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.