi­ca­tion will never be what it once was. In some quar­ters read­er­ship met­rics have be­come prefer­able to cir­cu­la­tion fig­ures, while on­line au­di­ences and so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers have sur­passed their print par­ents in im­por­tance.

“The more we move into dig­i­tal, the less rel­e­vant th­ese me­dia per­for­mance mea­sures be­come,” says Mak­tabi. “With­out ad­e­quate quan­tifi­ca­tion, tra­di­tional me­dia ac­cel­er­ate their fall from grace. To­day, we’re buy­ing au­di­ences rather than me­dia in­ven­tory and in­creas­ingly we’re work­ing on busi­ness out­comes rather than me­dia de­liv­er­ables.”

Dig­i­tal, how­ever, is not with­out its own share of prob­lems. Last year the In­sti­tute of Prac­ti­tion­ers in Ad­ver­tis­ing in the UK im­plored Google and Face­book to meet stan­dards of independent, in­dus­try-owned au­di­ence mea­sure­ment, while in late 2016 Busi­ness In­sider ar­gued that it had a monthly au­di­ence of 328 mil­lion peo­ple, more than triple the 100 mil­lion sug­gested by Com­score’s do­mes­tic es­ti­mate of 51 mil­lion and Google An­a­lyt­ics’ count of over­seas traf­fic.

“Un­til the web me­dia and the rev­enue streams fig­ure out how to make the send­ing of the mes­sage quan­tifi­able the pre­tence will con­tinue,” says Vohra. “We will all keep look­ing for the X to re­move the in­tru­sive ad and post­ing huge fig­ures that no one can con­firm. But then who wants to? All con­cerned are sig­na­to­ries to the con­spir­acy.”

All web-based me­dia lie with felic­ity. Hits and shares and vis­its are bun­dled into one im­pres­sive mass with no one hav­ing a clue how many stayed to read or see, or for how long Bikram Vohra

Clients ob­vi­ously care about trans­parency and ac­cu­racy in me­dia and so should the en­tire in­dus­try. [But] a con­sen­sus and align­ment on agen­das FDQ EH KDUG WR ÀQG Fadi Mak­tabi

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