GroupM Will Push Forward With Efforts to Measure Ads Across Screens (EXCLUSIVE)

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Who will come up with the definitive yardstick to measure TV audiences watching their favorite programs on new kinds of screens? It might be Madison Avenue.

As the nation’s biggest TV companies scuffle with Nielsen over the viability of a new technology that would allow for the tabulation of audiences watching video favorites on TV and digital screens, a prominent media-buying firm is working to put together an alternative.

GroupM, the large and influential media-buying unit owned by ad-industry giant WPP, is working on a methodology that would allow advertisers to count the number of impressions their commercials get, no matter if they appear on TV, alongside streaming video or other in new viewing frontiers. The company is working with the Video Advertising Bureau, the industry group that promotes content from big media outlets ranging from ABC to Viacom.

If the technology can’t be brought to market in the next two years, said Lyle Schwartz, GroupM’s president of investment for North America, “I might have to kill somebody, and it might be me.”

GroupM’s push is an attempt to solve the conundrum faced by every big U.S. media company: the ongoing erosion of traditional TV audiences.  With more consumers, particularly the younger ones advertisers desire most, moving to mobile tablets, time-shifted viewing and on-demand video streaming,the reach of traditional linear TV continues to decline. The second-season finale of “American Idol” on Fox reached 38.06 million viewers in 2002, for example, while last year, the second-season finale of “Empire,” one of TV’s most popular programs, reached just 10.8 million. Finding a way to count audiences watching both linear TV and on-demand streaming would help the media industry gain back some of the scale among audiences that has slipped away over the last several years.

Nielsen has been working to implement a data stream that would let CBS, Fox, Turner and their rivals count audiences for everything from “NCIS” to “Empire” to “Conan,” no matter whether the shows are watching on a big-screen TV or a handheld device. But Schwartz wants to implement something different:  He is less concerned with figuring out the number of people watching the shows and more interested in counting up the number of people who see the commercials that support the programming.

“We have a lot of clients who keep asking us why we are not able to look at this information on a common measure,” said Schwartz, in an interview. He oversees the deployment of about $30 billion of ad spending from marketers including Unilever and American Express. “We have several clients who have asked us to move this ahead.” Schwartz said he is working with two rival measurement firms – Nielsen and ComScore – to develop a workable system.

GroupM played a key role in helping to build the TV industry’s current method of buying and selling ads. After decades of paying TV networks based on the number of people watching their shows, GroupM and others convinced the TV companies in 2007 to accept so-called “commercial ratings,” or viewership of the ad breaks.

At present, most TV networks sell based on measures like “C3,” which tabulates the viewers who watch commercials up to three days after they air, or “C7,” which counts up a week’s worth of ad views. The new measures became necessary as more viewers began to use digital video-recorders to skip past commercials, leaving advertisers grasping in the dark as they sought to understand as  how much their colorful promotional vignettes were being watched.

Some TV executives have harbored deep skepticism about Nielsen’s ability to bring what are known as “total content ratings” to life. In December, Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal, sent a letter to Nielsen suggesting its data for measuring audiences across screens “is not ready for release.” Since that time, other TV companies have held discussions with Nielsen, which is likely to modify release of its data until a later date, according to people familiar with the situation.

Executives at Video Advertising Bureau, however, are interested in the technology that would measure ad impressions, said Sean Cunningham, the group’s president and chief executive. “The market really needs the work to be done,” he said in an interview. “There is a real scale of attention that is not being counted coherently.”

Counting commercial impressions is very different from tabulating the audience for specific programs, said Danielle DeLauro, VAB’s senior vice president of strategic sales insights. Measuring audiences for programs “is completely about content, not about saleable impressions” for advertisers, she said in an interview.

GroupM’s Schwartz says his unit is working to put together a measure of cross-platform commercial views with a TV network he declined to name. They are slated to hand off the concept to VAB at some point in the not-too-distant future. The organization would then have its members test the technology. “It’s important to get it done as quickly as possible, but more important to get it done right than get it done fast,” said Cunningham.

There’s reason to move with some speed. Already, media companies including NBCU, Fox Networks, Viacom and Time Warner’s Turner are offering ad deals based on data that varies from client to client. One might want to pay for reaching first-time car buyers; another might seek young soda drinkers or expectant mothers. The longer it takes the industry to devise a single, unfiying measurement, the more it risks its advertisers making their own demands and growing less eager to support a one-size-fits-all standard.

None of it can be done with a snap of the fingers. Media companies with different goals and audiences must agree on similar gauges, and building an infrastructure to support them can be costly. “If it was that easy, we would have gotten it done already,” said DeLauro.