Media Transparency in Murky Waters
Posted on March 28, 2018 | By Iain Akerman

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

“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.”

Media owners are delightfully ignorant....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.--Bikram Vohra

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.”

“Clients obviously care about transparency and accuracy in media and so should the entire industry. [But] a consensus and alignment on agendas can be hard to find.”--Fadi Maktabi

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.”