The All Media and Products Survey has been a media planning institution for decades. Can the industry pull together to ensure its future?
The future of the South African Audience Research Foundation (Saarf), the All Media and Products Survey (Amps) and, some media folk fear, independent research itself, is under scrutiny.
For almost 40 years, Saarf’s research currencies have been invaluable tools for media agencies and owners. Amps, Saarf’s establishment survey, was created in 1975 and the Radio Audience Measurement Survey (Rams) and the Television Audience Measurement Survey (Tams) followed as radio and television became media forces in their own right.
Over the decades, the foundation has weathered storms, including criticism of its methods, funding crises and calls to provide data that is not only credible and independently researched, but also comparable across media types. The latest upheaval in Saarf has brought its future into question.
The NAB resignation
In June, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) resigned from the Saarf board, effective from January 2015. A few weeks before, at a tense Saarf AGM, the NAB demanded increased representation on the board and said it would resign if it did not get 75% of the vote. At the Saarf board meeting held later that day, incumbent chair Clare O’Neil withdrew as a candidate for re-election, and the remaining candidate Greg Garden, a member of the Marketing Association of South Africa (Masa), followed suit the next day. The board re-convened and appointed long-standing Saarf board member Virginia Hollis to the hot seat.
The NAB’s resignation is a major threat to Saarf’s existence, as it cannot continue without the broadcasters, who collectively contribute the bulk of Saarf’s funding.
In the wake of the NAB’s resignation, Saarf CEO Paul Haupt issued a detailed statement. In it, Haupt denied that the Saarf board turned down the NAB’s request for more seats, but said all stakeholders had asked for more time to consider the request. He accused the NAB of stage managing the resignation at the AGM, because the broadcasting body knew that it would not get the vote it needed. “None of the Saarf stakeholders wanted to vote on this issue at the time; they were forced to do so because the NAB insisted that a decision be taken without further debate or consultation,” he said. The implication is that the NAB had been planning to resign all along, though why they should want to is not clear.
Bitterness and confusion reigned in the months thereafter, with rumours flying and business relationships being tested in the media community. This is evident in the fact that many of the sources interviewed by The Media refused to go on record. Accusations included that television companies wanted to control audience research.
But some media owner and media agency sources say they understand why the NAB would want to resign. They believe there are serious and long-term faults with Rams and Tams. They say Saarf has always been slow to change and is out-dated, especially regarding television. The SABC and e.tv say they lost out on revenue because Tams allowed the oversampling of urban, upper LSM audiences, favouring DStv’s market. The free-to-air TV broadcasters claim they have lost “hundreds of millions of rands” this way. Saarf’s methodology and outmoded equipment were to blame for this, the broadcasters say. One broadcasting source says, “We definitely did lose revenue and it was lot of money.”
But Mindshare director Shirley Franz says that e.tv and SABC did not lose out on revenue. “I do not believe that spend has been pulled from free-to-air. If there has been a decline, it’s because of the economy. And I handle trading for Group M, MEC and Mindshare. We spend 40% of the industry’s money.”
Haupt’s response to the Tams weighting accusation was that a sound methodological practice was instituted with the full knowledge and participation of all its members. The SABC and e.tv were “fully aware of the implications of these decisions”, says the statement. After all, Saarf is a joint industry council that acts on the basis of consensus.
Saarf has been trying to implement updated technology and methodology, and has been hamstrung by a lack of funding, according to Haupt’s statement. It also refers to the audit carried out by French company CESP that found Saarf to be fundamentally sound, though it highlights areas for improvement.
Competition in the TV marketplace is increasing (for instance, with the debut of Chinese pay TV company StarTimes, which recently bought Top TV). In addition, the digital terrestrial television (DTT) switchover is expected to fragment audiences as it offers more viewing choice. Audience measurement will have to adapt. Media agency and marketing sources say that while there are problems with Tams and Saarf not adapting fast enough, the audit indicates that these problems can be solved. They fear that certain broadcasters exploited the Tams issue in order to leave Saarf and conduct their own proprietary research.
However, another agency source says the broadcasters are not attempting to take control of the currency and are open to working with agencies to create trustworthy research. “We have been told by NAB to stop panicking,” says the source. “NAB wants to see the demise of Saarf and and [the formation of] a new body with the representation they want. That’s fine, as long as the [new] committee is credible and independent.”
A NAB source says the broadcasters will continue to fund Nielsen’s Tams research after they leave Saarf in 2015. “There was this enormous fear [among the media] that the NAB were pulling out of everything. To a large extent these fears have been allayed.”
But what will happen to Amps? It seems Amps needs to be overhauled, and according to some, that is not a bad thing. Media owners, particularly from the out of home (OOH) sector, have long accused the base survey of being skewed towards print. “There are lots of views on Amps and quite a lot of unhappiness,” says one OOH source. “Why does the sample have to be built around print needs? … Amps and print are conflated and called an establishment survey, but it isn’t really one.”
Amps was established before TV was introduced in South Africa in 1976, when there were just a handful of radio stations. At the time, black audiences were not considered important. And Amps has failed to adapt, says the OOH source, adding, “Saarf just couldn’t change and maybe its time has just come naturally.”
There have been allegations that Amps figures vastly overestimate readership, giving print media owners an unfair advantage. Veteran researcher Jos Kuper says, however, that print companies realise the importance of accuracy and want a fair survey. “They know it has to be warts and all,” she says.
Print itself has had issues with Amps for a long time. Many say that the cracks in Saarf are not new, but first appeared about12 years ago when Print Media South Africa (PMSA, now Print and Digital Media South Africa, PDMSA) reduced its funding to Saarf, claiming that it wasn’t getting its money’s worth. The PMSA, led by then BDFM managing director and Saarf board member Brian Pottinger, said the print body was paying far more proportionally for the research than the other media types, echoing the dilemma faced by the NAB earlier this year. Then in 2004, PMSA refused to pay Saarf, as other media owners did, through a collection agency, but started to give their dues directly to Saarf.
The Media’s publisher Sandra Gordon says, “The base survey did not serve print well either because the questions weren’t good enough to give planners and strategists a good sense [of the total print market].
“For instance, Amps does not measure community papers/free sheets, which have been growing in readership and credibility. Roots and Compass 24 [Caxton and Media24’s studies of this market] cost millions and this is in addition to what they contribute to Saarf.”
Whose money is it?
Media owners say the money they pay to Saarf is theirs, while marketers claim it belongs to them because it’s included in the cost of their transactions with media owners. This is a crucial issue because whoever owns the funds gets the right to determine if it’s being spent well.
Garden says, “The broadcasters have decided unilaterally that they can keep the [research funding]. Masa has had meetings with NAB about this. Marketers are not going to lie down and let them walk away. They are trying to separate going away and how the research is funded. But that is the marketers’ money.” Masa has been trying to organise marketers to come to Saarf’s rescue and contribute funding.
Veteran media expert Gordon Muller told the Grubstreet blog that “despite the protestations of marketers, media owners fund Saarf… and [the media owners] can do what they want with it. Until marketers start taking control of their destiny again (and Masa is trying to do just that), media owners will run the show. Nobody cares about the Saarf board. They care who owns the data.”
And no one can agree who owns the data. Muller tells The Media that in the past there has been a great deal of apathy from the marketers. Masa is generally considered to represent too little of the industry to have much sway. This is a pity, says Starcom MediaVest Group managing director Gordon Patterson, because there needs to be a balance of buyer and seller in a body like Saarf.
“This little crisis [in Saarf] has raised the issue of whose money it is. This couldn’t be better. For way too long marketers have walked away from research money,” says Patterson.
‘An NDP for the media world!’
The media landscape is changing fast and audience research needs to change with it, says Kuper. “Saarf came into being when the media world was far less complex, far less rapidly changing, far less competitive. It was much easier to apply a uniform approach to a variety of media back then. Saarf was running on one track and that track was headed to Blikkiesdorp.”
Saarf’s futureproofing project, conducted by Kuper Research, has offered a way forward. The project took a year to complete, with the results presented at a workshop in May.
Says Kuper of the project, “This is the National Development Plan for the media audience measurement world.” The main conclusion to emerge from futureproofing is that a central establishment survey needs to be conducted in which all stakeholders participate. Then each media type organises its own research. There would be Tams, Rams, Pams (for print), Dams (digital) and Ohms (outdoor). Their industry-specific data would then be fused with the central survey.
“Agencies need to be assured of quality, integrity and so on. There are ways of creating a model of surveys to ensure that media types collaborate, which you need for a multimedia world,” says Kuper.
“Each media type needs to be responsible for its own survival. But you can create monitoring systems, sampling systems and weighting systems to ensure integrity across the types. You don’t want complete silos. What’s critical is the level of collaboration.”
The advantage of this model for planners would be that they would not have to work with different establishment surveys. An independent body would keep an eye on the accuracy of the data and it would cost media owners a great deal less than striking out on their own. However, futureproofing makes no recommendations about the funding model.
The future of media research
The model has found support, with many of the people interviewed for this article – from agencies to broadcasters – citing a central establishment survey as the best way forward.
PDMSA CEO Ingrid Louw says that print endorses the findings. “It is imperative to collaborate and co-operate with other media stakeholders, marketers and industry associations to ensure the credibility of the currency going forward. This will also allow for links to the audiences of the various media types and the relevant components of the establishment survey,” she says.
The NAB also likes Kuper’s model, says the source. The broadcasters’ October statement says the NAB will be discussing their plans with other industry associations.
“The broadcasters remain open and committed to ongoing collaboration and debate on the intermedia establishment survey and to this end has established an internal working group of television and radio members,” says the NAB.
“NAB’s future plans include developing and implementing three concurrent projects relating to structure, funding mechanisms and internationally accepted best practice methodology.”
The statement adds that the NAB has requested proposals from businesses interested in tendering for radio listenership research. The broadcasters will be prepared for a smooth transition after they leave Saarf, says the statement.
Whatever the outcome, media industry folk on all sides agree that independent, comparable research in South Africa is essential. Says Patterson, “Saarf, or at least a Saarf-like body, will not fold. The reality of a landscape without it is too bleak.”
So it seems that the recent events at Saarf could be a catalyst for necessary change, the start of creative solutions for even better independent audience measurement.