In praise of standards

A buyer without PMB is like society without the metre

Media professionals are all measurers.

We measure readership, viewership, listenership, drivership, and all-sorts-of-different-kinds-of-mediaship.

We need standards of measure in order to create measures of cost efficiency, which in turn allows us to compare the productivity of one program to another, and of one radio station to another.

Our standards of media measure have reconfigured dramatically in the last few years. The quarter-hour average was once the TV audience standard. It’s been replaced by average-minute audience. Move over diary, here comes the meter. Move over meter, here comes the portable people meter.

If you’re having trouble visualizing a world without standard units of measure, check out Ken Alder’s The Measure of all Things. This book chronicles a seven-year scientific odyssey conducted by two French astronomers.

In 1792, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain, set out from Paris to measure the world. They triangulated their way from the north of France to Barcelona in order to create the most accurate extrapolation of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. This distance was then divided by 10 million and – voila – the metre was born.

For the first time in history, a unit of measure had been created with the intent of becoming an international standard. But of course nothing is ever easy – especially in late 1700′s France. The French Revolution had a nasty way of interfering with their scientific pursuits. Rioting peasants, marauding troops, closed borders, pirates, disease, and the occasional observational error conspired to turn this straightforward expedition into Jean and Pierre’s Most Excellent Adventure.

The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the strange, unit-less economy of pre-revolutionary France (the Ancien Régime) where ‘measurement was inseparable from the object being measured and the customs of the community, which performed the measurement.’

So a local measure for the weight of bread would rest with the village’s guildhall of bakers. The length of building materials would be set for one village while another town, just down the road, would have its own unique measure.

Measure was not only locally derived; it was anthropomorphic in nature – an arm’s length, a pace, a foot or a finger. Measures of efficiency were non-existent because villages could not provide standard comparisons of productivity. Agricultural output could not be compared between countries. And because prices were governed locally, the Ancien Régime’s power base rested in local hands.

A standard of measure, such as a universal metre, was an earth-shattering development, which eventually destroyed many protected and prosperous lives.

Not so long ago, here in Canada, our magazine world functioned without standard measure. Before 1975, the magazine medium was the ‘Ancien Régime’ of media. But in 1972, the founding board members of the Print Measurement Bureau (which included David Harrison, Bob Harris and Jeff Shearer) sat around a table and, like Jean and Pierre, laid the groundwork for standard measurement. The first PMB study was released a few years later.

But before the PMB studies provided standard units of readership, magazines had their own, local measures of media weight, just like the villages of pre-revolutionary France.

I asked Hastings Withers (EVP/research director of PMB) if he remembered those pre-revolutionary magazine measurement days and the challenges of getting everyone into the standardization tent. He remembered the individual subscriber studies, the constant debate between the two industry surveys that existed back then (MAB and TrendTape), the self-serving magazine research that formed the core of most sales presentations. The controlled books hated the paid books and the paid books hated the controlled books. Business magazines were particularly parochial. And the task of comparing the efficiency of magazine titles was like comparing loaves of bread between villages in the Ancien Régime.

And like the metre’s impact on local French authority, PMB’s standards of measure diminished some degree of control. The job of sculpting a magazine’s final readership image was no longer left up to the imagination and creativity of the sales manager. The local publishing power base eroded.

On the other hand, thanks to PMB, the cohesiveness of the magazine medium quickly grew. Magazine ad revenue improved and today, PMB provides invaluable measures of product usage, brand usage, multi-media usage and magazine title usage. A modern magazine medium cannot exist without standardized readership measurement.

But even today in Canada, there are small market radio owners who refuse to have their audiences measured by BBM. They are media measurement holdouts, like small isolated villages in France that fought the metric wave and stuck with their obscure local forms of measurement to the very end.

These radio stations claim their local advertisers don’t need standard audience measures; that the standards harm their revenue; that national advertisers would use less of their time if standard measures of audience were available. Sound familiar?

So the next time you question the value of measurement, or you tire of analyzing the GRP production of a TV buy or you are bored by the latest round of BBM vs. Nielsen, or you really don’t think your radio station needs to be measured, think about these words from Alder’s book.

‘Measures are a consequence of man’s fall, a human invention for a world outside Eden, where scarcity and mistrust rule, and the labor and exchange are our lot. Measures are more than a creation of society, they create society. As the outcome of years of negotiations over the proper way to conduct exchanges, their ongoing use reaffirms our social bonds and defines our sense of fair dealings.’

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.