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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Trouble With Nielsen

In 1955, film director Alfred Hitchcock, at the height of his popularity, released a charming comedy called "The Trouble with Harry". It was a Black comedy that was a box office flop but today is best known for being Shirley MacLaine's film debut. A real departure for Hitchcock, it was very thin on plot. The story centered on a body found in the beautiful Vermont countryside in fall. Several villagers feel that they may have be responsible for the person's (Harry's) death and the body is moved about town in a comedy or errors to keep the corpse from the police.

Today, I chose the title for this piece as a parody of that film as Nielsen seems to be dragging the corpse of broadcast ratings around the landscape. Look, Nielsen has a tough job these days and I am not going to totally trash them. To me, they are similar to the position of a company painting a very long bridge. As soon as you finish the job which takes a few years, it is time to paint the other end of the bridge again. Except with Nielsen, it gets more complicated. Now, with the passage of a few years, the bridge has off ramps leading to little islands called Hulu, You Tube, off shore sites, Netflix, new cable channels and these islands are getting mysteriously bigger. Traffic on the bridge is increasing but many people do not cross the bridge directly but stop at these many new way stations. Your old method of painting the bridge from west to east doesn't work anymore and your crew cannot handle it. But you are the only painting contractor in the area so you try and muddle through.

It is obvious that what Nielsen is doing today in local markets is inadequate. Several years back, I attended a session hosted by Nielsen where they presented their Local People Meter (LPM) methodology to a large group of agency media personnel. As I was leaving, I told someone at the session that is was a good step forward in local markets. He agreed but then said, "this is fine, but Nielsen is fighting the last war."

Think about that for a moment. The People Meter rolled out nationally in Fall, 1986. There we were more than a quarter century later seeing roughly the same methodology being implemented in very large local markets. A lot changed in that quarter century. Still, many of us welcomed LPM. Think of the cable players in particular. For a decade at least, on a local market basis, Nielsen had delivered to them what can charitably be called a memorable shafting. Now, in each rating book, many new cable channels emerge with measurable ratings. But beyond market 25, we still have the household meter and in the small markets below market #67 or so, we use the diary method which was developed in 1950 and is totally out of tune with viewing in 2009.

As we write, people argue about nuances of the methodology. And, sadly, broadcast negotiators go into meetings and try and defend their delivery against brain dead clients who want to know why the seven spots purchased in early fringe did not post according to forecasts. Good station people face the same fate. It is a waste of energy and a fools errand.

Everyone misses the real point. It is the elephant in the room that few of us have the guts to acknowledge. The simple truth is that people do not see commercials with the frequency that they once did. End of discussion! When 31% of America has a time shifting device (DVR), when everyone has an itchy trigger figure on their remote, when Netflix continues to grow as does Hulu and ABC.com and Fox.com, the probability of your message being seen is declining daily. Nielsen cannot possibly stay ahead of such a Herculean task.

Many people say to me that all of this is fine, but Nielsen is the currency that we use. True, but let's talk for a moment about currencies. The greatest currency expert who ever lived was an inimitable character named Dr. Franz Pick. Born in Bohemia sometime in the 1890's, Pick taught currency theory at the Sorbonne for years but had to hide from the Nazis during World War II. He stayed on in France and became the paymaster of the Resistance right through June, 1945. He then came to
America and published Pick's World Currency Report each year until his death in the early 1980's. I remember as a struggling young graduate student trying to find the money to buy a copy.

Pick was wildly opinionated and had no respect for politicians and few central bankers. All, he felt gutted the currency via inflation for political purposes. But, he knew currencies better than anyone. Just before he passed on, he wrote one last book (of 24) and was interviewed in several publications. When asked for long term prospects of major currencies he said "All currencies die." Check it out; it is undeniably true. Well, if Dr. Pick worked in broadcast media research, he would be writing the epitaph for Nielsen right now. They have not been all that bad in the aggregate but the scope of their challenge today is breathtaking and a shift from diary to household meter in some markets and a move from household meter to LPM in the larger ones is a textbook example of too little, too late.

What we have needed forever are commercial ratings, not wildly inflated program ratings. By the time we get them, our mythical bridge will have 150 off-ramps and be badly in need of a completely new coat of paint.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Media Realism Spring 2009 College Tour

Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of speaking at a number of colleges and universities throughout the Northeast. It was somewhat eye-opening for one who has been invited to campuses for the last 30 years.

My topics varied. I was asked to speak on the current state of the media, the future of media, the future of television, and how to do media for a non-profit organization. The schools varied in their student base--from commuter schools, a private school for scions of well off parents, a graduate school, and students at some of the leading liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

In the aggregate, I spoke to several hundred bright young adults. They were more attentive than I have seen in the past perhaps because they are about to face the worst job market for recent graduates in memory. At only one school did I observe students sending text messages to friends as I was speaking. (name of institution NOT available on request)

Before, sometimes during, and always after the sessions I asked the students about their media usage. It was very absorbing to listen to them. While there were differences by school and even type of school, a few trends stood out:

1) Students listen to very little commercial radio in their local markets. At one commuter school, several said they listened in the car to and from the campus but that was it. At one school, a lonely co-ed raised her hand and said that she listened to local stations and was belittled by her classmates. Once they realized that I was not a federal agent, most students across all schools admitted that they stole a lot of their music or received it from friends free of charge. A few mentioned that they liked to get music from artists performing at small clubs near their campus. They did not want to support giants such as
Warner and a few mentioned it by name. At the top schools academically, National Public Radio (NPR) played surprisingly well as a news source but, interestingly, no one told me that while in the class but informally after most of their classmates had left.

2) They all watch lots of video but conventional TV and cable do not fare particularly well. With no embarrassment, several students at more than one school, told me that they go to You Tube first to see if there is a video available on a topic for which they need to write a paper. Then, they move on to Wikipedia and finally to the Internet. Hulu.com is wildly popular across the spectrum of schools but the Slingbox was known and owned only by the most affluent. About half had DVR's at home and a handful had them in their dorm rooms. ESPN Sportscenter played well among the guys, and most students said they had one show that they watched regularly. Hulu was used for many of these as students said that they "could watch on their schedule and avoid many commercials." The top school students also had a little larceny in them and told me of illegal offshore sites for watching feature films. Even I had not even heard of some of them before and I have been monitoring this carefully for the past year. When I mentioned these names at a commuter school, no one knew (or admitted to know) what they were. Bottom line--these kids watch a significant amount of video but little is on commercial TV. They are forming habits which should make broadcasters nervous.

3) Newspaper--you pretty much know the answer here. At my first campus visit, when I asked about newspaper a young lady barked out,"Newspaper? My grandparents read the newspaper." That comment helped me create the newspaper post of January 31st entitled "Do Newspapers Have a Future in the U.S.?" Almost no one, not even journalism students, reads a daily paper. Exceptions were graduate students reading The Wall Street Journal and students at a toney liberal arts college who get free delivery of The New York Times in their dining hall. (at $50,000 a year, that is very generous of the school!)

4) Magazine was virtually all special interest. No one that I asked read TIME or Newsweek. I remember in college how a copy of either would work its way through a dorm in the course of each week. It seemed sad but few want to wait a week to get news even when the writing and analysis are first rate.

5) Where do they get their news? Many watch The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. No one took it totally seriously but said there was an education of sorts in the satire. More than half watched either show via Hulu. Much news is gleaned online and You Tube videos along with those from Google or Yahoo can fill in gaps.

What does all this mean? There appear to be significant challenges ahead for both the media and marketers. How do you market to these tech savvy young adults? Most say with some blend of social media, the internet, and mobile. One other thing that came through talking with the students was the large influence that word of mouth had on purchasing decisions. That has always been true but it may be stronger now. As a generation gets used to not seeing or hearing a great deal of advertising, it will be especially hard to reach them. The young upscales who have gadgetry and much sophistication will be almost impossible to reach. And they are the ones you want to cultivate. I tried to calculate the present value in accounting terms of some of the 21 year old rich kids. It was staggering what they could mean to brands if a marketer could crack the code and reach them.

The media itself has a large and immediate problem. Many newspapers are on the ropes right now and it does not appear that newly minted college graduates see much appeal in their traditional product. Radio, which we will discuss in future posts, has a big problem if it loses the well educated young. The medium is under strong financial pressure now but they cannot exist as we know them for a long time if they lose the next generation. TV and cable will always pick off viewers in any demographic but as more video options become available with less or no advertising, they will get hurt.

Some magazines that I have read all my life now look like pamphlets. So what happens to them? A shrinkage in titles and a slow death for some old favorites seems likely.

I have told people for years that you can learn a lot by listening. This de facto tour taught me a lot. Most of all it reminded me that the habits these fine young people are forming now will not disappear. We need to find a way to reach these emerging professionals or suffer the consequences.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Greatest Media Professional I Ever Met

Every so often, when I run in to an old colleague or acquaintance, we naturally go down memory lane and talk about the people whom we have both known over the years. There were the smart ones, the nut jobs, the characters, and finally my companion will sometimes ask "who is the greatest media professional you ever met."

You might think that my answer would be someone who ran a huge media conglomerate or a mega buying shop. But, as time has passed, I see most of them as superb administrators who sometimes got lucky or outworked people or were politically astute as they shimmied up the greased pole in a huge organization. Also, when you are spending a billion dollars, much of the negotiation is done for you by the media.

Actually, I think the correct title for this post on the ad agency side would be "The Greatest Media Professional That I NEVER Met." Allow me to explain.

Somewhere in the US there is a very experienced media director of a small advertising agency. He or she may have a staff of only 5 or 6. As a result of the small staff, the heavy lifting is done by the director. This individual may have worked initially in New York, Chicago, or Dallas, but romance, family circumstances or a desire for a simpler life triggered a move. Now our friend can probably be found in a place like Milwaukee, Birmingham, or Salt Lake City.

Times are tough for all of us but agencies like the one our hero or heroine works at are at the brink financially. This star keeps going. The hours are a bit longer as hiring additional staff is an impossibility. Locally, the talent pool is very shallow so sometimes the best this media director can do is pluck someone right out of college and help shape a real pro. But if you never leave your hometown, your view of the world tends not to be too expansive so growth plateaus pretty fast. The experience he/she has allows some corners to be cut but in many instances there is intellectual rigor and a careful process that must be maintained. Cordial with everyone but not too close to the sales people who call on the shop, this person has a sterling reputation for always playing each negotiation right down the middle. The changes in the move to the digital age are unsettling but our person reads all he/she can, goes to forums when possible and affordable and invites the new media into the agency frequently.

Research data is always problematic as the agency simply cannot afford a full complement of services. So, the old pro has to go to the media but ask for specifics so that the media provider does not shade the data to make themselves look better. Outside the office, this person devours Malcolm Gladwell, Martin Lindstrom, Paco Underhill and all other branding or behavioral gurus. With great frustration, none of his colleagues care to read these new books in the field after he has finished them. So, there is a bit of a feeling of isolation as few around him/her want to address what is going on and find ways to not only survive but perhaps grow.

Still, this man or woman looks forward to each day and does the absolute best both for the owner of the firm and all of its clients. Teddy Roosevelt, my hero, described this person's sense of purpose perfectly-- "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." Whoever you are, the odds are good that we will never meet. I do want you to know that I wish you the very best.

In media sales, there is no imaginary or composite person. I know the man of whom I write but to protect him from his New York management, I will not name him or give out any telling details. While this individual sells a specific media vehicle, you cannot pigeonhole him as a radio, sports, TV, or magazine guy. This is a media professional who understands when his product makes sense and knows when to back off or bow out of the picture when his product is not a good fit. He understands the marketplace. Today, he is the first one in line to play "Let's Make A Deal" but during the boom times he held the line on price and had a good read on the pulse of the marketplace. This man was pro-active. You did not have to call and ask what he had because he always made sure he saw you a few times a year and brought you up to speed with what was going on in his world. He is careful of how much time he takes and when e-mail kicked in years ago, he was able to keep you aware of many things without a face to face.

Most importantly, his word is his bond. He always did what salesman are supposed to do--he underpromised and over-delivered. After a spirited negotiation with him, I always felt like celebrating. He fought hard and fair for his terms and an excellent price but I knew, once we pulled the trigger, the follow through would be top notch.

Our world needs more of these two extraordinary people. If you find a young person who seems to have that spark, cultivate them and, above all, encourage them.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Friday, May 1, 2009

Is Media Just a Commodity?

Today, marketers have a full plate. The economy is weak, consumers smarter and more fickle than ever, and competitors seem to be able to lower costs and hurt your profit margins. Some have referred to the cost lowering as the "commoditization of your category."

These days no category or system seems exempt from the drift to commoditizaton. (By the way, try and say commoditization after a couple of drinks) The reality of the situation that we grizzled veterans will admit to is most long term business growth has a hard time keeping up with economic growth. For most companies, over time, revenue increases hover around the national inflation rate unless you have rapid overseas expansion.

So, while there is commodity hell going on for companies, it is commodity heaven for consumers or customers. Think about the last ten years. Mobile phone services, airline tickets, hotel rooms (thank you, Bill Shatner), electronics, banking, even mortgages sometimes are totally commoditized.

Well, what about media? The general drift has certainly been moving in that direction. The 15% commission is but a fond memory for us greybeards. But the whole process of media planning and buying is definitely not a commodity business. I once worked with a man a number of years ago whom I liked and admired tremendously. One day he insulted me with the following--"You are very good at what you do, but, face it, media is like buying any commodity." I know that he did not have any malicious intent but nothing ever hurt me more in my entire career. Don Cole was not buying pork bellies.

I was and am old school. Work thirty Sundays a year, you bet! Stay until you structure a deal to your satisfaction, always. Call in people to help at odd hours, I plead guilty. Dig through the research for a few factoids that your competition in new business will not, you can bet your life on it. I watched with pride as my team members would craft promotions that stations or cable companies said could not be done and see them make a difference in the marketplace.

There are big things in media that can make a difference such as correct targeting, obviously a solid media mix, and, of course what you pay. But, to me, effective media also was made up of a thousand little things that, when taken together, could really give your (outspent) clients a genuine edge in the marketplace.

When is media a commodity? Well, most definitely it is has become that for network television negotiation. When 5-6 players are the market, there is little differentiation among the players and commoditizaton in definitely in play. Because this is where the big money is spent and they do indeed have genuine clout in that arena, they get the most press and the concept of media commoditization has taken hold.

With the growth of digital advertising, media once again moved from more science back to art. The early players knew the emerging buzzwords and many did some extraordinary work for their clients. But now, with optimizers in vogue and big players like Google with terrific analytic tools available, it is more of a commodity although digital players need to stay abreast of changes and be nimble when they occur.

But, in local markets, the disparities are huge. In my travels in recent years, I would ask small market GSM's standard questions about a deal. Often, they would say "no one has asked me that before". I would take over business and be shocked at the prices being paid, the media mix employed, or the lack of attention to detail in stewarding TV and radio buys. Good people made a difference-- they checked rotations, were on the prowl for bonuses and upgrades, they bought opportunistically during soft markets and they did great things daily. Most of their satisfactions came from within as their managements and clients did not often appreciate the mental gymnastics and negotiation that went in to crafting effective media delivery.

No, media is not a commodity. My friends, colleagues, and many, many competitors did and continue to do fine work in any environment. We have not wasted our careers. More people need to notice them, and more importantly, tell them.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com