Media Research Transformers

Research titles at media agencies used to be simple. “Head of research” pretty much said it all. But today, there is a whole new crop of titles populating  research department org charts at media agency shops: “marketing accountability,” “consumer insights,” “analytics,” “business intelligence” and “marketing science.”

These new handles aren’t puffery. They represent a real shift in the role and scope of research in media planning and buying.

Not too long ago, the bulk of agency research centered around TV ratings and other media currencies. Media researchers focused on how to invest clients’ dollars. They calculated cost per points, focused on finding the right reach and frequency for campaigns, and figured out the most efficient CPMs using age and sex stats.

While those core practices still exist within research divisions, media research has given way to consumer marketing and business focuses. Research divisions at the biggest shops now offer services that are more proactive, helping clients both determine and execute media and marketing strategies across a growing number of traditional, nontraditional and digital platforms.  

In many ways, the research divisions at the nation’s largest media shops see themselves as consultants or “money-marketing managers,” more akin to the role of a McKinsey or Accenture.

“Research used to be a stand-alone group that worried if the TV data was good and what the top programs were. As the years moved on, research has evolved to how can I solve the business problem? It’s gone from a more academic to a more business approach,” says Lyle Schwartz, managing partner, director of implementation research and marketplace analysis for GroupM. “We’re playing a bigger role.”

The shift in focus has not been without its casualties. A good number of veteran media research execs, many among the most notable and quotable, have exited these organizations. Some have ended up at media companies, others in research firms. To some industry observers, it’s an alarming trend, particularly at a time when video is more prevalent than ever online and ratings data streams from Nielsen are proliferating.

“Some of those roles that used to be very TV-centric are still important, but the focus has changed,” says David Shiffman, evp of connections research and analytics for MediaVest. “We need to go beyond how clients plan and buy media. We need to help shape market strategy. We’re going 20 leaps forward to how you predict the marketplace.”  

In order to make those leaps, huge divisions are being assembled to provide clients with a fuller range of services to support both media and marketing campaigns. OMD has about 60-70 “research” people, MediaVest about 35-40, Starcom about 30, Universal McCann about 14, CARAT about 20 and MPG about 15. GroupM has 18 but also has several people embedded within each planning group.

“Practices such as marketing science and analytics used to live in the full-service agency. Now it’s in the media agency,” says Joe Masucci, national director of business intelligence for OMD. “We’re breaking down the artificial barriers that existed between media and marketing. We want to be seen by our clients as the central intelligence arm.”


These firms now employ econometricians (experts who employ mathematical systems on data to determine the cause and effect of business outcomes), statisticians and even MBAs.

“I want the guy who tore apart his telephone, people who want to know how things tick,” says John Lowell, svp of research and analytics for Starcom USA. “We’re not divesting from the traditional media research areas; we’re just demanding something more.”

None of these shops have wiped out media research competency. A lot of the functions have moved to desktop applications. While there may be fewer people devoted to media research handling the syndicated data from firms such as Nielsen, Arbitron and MRI, divisions are growing in other areas such as consumer insight, brand and market research, and competitive/marketplace analytics to handle specialized databases to create media mix and other predictive models.

“We are spending more time advising about media mix and marketing versus media research. We’re going beyond how clients plan and buy media; we’re helping to shape market strategy,” says MediaVest’s Shiffman. Joe Abruzzo, evp and director of research for MPG, agrees: “We’re spending money differently in a lot more areas like competitive and strategic analysis.”

Like everything else in the agency world, the changes in analytics start with the client. You’d have to be living under a rock to not see how the economy has altered client thinking about media and marketing. Return on investment is the new mantra, and, increasingly, clients want their media and marketing campaigns tied to the same metrics by which their business is judged, whether it’s sales, awareness or engagement.  

“The pressure on [client] marketing departments forces an ROI discussion,” says Huw Griffiths, evp/global director of marketing accountability and research at UM. “We’re orienting more toward the clients’ business measures. As soon as you do that, it introduces an area of analytics such as forecasting and linking measures together. That in turn creates a need for analytics to build predictive models.”

If the old media research focused on CPM, the current media research is a synthesis of metrics around the consumer. “It includes data on the purchase funnel, segmentation, awareness and tracking data, combined to show return on investment,” says Mike Hess, evp of research, marketing science and consumer insights for Carat. “There is a new paradigm emerging around synthesizing and integrating agency mix models with clients’ proprietary information,” he adds.

Agencies are looking to the Web for metric models that throw off enormous buckets of numbers in real time. In some cases, that allows clients to price their campaigns by outcome or response or to change a campaign midstream if it’s not producing the desired response.

“Because of digital data, everything is getting more and more granular. Clients expect answers in real time,” says Starcom’s Lowell.  


Clients also want all their marketing and media efforts knit closer together, seeking connections among the data in order to create integrated campaigns that deliver measurable results. And collaboration across disciplines has become essential to today’s accountability-driven clients.

“‘Research’ almost doesn’t feel like the right word for it,” says Joel Rubinson, chief research officer for the Advertising Research Foundation. “We’re moving to a blended competency kind of model.”

However, there are some questions about  the trend, which is evolving and morphing rapidly as technology makes it easier to handle exponentially larger quantities of data.

It’s easier than ever to have access to and crunch behavioral data from the Web, second-by-second tuning data from set-top boxes — plus myriad daily consumer panels, product distribution or sales data. Seduced by bigger boxcar loads of numbers, some believe the basics of good research may take a backseat. Just because research can produce a number doesn’t make it a number that clients can take to the bank.

“There is a lot of pressure from client procurement departments on the agency to produce more and more for less and less. Clients appear generally uninformed or unconcerned about the real foundations of the media and marketing recommendations,” says Tony Jarvis, a media research consultant. “Regrettably, this is leading many agencies to wonder if they can afford to have someone assessing and driving the quality of research data.”

There is also a disconnect between where research divisions are going and what happens when it comes down to placing a buy. While agencies may be connecting research to a clients’ business metrics, buys are still being made based on the traditional currencies. The comfort zone, it seems, is still back with traditional GRPs and CPMs.

“There’s a split between the way media is bought and the way it is evaluated,” says UM’s Griffiths. “That has to change. We’re trying to structure buys based on outcome, but we’re dealing with a massive legacy of vendors and partners that aren’t used to working like that.”

For now, buys continue to be negotiated the old-fashioned way with traditional metrics. Buys based on nontraditional metrics are few and small in scale, and are subject to how willing a media company and its clients are to trialing out new approaches.

Says OMD’s Masucci: “It’s the key riddle to solve…There is a lot of inertia. Unless we figure it out, clients will be backing agencies in a corner.”

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Research Disciplines

1.  Business intelligence: Competitive and marketplace info and systems including advertising spend; syndicated and proprietary sales and marketing data from the client.

2. Syndicated media information from research: Data from firms such as Nielsen, MRI, Arbitron, ComScore; market research from AC Nielsen; and related applications provided by third-party processors.

3. Specialized databases and analytics: 360-degree planning and media mix models, return on investment, prediction and simulation models.

4.  Consumer research, brand and market research: Includes syndicated research from firms such as Scarborough and Experian Simmons, as well as the client’s own proprietary databases.  

5. Custom research: Unique studies usually executed in close collaboration with the client and sometimes the media company as an enhancement or cross-check on insights/findings from existing data.