Trust, transparency and the future of media research
You perhaps don't need the root causes spelling out - but for those unfamiliar with the problem, consider that in the last 12 months we've had multiple admissions from Facebook that it has miscalculated video views while 'marking its own homework'; The US-based Association of National Advertisers issued a scathing report into media agency practices; ad fraud has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar business; The Times has dedicated a front page to issues of (appalling) online brand safety; and one of the world's biggest advertisers, P&G, has had enough of everything and is calling for almost total reform of how it advertises online.
No self-respecting media conference can now ignore the trust and transparency issue, and the annual Future of Media Research event, hosted by Mediatel this week, delved into the metrics and measurement side of the problem.
It also asked what the media research community - a well-respected, forward-facing and vibrant part of the industry - can actually do about these problems.
"We could start with an industry-agreed definition of what 'transparency' actually means - certainly across the digital space," Martin Brown, managing partner of Stack I/O, said - adding that agreement would be a much better starting point because currently the term is used in so many different ways.
"At the moment it's just too diffuse. It's too difficult to manage and it's causing confusion with customers and confusion amongst the industry's different constituents."
For now, however, it's answers on a postcard as to what that definition actually reads as.
Stack I/O's Martin Brown
Beyond the semantics, there are two key drivers for change. The first is collaboration - and on this front there was a genuine sense of optimism, arguably from some of the more cynical of industry voices.
"I think there is going to be a new era of collaboration about to dawn," said Brian Jacobs, founder of Brian Jacobs & Associates and an industry commentator.
"Only a few months ago it was totally out of the question that we'd be discussing third-party measurement and metrics with Facebook, but here we are. And what we're now arriving at, after all the potshots, is the realisation that we all work better together.
"So actually TV plus Facebook is better, probably, than TV on its own. What we've learned is that standing up and saying 'mine is bigger than yours' doesn't get us very far."
This sentiment was shared by Facebook.
The social media giant's head of comms planning for northern Europe, Ian Edwards said: "Without any doubt the number one thing we have to do now is collaborate more. I think we'll solve these issues by working together and hopefully we're now on that journey."
Facebook's Ian Edwards
Following a series of blunders which saw Facebook miscalculate video views for more than two years, the social media platform has recently announced changes to the way it handles its data and insights.
Facebook said it wants to give its advertising partners "more clarity and confidence" about the insights it provides and that it recognises the importance of reliable metrics.
At Monday's conference, Edwards said it is still early days, but these are the "first steps - and we'll certainly be doing much more."
However, although Facebook is now working with third-parties to offer better transparency, it doesn't match what is deemed the current 'gold standard'. That would mean measurement, in some form, by a Joint Industry Currency - such as Barb for video - or audited compliance to JICWEBS' online standards.
But this is where it gets confusing for everyone. A JIC might be the gold standard, but Facebook is a wildly complex beast and the product of different world. It may very well be happy to offer transparency for some elements of its platform to appease advertisers, but it also needs to protect the data of its 1.7 billion global users - as well as the inner-workings of its proprietary network. It's about much more than a TV rating or a monthly circulation figure.
'Gold standard' is perhaps going to have to look very different - and may mean seeing certain parts of Facebook's ad operations are ring-fenced to appease advertisers. And to that end, it is making the right changes.
The lasting solution could be some way off, but for Edwards, sorting these issues out is certainly a priority because they will pave the way for the industry to concentrate on what really matters: delivering business value to the advertiser.
Kantar's Margo Swadley
But for those working at the coal face, what can they do to help bring about change?
Margo Swadley, managing director of UK TV & video measurement, Kantar Media, said it's essential media researchers push and challenge.
"We have to be prepared to ask hard questions," she said, claiming that many people have found it "intimidating" to challenge the digital world.
"But as researchers we have to keep pushing until we're satisfied. There's just too much money involved not to."
Then perhaps more people should take a leaf out of Lynne Robinson's book. Robinson is the IPA's research director and used last year's Future of Media Research conference to make arguably the first public call for digital players to open up.
Whatever happens from now, big changes are coming, says Jacobs - and it means good things for media researchers.
"I think we're going to move away from a buying-led, trading-led industry and into a much more planning, consultancy and income-led one," he said. "I think that offers fantastic opportunities for media research people."
The reason Jacobs made this comment is simple: the industry is being automated.
"This means planning will be on the up," he said. "Media research people really have to grasp this opportunity. They're immensely valuable and have have a great deal of knowledge. They need to be proactive with it. Challenge things. And if something isn't correct they must say so."