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Monday, July 6, 2015

Modi must talk to the people instead of at them

The stark contrast was apparent as soon as the Lok Sabha election results came in and the BJP got into government formation mode. Journalists long used to being in you-heard-it-here-first mode had, strangely, nothing to report. “No leaks” was the lament. 

Then on his first international trip, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dumped the customary media contingent and took only journalists from Doordarshan and a news agency to Japan. He held no press conferences, choosing to bypass the mainstream media and reach the people directly through social media. For a year now, journalists have complained that their access to the government is limited. So complete has the blockade been that the Editors’ Guild of India issued a statement reflecting its helplessness and chagrin. 

In the absence of anything but controlled information, though, the Press is happily following the PR script. They faithfully and uncritically report and repeat catch-phrases (“Less government, more governance”; “There is only one holy book: the Constitution of India”); and breathlessly build up the big orchestrated events, starting with the rock concert at Madison Square Garden. So far, so good. There is a word for what the Editors’ Guild described as a “top-down, one way interaction” with the media: propaganda. The question is, how far will this propaganda approach work? 

A majority in Parliament gives the illusion that the majority of the country wants you. But winning 52% of the seats does not mean 52% of voters wanted the BJP. In fact its 31% vote-share was the lowest ever for a majority party, the previous being 41% for the Congress in 1967, when it too won 52% of seats. Further, it is not that all 31% actually prefer the BJP. The people who vote for you are of two types: ‘base’ and ‘swing’ voters. Base voters are your loyalists; swing voters are those who are undecided, perhaps right up until they cast their vote. They voted for you, but they are not convinced. As in marketing anything, you must ring-fence your loyalists and woo potential switchers. In politics, that means converting the swing voters between now and the next election. And as any student of communications must know, it’s not only what you say: at least as much, it’s how you say it. 

Brendan Nyhan, of Dartmouth College has been running experiments to answer a simple question: do facts matter to voters? And the simple answer is, no. Our political judgments are immune to facts that contradict us. Worse, throwing ‘facts’ at people only makes them cling more tenaciously to their beliefs. Anup Kumar, an academic who studies the relationship between media and politics, says in a piece in The Hoot, “… media and politics feed into each other but in the absence of politics on the ground a media campaign alone will not change outcomes. … it is the ground campaign … that comes first.” 

And why is that relevant here? Because 10 months after the Lok Sabha election, in which it won all seven seats in Delhi – from none in 2009 – the BJP was routed in the Delhi assembly elections, winning just 3 seats of 70 – from 31 in 2009 – while the Aam Aadmi Party won 67. BJP campaign strategists had come to believe in the myth of the power of a media blitzkrieg at the cost of ignoring the success of an effective ground campaign of the kind they waged in 2014. In the social media too “AAP had more engaged interactions … which encouraged open deliberation, while the BJP had more of a bandwagon approach – follow the great leader.” That approach may show apparent results, but ‘likes’ and followers are routinely bought. 

The BJP’s social media skills were tested when Modi engaged with a Chinese audience on Weibo. “The move may have worked for Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but it didn’t work for Modi,” says Fortune. He wanted to talk about the Buddha’s birthday and a new era of Asian harmony, but the Chinese public “went straight for the jugular, with thousands of ordinary citizens taking Modi to task over territorial claims,” Fortune reports. 

For all the media volume it has occupied over the last year and more, how effective, then, is the BJP’s – and Modi’s – awesome PR machine? In terms of dominating the discourse, extremely so: in terms of winning potential switchers, doubtful. The evidence is in the 10 assembly elections held after the huge Lok Sabha win: four governments formed, of which three in coalition, and a rout in Delhi. 

There is only one way to get people to exercise free choice in your favour: persuasion, not propaganda. In politics the ‘seller’ must influence ‘buyers’ who don’t consciously assess their choices but address them with bits and pieces of information that they patch together in their heads to create their own sets of beliefs and perceptions. They are aware that the outcome is much bigger than them, and they don’t individually influence it or expect to. 

The Indian electorate has shown time and again that, disparate and dispersed as it is, it can exercise its collective choice with amazing consistency. There are still four years to go for the big one, and many assembly elections in between. Time to shift gears and start talking to them instead of at them.
First published in Impact (

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The new TV ratings system has drawbacks too

“The problem with BARC is that this measurement system is controlled by those who are being measured.” The Hoot talks to CHINTAMANI RAO about BARC which has begun delivering metrics to broadcasters and media buyers.
BARC is here. Does that take us closer to a more satisfactory audience measurement system than TAM, in your view? And if not why not?
That BARC – or any vendor – is here cannot be an assurance of anything. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Do you see any improvement over TAM ratings in the metrics that the new measurement system has produced so far?
So far, no: mainly because this is household level data. What that means is, BARC data as of now tells you only what a household is tuned into: not who in the household is watching. That’s of precious little use in media planning and buying. It is okay for testing the system and settling it down, but viewer level data is the table stakes. Until you have that you aren’t in the game. So for the purpose of media planning and buying BARC data is not yet useful.

Will BARC be able to deliver better value to advertisers and media planners?
In principle there is no reason why it shouldn’t. But my concern as an industry observer, and one who has been deeply involved with the subject, is that this measurement system is controlled by those who are being measured.

BARC was intended to be an equal-stakes venture of three industry bodies. But finally broadcasters have 60% of the vote, while the other two constituents have only 20% each. In effect, those whose performance is being measured hold sway: they don’t need the support of the others to do pretty much anything.

BARC was set up because the industry decided it didn’t want a vendor-driven system. It has traded that for a broadcaster-driven system. How that is better is for the advertisers and their media agencies to judge.

What are the implications and advantages of watermarking?
I’m not qualified to compare technologies, but there are two limitations I’m aware of.

One, the broadcaster controls the switch. If you’re disgruntled and don’t want your channel to be measured you can simply stop watermarking, and the system will not be able to read your channel. That is not good. It will distort the picture. If I am doing market research on shampoo, for example, and am asking sample homes which brand of shampoo they use, I don’t want Brand X deciding that it won’t allow its consumers to reveal themselves. A major network doing that could hold the whole system to ransom.

Two, it is expensive. Small, single-channel broadcasters, of whom there are hundreds, will find it hard to afford. Other technologies don’t require anything of the broadcaster. So it could result in a partial picture, with data only for participating channels.

The universe from which the sample was chosen is the same as MRUC’s IRS. Is this a satisfactory universe, and if not why not?
Considering the question mark that hangs over the IRS, I would worry about it.

The sampling is 20,000 households going to 50,000 in four years. Do you think that the sample will be sufficiently scientifically chosen to represent 160 million households satisfactorily? It is just double the earlier sampling TAM did, which was pretty small. 
First, the question of sample size. We are always concerned with sample size, perhaps because it is easy to grasp.

People generally think what matters is the relationship between the size of the universe and that of the panel. That seems reasonable, but statisticians will tell you that a panel of 10,000 correctly representative of its universe will be as good a measure whether the universe is, say, 10 million or a billion. What matters is not the relationship between the size of the panel and the size of the universe but that between the size of the panel and the smallness of what it is trying to measure.

When TV audience measurement started in this country the media world was relatively simple. There were few channels; TV was mainly entertainment; the most advertised products were fmcg, mostly targeted at women, 15-44, SEC A-C. That was a broad measure, for which the then sample of perhaps 4-5,000 homes was adequate.

Over time not only the number but the genres of TV channels grew; the range of advertised product categories widened to include financial services, auto, mobile telephones, consumer durables, … and, correspondingly, the audiences targeted began to include different demographics. So now you were measuring smaller and smaller channels, in relation to more finely defined audiences.

And the TAM sample grew, too. Decision point: as you add more homes, should you cover more towns or increase the sample size in current towns, i.e., cover more towns thinly or cover fewer towns in depth? That depends on what you seek to achieve. I remember when news broadcasters asked TAM not to increase the geographical spread of its sample because more towns covered would mean more carriage fees.

Of course you can increase the sample in both width and depth of coverage, but someone has to pay for it. There’s no free lunch.

Second, BARC is starting with 20,000 meters, representing all markets. 70% of the meters will be urban: that’s 14,000 meters representing 71 million urban TV households spread across more towns and further down pop strata, compared with TAM’s 10,000 meters representing 61 million in Class 1+ pop strata.

BARC will also represent 82 million rural households with 6,000 meters. If sample size is an issue, how can that be even remotely representative of a universe as culturally diverse and geographically dispersed as rural India?

Yes, it is meant to go up to 50,000 meters over time. But that’s an intention, and eventually someone has to pay for it. If they do, and if it happens, wonderful.

But, as I said, it’s not just about the sample size: that’s simply the easiest handle to grab.

BARC will be using the National Consumer Classification System instead of the socio-economic one. Please explain this and tell us what its advantage is?
The Socio-Economic Classification (SEC) system came about in the late 1980’s on the initiative of the Market Research Society of India (MRSI). The object was to find a better predictor of consumption behaviour than household income, which was commonly used until then. The reason is obvious: two households with similar incomes don’t necessarily behave alike with respect to consumption. So what is it about them that most influences consumption behaviour?
The MRSI did research to determine what parameters best indicated the propensity to consume of a household, and concluded that it was a combination of the education and occupation of the chief wage earner (CWE). That made sense intuitively, too.
The SEC was adopted starting with the National Readership Survey (NRS) of 1988. Some 12 or 15 years later users began to question its relevance, and Media Research Users Council began to consider a new SEC structure. In 2011 MRUC and MRSI introduced the new system, the NCCS.
The NCCS is based also based on two parameters, one of which is the education of the CWE. The other is not occupation, as it was earlier, but the number of durables owned by the household, from a list of 11.
There are all kinds of analyses to show why and how the NCCS is better. But to my mind it is terribly left-brained, the work of technocrats. If the purpose is to classify households according to their propensity to consume, we must look for indicators of their likely behaviour. Ownership of durables is manifest behaviour: they consume lots, so they must have a high propensity to consume.
The SEC system is more stable. For a household the parameters change slowly over time, and if they do change then that’s a result of a life change. If the CWE has acquired more education or upgraded their occupation that will definitely lead to a higher propensity to consume, so their SEC should change.
In the NCCS, on the other hand, if a household that owns one durable today bought two more next year its classification would change. Over time all households will own more durables, so everyone’s classification will change. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Do you think that the fact that BARC segregates the functions of data collection, analysis and reporting between three independent agencies will make it less prone to misuse and lead to more dependable metrics?
The practice is not unique. It is followed elsewhere in the world, too. There’s no single right way to do things. In the end what matters is panel and data security. The biggest problem is not misuse of the reported data: it’s before the data is reported, i.e., panel tampering, so the fewer the people or agencies involved in that process, the better.

In the end everything can be violated if you have a mind to: think of 9/11; think of 26/11. We can only try; and we can take deterrent action against those who are caught, to discourage stray thoughts in that direction.

The expectation is that a better designed system with more sampling will lead to news broadcasters at least reducing sensationalism and being less driven by one big eyeball grabbing story. Is that a realistic expectation?
I’m afraid, not. News broadcasters do what they do not because the measurement system is imperfect but because that’s what they do. Do you think Times Now will be quite happy to show up as no. 2 to CNN-IBN because – thank God! – we at last have a sensible measurement system? They will continue to push frenetically to maximize their score, whatever the scoring system.

What is the sense you are getting of the industry response so far to BARC – from broadcasters, advertisers and advertising agencies who are all represented in it ownership?  Or is it too early to tell?
It’s too early to tell.
So far the advertisers and advertising agencies are playing ball. The advertisers have agreed to do without data until BARC is able to supply it. They spent huge sums on the IPL after planning with individual-level TAM data, and are evaluating it either with household-level BARC data; or with the previous season’s TAM data; or not at all. That’s amazing.
I can’t imagine what’s motivating them, but evidently getting BARC going is important enough to them to risk hundreds of crore of their advertising money shooting in the dark at a moving target.
Published in The Hoot ( on 29th May 2015

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

So where should the money come from?

 TRAI’s Recommendations on Issues Relating to Media Ownership, its second on the subject, is in the familiar TRAI mould: well presented, articulate, easy-to-read, and theoretically sound, but often opinionated, self-righteous and of questionable practicality.

That there are serious issues relating to ownership is without doubt, and the de facto acquisition of Network 18 by Reliance has thrown many of them up in stark relief. Even if there is no end in sight, they are important enough to discuss periodically, in the expectation that some resolution will evolve over time.

While some have questioned the parameters set by the regulator, it seems sensible to limit the subject for the present as proposed, to where it is most relevant: news and current affairs; on print and TV only; and with markets defined by language-state combination.

That said, it is in the main a one-sided view, lacking the very internal plurality it champions. A comprehensive review of it could be longer than the document itself, so I will confine myself to a few salient aspects.

Whose money is it, anyway?
At a seminar some months ago a senior journalist, who had recently had a public falling-out with his corporate employers, was critical of non-media corporates owning media companies. He was also not in favour of media conglomerates; owner-editors; journalist-owners; and of government or political parties owning media. I asked who then, in his opinion, should own the media. No answer.

The point is not to find fault with that journalist. It is, rather, that this is a fraught issue, in which every answer raises fresh questions. What is necessary is not to limit who may and who may not own, but transparency about who does. It calls, as with most things in India, not necessarily for new regulations but first for implementing existing ones.

No doubt “the mission of the news media is not to promote the advertiser’s interest by facilitating ‘consumption’ but to promote the citizens’ interest by facilitating unbiased dissemination of information”. Nice rhetoric, but where does the money come from? Surely the regulator is aware of the economics of the media business, especially of broadcasting, which is its remit. Surely, too, the regulator is aware that broadcasters still don’t get the benefits of digitization because the intractable last mile does not implement the mandated subscriber management systems, and no one – not TRAI, not the I&B Ministry – has been able to make LCOs comply. (That is exactly why now, on 23rd August, the government has pushed the digitization deadline by a year.)

As long as people don’t pay for content, advertising will remain the lifeblood of the media business. And as long as all their revenue comes from advertisers, that is who they will cater to. Do they have an option?

A news channel selling advertisements, and ensuring its ability to do so, is like a man who works long hours and has little time for his family. His mission is to provide for the well being of his family, but its the job which gives him the resources to do that. Stop whipping him for spending all his time at work: instead, ensure he is paid well enough; control inflation; and make quality education and healthcare affordable. Trust me, he would rather be free.

Sound and fury about private treaties
The near obsession with Private Treaties is out of proportion with the significance of the phenomenon and, if it is significant, with the possibility of doing anything meaningful about it.

This is a line of business in which a media owner has small stakes in multiple companies. Is that a bigger problem than corporate ownership? And what about the influence of big advertisers?  Does anyone know what proportion of revenue comes from so-called private treaties deals? And if indeed it is big issue, has anyone got the media owners’ perspective on it?

Private treaties “could be in various forms,” the document irresponsibly speculates, “such as advertising in exchange for equity of the advertising company or in exchange for favourable coverage. They could also take the form of giving favourable coverage to companies in exchange for exclusive advertising rights. Other innovative forms of private treaties could also exist.” Such speculation is out of place in a document of this nature. Surely it is the duty of an authority recommending a policy to do its homework; and surely TRAI has the wherewithal to get the necessary information.

And here is clinching proof offered, of skullduggery: “During the 2008 recession, these media entities refused to admit that the recession had indeed hit the country and instead called it a ‘temporary slowdown’ in order to prevent the stock prices of the companies they owned and companies that owned them from falling; else they were likely to lose big money.”  

That is perhaps the single most ridiculous statement in the entire 111-page document. Did the Government of India or the Reserve Bank say it was a recession? Didn’t they, on the contrary, actually insist it was only a slowdown? So did the Finance Minister, too, refuse to admit it was a recession because he risked losing big money? Would it have been better if the media had cried itself hoarse and caused panic, and the markets had crashed?

The simplistic, one-word recommendation to “proscribe” private treaties seems to give little thought to the practicality of such a measure. Does it mean media houses cannot invest in companies, or that their owners cannot? Does it mean they cannot carry perfectly legitimate advertisements of companies they have perfectly legitimate investments in? Does it mean their rate negotiations will be subject to approval by some authority?

Regulation, Self-regulation, Co-regulation
NBSA is dismissed lightly because its standards apply only to the 57 channels of 28 NBA members.  

Sadly, there is no informed assessment of it, or a word of appreciation for the fact that these broadcasters have taken the initiative. Instead, the Authority dismisses it as an “ineffective regulatory framework” and only quotes an unnamed organisation that has moved the Supreme Court against it, describing it as “a self-serving farce”.  

The Authority further betrays its bias when, in answering the question, “Has self-regulation worked?” it begins disdainfully with, “The cosy club mentality of this mechanism….” That is hardly calculated to give the confidence of the objective assessment that is the bounden duty of a regulator.

In fact, the entire concept of self-regulation has been dismissed, simply because it is a voluntary act. There is not a single reference to, not a single attempt to give, the perspective of the NBSA, of its Chairman, who is a retired Chief Justice of India, or of editors and broadcast executives – only of their detractors.

It is fair to have expected the Authority to first assess the NBSA mechanism, and then address the question of what next, and weigh options. What it has done, instead, is to point out the issues of statutory regulation and then go on to recommend it anyway, under the aegis of a Media Regulator. It does not make the critical distinction between content and structural regulation: statutory content regulation can easily become censorship; structural regulation is essential for fair competition.

There are two key issues with self-regulation. The first is its limited applicability: in the case of NBSA, only to NBA members.  The answer to that is to mandatorily bring all news channels under the jurisdiction of the NBSA.

The second issue is that penalties imposed by self-regulatory bodies are not enforceable, but giving penal authority to self-regulatory bodies has its own set of issues. The only viable answer is co-regulation, in which a self-regulatory body such as NBSA conveys a verdict and a proposed penalty to a statutorily empowered one, such as perhaps the proposed Media Regulator. The statutory body either accepts and implements the recommendation or reviews and modifies it. How hard is that?

Guilty until proven innocent
What is most galling throughout the document is the disdain towards every link in the media value chain. The best that can be said is that it is equal-opportunity disdain: everyone is tarred with the same brush. The only sources and views cited are those that support the Authority’s agenda. No alternative views are presented.

It is no one’s case that all is well with the news media. Everyone knows about motivated ownership, and indeed the document describes the issues in detail.  But indicting the entire industry and practically all its constituents is unacceptable. The least an industry can expect of its regulator is even-handedness, and that is regrettably lacking.

First published on, an independent media watch website, on 26th Aug 2014 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Media regulation: between the devil and the deep sea

Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, held a seminar last week on Perspectives in Media Regulation: Lessons from the UK, with featured speakers from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, London. The question, as always, is, can we effectively regulate media in India? Indeed, should the media be regulated? By whom?

The on-going debate on media regulation is in many ways the stuff of the coffee house debates of the sixties, in which jhola-carrying intellectuals diagnosed the ills of the world and prescribed remedies, while the rest carried on running the world in their own ham-handed way.

Perhaps the best indication of this, at last week’s seminar, was in the presence – or otherwise – of a member of the broadcast regulatory body, TRAI. The hosts indicated their seriousness by having Dr Vijaylakshmi Gupta give the keynote address, obviously to set the Indian context before we heard about the UK. Dr Gupta indicated hers by reading out a prepared, platitudinous speech and leaving immediately.

And so the coffee house debate carries on….

In a discussion on regulation on another occasion I wondered why the media have a say in whether they wish to be regulated: were the banking, or insurance, or telecoms or airline companies asked if they do? The Chairman of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority answered that was because the media is special, not like any ordinary business, and has a role of national importance. Unlike banks and insurance and…?

If you break the broad regulation issue into its component parts, it comes down to two distinct aspects: ownership and content. Issues of ownership include both, the who? question- who should own the media; and the what? question – what they should be allowed to own, i.e., cross-media ownership.

The ownership question has no real answers. The discussion at another seminar a few weeks ago was perhaps typical. A senior journalist who had recently had a fairly public falling-out with his corporate employers, was critical of non-media corporates owning media companies. He was also not in favour of media conglomerates; owner-editors; journalist-owners; and of government or political parties owning media. I said I couldn’t disagree with what he had said, and asked who then, in his opinion, should own the media. No answer.

The point is not to find fault with this speaker. It is, rather, that this is an unresolvable issue, in which every answer raises fresh questions.  What is necessary is not to limit who may and who may not own, but transparency about who does. It calls, as with most things in India, not necessarily for new regulations but first for implementing existing regulations.

The other aspect of the ownership question is cross-media holding: born of the concern that media conglomerates, through cross-media domination, can drive public opinion. That’s a theoretically sound concern, but in practice doubtful at two levels. First, it is questionable whether in the pluralistic environment that is India even the largest media conglomerate can actually drive public opinion.

Second, what is the efficacy of such regulation? Even in the highly regulated and media-rich United States the media business is oligopolistic. And yet, going back to the first question, it is doubtful if any of the six dominant houses is in a position to actually drive public opinion.

The real issue in cross-holding is not, to my mind, when a single company owns properties across print, TV, radio and the internet, but when a broadcasting network owns distribution channels. For a content owner to be in a position to control what gets to the viewer, and so be able to choke the pipeline for its competition, is a serious travesty of consumer rights. In India every major broadcasting network owns distribution platforms, the two biggest networks have collaborated in a joint venture to distribute content, and there is no law to protect the consumer. That is a serious issue for the regulatory authorities to address.*

The real, vexed question is of content regulation. Can we? Indeed, should we? Self-regulation or statutory? And, all the while, a government that has been trying for five years to regulate audience measurement wants you to believe that it is committed to self-regulation in content. It is the same government that in its previous term tried to create a broadcast regulator who would be not a constitutional authority but be hired and fired by the government. The proposed structure also required each broadcaster to have on its rolls a Content Auditor who would screen content and tell the Editor what to drop or modify and – incredibly – inform the broadcast regulator if the Editor didn’t comply.

The UK currently has no regulation of print media. The response of the press to the Leveson enquiry and the consequent government proposal is to resist any regulatory mechanism, which is to be expected. But it must be said, in fairness, that the News of the World scandal, though huge, was a ‘rarest of the rare’ case that was effectively exposed and dealt with swiftly, which is a great deal more than we can expect. Whether one NOTW should lead to from no regulation to statutory regulation is debatable.

In the US, too, there is no regulatory mechanism – self- or government. It depends entirely on good practice. The Editor is responsible, and owners typically take a back seat on editorial decisions. Would an editor carry content prejudicial to the owner’s interests? Probably not, but in a robust media environment you can’t stop the rest of the world from seeing you.

In India broadcasters, in particular, have made moves to self-regulation by setting up the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) and, for entertainment content, the Broadcast Content Complaints Council, both under the aegis of the broadcast industry bodies. A necessary limitation of such self-regulation is that it is limited to the members of these bodies. In the case of news that means 53 channels of 23 NBA member broadcasters. The other 150 known news broadcasters in the country are beyond the pale.

The effectiveness of self-regulation is often questioned because, even if you don’t doubt their intent, self-regulatory bodies do not have the statutory authority to penalise offenders. Members themselves often don’t accept the rulings of the regulators they have created. Indeed, the first time the NBSA indicted a broadcaster the peeved member quit the NBA in protest.

Dr David Levy of the Reuters Institute had an interesting take on the matter. Effectiveness of self-regulation, he said, is a function first of culture, far more than of legal guarantees. In other words, some of us are made that way, and some just aren’t. The implication that we are incapable of self-regulation may raise some hackles but let’s face it, that’s fundamentally true.

The very idea of statutory regulation, on the other hand, is anathema. Those of us of a certain age have actually lived through it in its extreme form, nearly 40 years ago, and can’t begin to contemplate what it might be like in this multimedia age.

So where does that leave us, between the devil and the deep sea?

Giving statutory penal authority to self-regulatory bodies has its own set of issues.The only viable answer seems to be co-regulation. I see a system in which a self-regulatory body such as the NBSA conveys a verdict and recommends a penalty to a statutorily authorised one, such as perhaps the TRAI. If the statutory body does not agree with the recommendation, it must respond to the recommending body through a laid-down process, and the two come to an agreement.

That media owners protest against any and all forms of regulation is not surprising: who wants to be regulated? Every time content is mentioned in the same breath as regulation, even a limit on advertising time, they get all excited about Article 19, freedom of speech, democracy, et al. While no one doubts the sanctity of our constitutional freedoms, there can be no such thing as unfettered freedom. The trouble is, the press think everyone should be accountable and subject to criticism and control – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary; indeed, both Church and State – except themselves.

There is no perfect solution. The best solution is one that protects consumer interest, and that necessarily means some measure of control while enabling and protecting media freedom.
* This piece was first published in on 10th February 2014., the day TRAI issued regulations for content aggregators. A welcome coincidence.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Crowdsourcing: no safety in numbers

‘Unilever to boost reliance on crowdsourcing with eYeka’ 
           – News item   

“[Lowe] have created a very strong creative vehicle that’s extremely well defined and portable. But their work has created a problem for them, because it makes Peperami the obvious candidate for crowdsourcing.” That’s how a Unilever London spokesperson explained it when, two years ago, the company fired the advertising agency on Peperami, in favour of crowdsourcing.   

Some compliment! Can you see the agency head calling in the Peperami team? “Folks, I’ve just returned from lunch with John Client. Peperami is tracking superbly on every parameter. You’ve created one of those rare great brand properties that will stay with the brand for many, many years. Unilever have paid you the ultimate compliment: we’re fired. From now the public will make the ads.   

“Jean, pop the bubbly. I’m proud of you guys. You are our A Team, and here’s an A Team challenge for you. I am assigning you to our biggest Unilever brand: get fired on it within the year. A special Christmas bonus if you make it. Cheers, and more power to your elbow.”   

If the idea itself is strange, the outcome was bizarre. Unilever received 1,185 entries and selected not one but two submissions (Both of which came from laid-off advertising professionals: a copywriter from London and a former creative director from Germany. So much for the crowd.), and announced that they would combine the two ideas to make the new campaign. “We’re certain the two ideas will be a successful campaign,” said the Peperami marketing manager. That, from the company which taught us that every advertisement must be based on a “Single Selling Idea” – the first of the ten Unilever Principles of Great Advertising.   Whether Unilever’s winning Advertiser of the Year at Cannes that year was because of Peperami or despite it we don’t know.   

Meanwhile, Kraft Foods in Australia crowdsourced the name for the new cheese variant of its iconic bread spread Vegemite, and chose – hold your breath – iSnack 2.0.   “The name Vegemite iSnack 2.0 was chosen based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking (I snack, get it?), and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite (2.0, wow!) to the original,” said a Kraft spokesperson. “We believe these three components completely encapsulate the new brand.” Consumers didn’t, apparently. Following a furore, Kraft rather tamely put out a list for people to choose from, and equally tamely changed the name to a blase Vegemite Cheesybite.   

Around the same time Frito-Lay in India sought ideas for new flavours of chips. To the credit of Frito-Lay it must be said that they weren’t chintzy – on the contrary, they generously spent more than they might have had they done conventional market research instead. For four shortlisted flavours they awarded a prize of Rs 5 lakh each – a total of Rs 20 lakh or over US$ 40,000, way more than Unilever London paid to get a new idea for Peperami. The prize for the ultimate winner was Rs 50 lakh (over US$ 100,000) and 1 percent of sales revenue.   

Frito-Lay were truly generous, but in any event, what they did was essentially to solicit consumer opinion on a new product, which might otherwise have been done by conventional market research. But meanwhile other marketers like GE, General Mills, Pepsi, Dell and Starbucks have been seeking everything from product and service ideas to, reportedly, inputs on agency selection and media placement.   Crowdsourcing shops have come up which will brief the crowd and filter the solutions, as Idea Bounty did for Peperami. 

That’s awfully interesting. Suppose one day Lowe had told Unilever London, “You’ll be delighted to know we’ve increased the creative strength on your business. We’ve fired your entire creative team. Now, instead of being limited to a handful of people under our roof, we’ll put our briefs on your brands out on the Internet and get ideas from hundreds, if not thousands.” Might they have saved the Peperami account? I don’t know about you, but I can’t see a delighted client congratulating the agency on its farsighted initiative.   

Now Unilever has taken a big step in the direction of crowdsourcing, saying, “A key role for us as marketers is to create magic and to excite people with innovative ideas.” I always thought a key role for marketers and related professionals was to actually develop the ideas that create the magic, but perhaps I’m wrong.   

Proponents of crowdsourcing cite the ‘wisdom of crowds’, propounded by Surowiecki in his book of the same name. “I don’t think people realize how powerful the crowd can be when engaged on working on a good idea,” says one. Perhaps, but this is not the crowd working on a good idea; it is a multitude of individuals independently developing ideas. They’re not building on each other’s thoughts; there’s no cross-fertilization of thinking.   

Diversity, independence and decentralization are three of the four “elements required to form a wise crowd” that Surowiecki lists: “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” But 1,185 responses to a brief from perhaps as many people working independently of each other do not constitute collective thinking, and are not the product of disagreement and contest.   

Surowiecki’s fourth element is aggregation: in this context, the marketing management of the company deciding – singly, collectively or sequentially – among the shortlisted submissions. So it is finally down to the quality of decision-making. If you decide on iSnack 2.0, it doesn’t matter whether the submissions come from the crowd through a crowdsourcing agency, or from known people through an advertising agency.   

That the advertising agency has designated, informed people and institutional memory is only one of its advantages over a crowd. The other is that if you make bad decisions you can always blame the agency and fire it. You can’t fire a crowd.   

First published in, 12th June 2013