A Deeper Dive into Media Audit Pools
Media audits based on pooled buying data are one of the marketing industry’s oldest tools for media and procurement teams to justify their agency’s value. Even with the world firmly placed in the digital age, this nearly 50-year old method of measuring media buying performance continues to stand firm.
For the uninitiated in this concept, pool media auditing allows advertisers to compare their media buying performance against a ‘pool’ of anonymous and aggregated data, supplied by other advertisers to an independent media auditor. The theory is, by comparing against the rest of the industry, these pools can give an independent assessment as to how well, or badly, a media agency has bought campaigns, usually with a focus on prices paid and reach achieved.
But times change. While their staying power is a testament to their continued, perceived, usefulness, in this era of big data, it may be time to stop and ask: are pooled audits still fit for purpose?
Let’s dive in…
Muddying the Waters
One of the most glaring downsides to pooled audits is their lack of transparency. Anonymity is inherent to how they operate, and so by default, advertisers can’t easily assess the quality of the pool – how large it is, what companies are in it and how big it is in terms of genuinely comparable spend.
Some of the world’s largest advertisers have also traditionally avoided submitting their data to pools in order to protect the confidentiality of their own rates. With the least to gain from comparison against pooled data this is understandable – inclusion could fairly be seen as helping competitors to improve buying performance. Questions also have to be raised about whether these pricing pools reflect real prices, given that rebates and over-riders are rarely included in pool calculations. Another area of concern is the difficulty in understanding whether the pool an advertiser is comparing against is buying to a similar brief.
But these are issues that have long troubled media pool audits – what are the new issues that are challenging their usefulness today?
The first is the increasing percentage of media spend migrating to digital activity. We are all familiar with the difficulty in comparing formats, platforms, viewability percentages, targeting in the highly customised world of digital advertising.
Also, the boom of programmatic buying for offline activity (as well as online). The ‘auction’ nature of this buying method and impossibility of replicating exactly the same buying scenario across multiple advertisers makes pooled auditing largely irrelevant. This takes a significant portion of spend out of the scope of pooled auditing.
The second is the increased adoption of Performance Related Incentive Plans (PRIPs). These give agencies extra impetus to align themselves more fully with the real marketing goals of brands, but can be based only on what the agency can actually control. With the unpredictability and uncontrollability of audit pools, agencies will quite rightly want to reject the addition of these to their PRIP criteria.
But ultimately, the average paid by the pool is simply rarely a meaningful KPI. ‘Average’ is not something to aspire to, and most advertisers are looking well beyond costs when evaluating their campaign performance.
Staying poolside – the next steps
So you’re out of the pool. Where do you go now? The need for evaluating campaign media performance hasn’t disappeared, so what are the alternatives?
The best measures often come from within. Comparing your brand’s own year-on-year performance data will provide a spotlight on productivity in relation to market inflation. If advertisers can point to year-on-year improvements in their own performance, they will be heading in the right direction.
But to have this level of insight, companies ideally need to take control of their own media data. In-housing media data adds an extra level of transparency, allowing for faster analysis of results and a better overview of post campaign data.
All this is not to say that pooled audits are now a complete no-go, but advertisers need to think hard before diving in. Find out the pool size and composition, including target audiences and qualitative buying factors. A pool audit can only return value if you can understand whether the comparison being made is genuinely like-for-like.
Ultimately, brands should take a more holistic look at measurement and evaluation. While price will always be important, defining what outcomes really help drive business, and not what is simply easy to measure, should be at the core of all analysis. With the wealth of information available, including media mix modelling to test different strategies within and across markets, companies no longer have to drown in the opacity of media audit pools.