Measurement, shmeasurement

Twice during yesterday’s excellent #PRanalytics conference, the verboten three-letter acronym AVE was used. On both occasions, there was a sharper intake of breath than when one speaker, during a panel session, spelled out the C-word. In full.

AVE. Advertising Value Equivalency. There, I only went and said it.

The bane of the PR measurement industry. A practice that signifies nothing and doesn’t give the value or the worth of anything. A meaningless ragbag of spurious mathematics, rooted in a long-lost paper from an early 1970s’ edition of Psychological Science that purported to show editorial was worth three to five times as much as advertising. Nonsense.

For years, professional and representative bodies in PR and measurement have tried to kill AVE. The PRCA. The CIPR. The IPR in the U.S. And the organisation most directly involved, AMEC – the Association for the Measurement & Evaluation of Communications.

At every European AMEC meeting since Barcelona in 2010 – the one with the eponymous Principles – delegates have come to bury AVEs, not to praise them. Yet somehow they always get airtime. The Lisbon Legacy of 2011, the Dublin Declaration of 2012, the Stockholm Syndrome of 2015. The war raged on through numerous, annual campaigns.

And now we have AMEC’s valid metrics framework, a perfectly good – though entirely voluntary – framework for measuring the outputs, out-takes, and outcomes of communications. After all, what’s the purpose of communications if not to have an impact? AMEC’s is a framework that more and more PR companies, clients, and measurement companies are adopting bits and pieces of. We heard more about progress yesterday, though there wasn’t a moment’s public reflection on the deep irony that AMEC’s framework is designed – at least in part – to allow agencies to mark their own homework.

What we didn’t hear much of was the fact that, try as it might, the industry is having trouble killing off AVEs. They have a zombie-like existence that lurks in the background, unspoken, festering, but never quite going away.

The reason for this is simple, and it took the sprightly figure of Lord Chadlington – a PR man in his sixth decade of relating to the public – to nail why. “Call me Peter” Gummer was giving the keynote closing address, and it was fitting that he should make the most important and dynamic speech of the day. His line that “Every agency I know is waiting to be disrupted – and that’s completely the wrong way to do things” should have been like a sucker punch to PR’s solar plexus.

Gummer referenced the different vultures that are circling around PR and will soon make many in the industry redundant – from razor-sharp CEO advisory firms, to light-footed digital agencies with genuine insights about online dialogue. Not to mention heavyweight management consultancies like Accenture and Deloitte, prepared actually to invest in building capabilities.

PR missed the boat with social media. PR missed the boat with influencer marketing. And PR’s going to miss the boat with PR if it’s not careful. Peter gives the industry five years to adapt or die. Adapting will require investment – in tech, in people with the right skills of analytics meets storytelling. PR needs to stop being so amateur and hoping others will let it get on with what it’s always done.

Is it any wonder that a recent Sunday Times article reported that PR is the least likely profession to be swept away by AI? Not because artificial intelligence can’t replace what PR folks can do, but because there are so many other types of business eating its lunch that AI is the least of its problems.

One of the historical objections to AVEs has been that PR coverage is not the equivalent of advertising. A fair enough starting point, but one born more of PR snobisme than any rigorous, evidence-based argument. PR has always had a chip on its shoulder about advertising, historically because its town mouse cousins were just too loud and too brash and too commercial. Because they took the lion’s share of the budget and so were, more often than not, the “lead agency”. And because while PR could mop the brow of the CCO, advertising took the sting away from the CEO. I remember one particularly comical, old-school boss referring to advertising as “dirty”. It actually repulsed her.

Let’s consider what’s happening currently in digital advertising measurement and wonder whether PR has anything to learn.

At two industry events already this year, Marc Pritchard, the chief brand officer of the world’s biggest advertiser P&G, has declared that the $200BN online advertising market is “murky at best, and fraudulent at worst”. Speaking at major industry events in the international spotlight – the Internet Advertising Bureau’s leadership meeting in January and the U.S. Association of National Advertisers conference just yesterday – he has twice demanded change, served notice on every P&G agency involved its $10BN annual spend, and set out a five-point plan for the digital advertising market to clean itself up. Or else.

He wasn’t threatening or menacing just direct, and he was hair-shirted in his criticism of advertisers – P&G included – for allowing vendors and agencies to have built such an apparently shoddy, poorly-measured system. Everyone was to blame, and everyone should share in the project to put things right.

And the response? Within less than a month, the two biggest digital advertising platforms – hitherto walled gardens – have agreed to open up their measurement systems to be independently audited and measured by the Media Rating Council. Not bit-part players, but Facebook and Google through YouTube. The two parent companies account for more than 70% of digital advertising spend.

Can we imagine anything remotely similar happening in PR? An industry figure rattling the cage of the big PR companies and getting a result like this. I don’t think so. Not now. Not ever. As I said on the floor of yesterday’s event, there’s no carrot and no stick. There’s no motivation – no properly meaningful incentive – for agencies or measurement companies or communications teams to have their work independently evaluated by a single, respected methodology. All players are free to pick and choose how they mark their own homework. And some clients – maybe not many in the developed Western markets – will continue to ask for cheap, quick, and meaningless vanity metrics like AVEs or likes or retweets.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the PR industry and the measurement folks who surround it. I’ve worked with and alongside them for nearly 30 years. But there can only be a very few who work in PR who wouldn’t recognise my deliberate caricature of an industry that serially fails to invest – in this case in getting measurement right, but historically in digital and social – and apparently willingly welcomes others in to eat their lunch.

I hope that Lord Chadlington’s “hell in a handcart” speech doesn’t disrupt the lives and livelihoods of the very many people in PR who seem oblivious to change. But there’s not a whole lot of evidence that many of the creatures on this particular Yucatan peninsula have noticed the meteor hurtling towards it.