Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cross media deals, and the absence of the free lunch

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

As economic belts tighten, advertisers are looking with renewed vigour at getting the best from their media deals. Since the last recession, online has become a major medium – expected to overtake TV this year – and budgets are now substantial.

Encouraged by some agencies, advertisers are looking more closely at how cross-media dealing might create greater pricing efficiencies (procurement speak for cheaper) as increasingly, media groups own properties which span both the traditional and the digital worlds.

But amidst all this hype about synergies and leverage there are some real bear-traps for the unwary here, and some agendas that aren’t altogether straightforward…

Let’s look first at some of the bear-traps.

First, this isn’t a big market opportunity. There’s actually little crossover between the Top 10 traditional media operators and the top 10 in digital – the top ranking traditional media owner in traffic terms is the Daily Mail in July, and that scrapes in at number 10.

The online display market is dominated by the big portals – MSN, Yahoo and AOL, the smallest of which delivers twice the audience of the Mail’s site. Sky might be a 500lb gorilla in the TV market, but it’s at number 14 online. And this raises a further consideration.

When a media owner is selected to meet planning criteria arrived at for the offline property, there’s often a mismatch online. The Telegraph’s audience online is much younger, Channel 4’s is more upmarket and most of the Guardian’s audience is in the US. So plans created for one medium can struggle to translate effectively to the other.

Then there’s measurement. Whilst TV is traded in share and ratings, online is traded in impressions, clicks and outcomes.  Smart operators have been using rating points in online for years – it’s a useful way of creating a point of comparison across media, as well as a sense of the scale of a campaign against the audience size. But the danger here is that the tail comes to wag the dog, as lowest common denominator traditional media metrics can replace more business-centric outcome measures in setting objectives.

Of course, there are positives. Editorial teams can be more effectively motivated, and publishers are often more willing to integrate commercial messages into their content. But of course if it’s just running creative on radio and online that you want, arguably that’s possible without a cross-media deal – your online and offline agencies should work together to make this happen for you; it’s their job. And of course if they do, you’re not constrained to using just the properties of that particular media group – you can do anything you like (almost like media planning really).

Where it really gets sticky though is when you try to account for the value. Both agencies and media owners can get into a media version of find the lady – a great price on one medium concealing poor value in others.

This is particularly the case if the agency creating the deal isn’t particularly expert in one of the media channels – they’re keen to show their openness to using that channel (usually digital) but wouldn’t know a good deal if it jumped up and bit them on the nose.

Worse though, since auditors are often employed on a single medium, these deals are often removed from the audit altogether. So a press audit might omit a deal because it has a substantial online component – and it might be tempting for an agency to load the pricing up on that deal in order to demonstrate deeper discounts on that media owner on the parts of their business that are subject to scrutiny.

Heaven forefend, and I’m sure that never happens.

We all want value for money. But as the economic weather gets wetter, it’s wise to remember that nowhere is the free lunch more elusive than in media.

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