Data concerns about digital? So what else is new?

With traditional television advertising continuing to fall behind, pressure on the broadcasters and marketers to optimize digital strategies has increased in this current upfront TV season. This year, total digital ad spending in the U.S., ignited by Google and Facebook, is expected to hit $77.4 billion (or 38.4% of total ad spending), according to a forecast by research firm eMarketer. TV ad spending is projected at $72.0 billion, or approximately 36% of the total media ad spending.

As the pendulum continues to shift to digital, growing concerns about the lack of standards in digital measurement and verification is really no surprise. Nielsen, after all, which continues to evolve, has survived numerous firestorms over the years. Yet it remains the primary measure by which TV advertising is bought and sold.

“We serve ads to consumers through a non-transparent media supply chain with spotty compliance to common standards, unreliable measurement, hidden rebates and new inventions like bot and methbot fraud,” complained Proctor & Gamble Chief Marketing Officer Marc Pritchard at a digital industry conference in Hollywood, Florida in January. "We have a media supply chain that is murky at best and fraudulent at worst. We need to clean it up, and invest the time and money we save into better advertising to drive growth.”

Pritchard, who is calling for all digital outlets to support the MRC standard this year, wants to create the Trustworthy Accountability Group for online advertising, which will measure publishers, platforms and walled gardens, creating one viewability standard for online advertising, using third-party measurement verification.

“Right now there is no common platform, nor a common reporting matrix for digital. It is a free-for-all in terms of what is reported, how it is reported and where the data is from,” added Joanne Burns, Principle of media consultancy RISE mc. “Television is held to a much higher standard of reporting and accountability.”

Burns, who headed the syndication division for Nielsen from 1995 to 1997, remembers one key time in media history when Nielsen, not unlike the concerns in digital measurement at present, was also a source of tremendous criticism. “The introduction and eventual adoption of C3 was a major sea change to the industry and initially a disruptor,” she said. “For years its implementation and methodology was argued by clients on both sides of the fence. Nielsen committees brought together all factions of clients to set the standards of measurement and reporting, with the MRC ultimately accrediting it. Today is it an established currency for the advertising business.”

C3, which launched in 2007, refers to the ratings for average commercial minutes in live programming plus total playback by digital video recorder out to three days after. Much like the criticism by Marc Pritchard, industry insiders debated the complexity and validity of the C3 data, ultimately working to find a common ground to move forward. And it was certainly not the only source of great debate about Nielsen.

“The first thing I can remember was when Arbitron went away in the 1980s,” noted Robert Russo, President of RNR Media Consulting. “There were two competing services, Nielsen and Arbitron, and there were those stations that were protesting because they were doing better in Arbitron than in Nielsen. Ultimately, and after much cooperation between all parties involved, the panic dissipated and Nielsen became the behemoth that it is today.”

Nielsen also came under particular attack from television networks, minority groups and even lawmakers when the launch of its People Meters service resulted in a sharp decrease in viewership for many of the monitored parties. Stations began talking to potential competitors about services that could supplement or eventually replace Nielsen's local people meters.

“It was chaos at the time,” remembered Russo, who also likens the criticism at the time to the current concerns in the digital community. “Ultimately, what ended up happening was Nielsen making adjustments to better serve the community of clients. While still not perfect, it took work and time to find its footing. While Nielsen may have been a monopoly at the time, there were outside voices included in the planning.”

New competition at present, notably the merger between Rentrak and comScore, has forced Nielsen to now focus on providing a cross-platform view of digital audiences across computers, smartphones, tablets and connected devices via Nielsen Digital Ad Ratings. And with change comes more scrutiny.

“Over the years, Nielsen’s ability to overcome what might have seemed insurmountable was not just in the new measurement tools,” added Russo. “It was about working as an industry to revolve any growing issues. While there is no easy fix to this current digital data dilemma, time and planning can also result in valid solutions.”

Marc Pritchard, no doubt, is making a proactive move for the future. And he should be only one of the many voices involved.

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