The recent lawsuit brought by NDTV against Nielsen, Kantar and TAM opens up yet again the questions on quality and veracity of media data in India. For me this familiar issue is not about one TV channel and a research company, but about all syndicated research that marketers use to make multi-billion dollar decisions. That is the big concern that industry should be addressing, not whether NDTV should be granted those hundreds of millions in compensation or who indeed is the #1 news channel.
TAM, just like Nielsen’s FMCG retail audit research and GfK’s consumer durables retail track (all based on continuous data collection from panels) is a monopoly in its field. Typically, besides getting a top level look at methodology, sample sizes and cities covered, marketers and agencies never get to see what goes on behind the lead curtain in the black box of these studies. And for good reason too, for you don’t want to contaminate the data with buyers getting a look into the panel.
The flip side to this is that the industry is left at the mercy of varying degrees of incompetence in these research agencies, or even malpractices at field level or higher. I’m not suggesting that these agencies really are corrupt as NDTV claims, but to leave the running of such research solely in the hands of one agency is at best foolish, and at worst business hara kiri. Clients spend hundreds of crores of rupees by using TAM to optimise their media plans, and multiple crores per category report to analyse market movements and plan their strategies with respect to product, pricing and distribution. Careers and financial performances can be made or unmade based on decisions coming out of these data. In this regard, debating whether NDTV is the #1 TV channel or how much revenue it lost due to malfeasance is to trivialize the much larger issue.
Whatever comes out of the NDTV-TAM saga, some concerted steps are sorely needed so that marketers and agencies sleep better.
- Revisit ownership: We need to manage the monopolies. While a Nielsen or a GfK can be the “sole concessionaire” in running the studies, there should be joint ownership of such research by an industry body such as MRSI and/or MRUC. Top spenders and leaders from brand and ad agencies should be running the show as an executive board.
- Overhaul: Once a joint ownership is agreed, all such consumer and retail panels should be reviewed stringently now and remedial measures should be installed with full transparency to the board. Decisions of the board should be binding on all industry players, whether clients, or channels or media agencies. Additional cost, if any, can be distributed equitable across all advertisers, say a 0.1% increase in agency commission.
- Transparency: Whatever the ownership model, 3rd party auditing should be instituted which should get full cooperation of the research company. This should be at least a biannual affair. The cost of such an audit can easily be borne via contributions from top 50 advertisers and their media agencies. I don’t think clients who spend hundreds of crores on advertising should shy away from a few lakh annually to validate their data.
- Accountability: If the buyer of the data can clearly see that the data is misleading or not representative of market reality, they should be able to deduct payment from the agency’s fee. Currently, the onus seems to lie on the buyer to prove to the research company that their data is wrong. This is the classic case of monopolistic power, and I have personally grappled with it on many an occasion. Especially with research agencies, there is huge resistance to joint field visits to examine the panel. On the other hand, the client is expected to provide their confidential sales data so that the research agency can scrutinise it (as if they’re an auditor), and then pronounce that their panel findings were right after all. Statistical gobbledygook is frequently used to gloss over real problems.
- Common currency for new media: Spending will shift from conventional media to digital media. It’s already happening. But we still don’t have standard, robust measurements for internet media and DTH homes. Industry bodies must lead the way in developing common acceptable standards for all stakeholders. Google sells inventory on Youtube based on its own measurement of audiences and proclaiming it to be among top 10 TV channels. But you have to coax and cajole data out of them to make really educated choices. If advertisers are expected to shift spending from conventional TV to online videos, a common standard of measurement needs to be available to see what delivery the brand lost from conventional TV media, and how it covered that through online video advertising.
- Accept limitations: Finally, let us accept that every panel will have its shortcomings, and these need to be listed down openly so that advertisers know what they’re getting for their money. For instance, let TAM clearly state that their data cannot well represent SEC A and A+ consumers. After all, how many among SEC A+ will allow peoplemeters into their homes or even into their gated compounds? As a result niche channels will always be under-reported. Let us not expect solid SEC A viewership data, and let us accept that judgement will have to be used when you’re targeting the top 1-5% consumers of the country.
On a related note, I must say I am deeply disappointed with prominent business publications like ET for not getting deeper into the reporting of this NDTV fracas. This is a matter of billions of dollars every year across all companies, and probably more important than sensational cases like one company’s 800 crore rupees fraud which regularly made front page headlines recently!
It would be a shame if the NDTV-TAM case whimpers to a tame ending without any substantial gains coming to the wider body of advertisers and marketers in the country.