In the second part of The Media Men, a series of articles celebrating the founding fathers of modern media, John Billett looks back at how he came to revolutionise media auditing.
The Long Beginning: #1 Eureka Day
There was a precise moment when I knew I had to chuck it all in and start something new. The memory of that day is indelibly ingrained. It was not a long time in the making. There had been no previous strategic plan. No financial motives were driving me on. Competitive pressures didn’t occur. Peer group pressure was irrelevant.
I felt that the changing culture of our industry meant that I was being pushed to break my own ‘Hippocratic oath’. My training had me focused on always acting in what was considered the best interests of our customers – the advertisers. Now it seemed as though I was being asked to put that policy to one side. Whilst of course we were in the business of making profits, it became clear to me that the culture was becoming focused on maximizing the profitability of the advertising agency. I believed that the most cost-effective and efficient allocation of the advertiser’s funds was becoming a secondary consideration to the profits. I wasn’t ready or prepared to do that.
The specific cause was the planning of a campaign for an advertiser with straightforward, not unique, needs. For sure, he needed help to enhance the brand’s image and create positive vibes and awareness. But, above all, this advertiser needed positive responses from potential customers. The business needed leads from predisposed, or at least interested, prospects; his commission-rewarded sales teams on the ground could follow up locally.
“My plan never saw the light of day. It was never allowed out. ‘Put the whole budget on the telly,’ was their decision”
So, in those analogue media days (no one today will be surprised) my proposed media plan, whilst embracing some image-making television, also included significant elements of coupon and telephone response advertisements in national and key regional newspapers, plus targeted direct mail.
I was confident that this scheme would be the most cost-effective and efficient allocation of the advertiser’s scarce funds for media advertising. The management felt differently and my plan never saw the light of day. It was never allowed out. “Put the whole budget on the telly,” was their decision.
This was never said out loud, but it was my view that the following internal full-service advertising agency machinations were taking place.
– Splitting the budget across several media would increase the agency’s operating costs, with the same commission income.
– Direct-response advertising would mean spending is in stages, and future activity based on performance would demand more time and increase staff costs.
– Several small individual ads would take longer to commit and increase invoicing queries.
– Get the money away in one lump early in the fiscal.
– We are solely in the image business.
– Advertising is about show business, not grubbing around with coupons.
I couldn’t live with that approach. There had to be a better way of working. It had to be possible to prepare and implement plans that were in the spending advertisers’ best interests and allowed us to make profits. We could build a bridge between advertising input and business performance output in which the customer paid for the service provided and not just an income based on commissionable expenditure.
It was my Saul-to-Paul conversion, my personal road-to-Damascus moment. I returned home that night and shared with Glynis that the time had come to chuck in my directorship of what was then the eighth-largest advertising agency in the UK, and start my own media agency.
#2 It just had to be done
That was the hardest decision out of the way. Others had already started independent media companies; I was not the first to take this decision. But I was, at that time, the media director of the highest-ranked top-ten full-service agency to break away. I was giving up substantial pension rights and a very healthy annual salary. My shares in the privately owned agency would have to be returned at not much more than par.
The subsequent decisions were substantial and significant. But once I had decided to go, everything else became easy and subsidiary.
I would need partners to make Billett & Company work. The first two I selected both said yes.
We would need substantial self-created funds, so we cashed in some small investments. Glynis readily agreed that we should take a second mortgage on the house and that somehow we could organise family life, and she would go back to work for more income. Having her encouragement and support was the “everything and more” that I needed.
We assembled some working capital, but needed help. My accountants were marvelous in helping to build a business plan. Armed with this, Lloyds Bank’s Law Courts branch manager, Dennis Hills, was a key supporter, providing meaningful overdraft facilities.
It was hell making a dignified exit whilst honouring my contract. But the publicity the decision had raised was positive and helpful.
We rented small offices close by Regent’s Park and were ready to trade. On 1 May 1981, Billett & Company opened for business.
#3 You know who your friends are
The old aphorism, “judge folk by what they do, not what they say”, was never truer than when starting a new business.
Several major UK advertisers with whom we had worked well together made most encouraging noises of support. “When you are up and running, our doors will be open to continuing the relationship,” was an oft-repeated response to our suggestions of working together. In the final analysis, however, not one of these avowed supporters accepted the invitation.
Our first tranche of advertisers, who kept us afloat and helped pay the rent and sustain moderate salaries to keep our homes going, were advertisers who had never heard of us previously, advertisers with whom we had never worked and some of whom we had never heard of. But all had one thing in common. They wanted great service and results, and were prepared to pay for them.
A notable exception to major advertisers’ reticence was Peter Davis, then marketing director of Sainsbury’s. His brief was for us to provide a truly independent perspective on his use of media. He wondered whether his advertising agency was in truth delivering the optimum media arrangements for Sainsbury’s or whether it was being compromised by considerations of agency profitability. Thus began a long and mutually beneficial 25-year-plus association with Sainsbury’s that got us working with many top marketers there. Robin Whitbread, Kevin McCarten, Alan Cheesman and Mike Samuel among others, and the Sainsbury family, were inspiring. We got to work with AMV, where we came to know and work with David Abbott, Peter Mead (who got me into being a Millwall Football Club supporter) and Adrian Vickers. What a great team they were.
OTV, a second-hand, repackaged rental TV set company in London’s Lea Bridge Road, was our first customer to pay in advance and on, 2 May, its promotional spots appeared on Capital Radio for the first time, booked by Billett & Company. No one who has never started a business can appreciate the thrill when, on your first day in business, one of your acts is to enter the bank and pay in your first cheque.
On our first trading day, the late Alwyn Robinson, managing director of the Daily Mail, gave me lunch at Elena’s L’Etoile and promptly engaged us on a confidential project to review his cover pricing, advertising rates and sales policy. Armed with a full stomach and a project fee of £7,500 (in 1981 money), we were on our way. Even when we presented the report, I never knew if his motive was to get our third-party analysis or just to help us, but I know he appreciated our work.
A memorable first day.
Several small groups of bright young creative operators were released from the shackles of creative agencies and saw us and other media independents as a way to market their creativity.
They brought us advertisers and business that needed media placement, and we got to work with many who grew to become international advertising greats. There were many most enjoyable and profitable relationships, among which were two most substantial connections. With Grierson, Craig & Druiff we got our first top-ten advertiser from Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), and with Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury we built loads of blue-chip credentials.
We decided that, right from the beginning, we would work only with businesses we could credit-insure and, if that was unavailable, prepayment was required. What gave us confidence to proceed with that restrictive but financially sound approach was the positive help from Trade Indemnity, who charged us a premium no higher than the prevailing full-service advertising agency rate.
We were ostracised by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). I had worked hard on that trade body’s behalf, representing them on several industry committees, and had been a leading light in their media research activities. I held their exam diploma, passed with distinction. But the IPA was then the trade body of the full-service advertising agency. Billett & Company just did media. On our first day in business, the IPA thought fit to write advising that I could no longer be a member and could not refer to my IPA qualifications.
I still have the letter. Whilst the impact of that moment has long passed, the memory still hurts. When you needed all the help you could get, whatever prompted that vindictive action I shall never know. Fortunately, wiser counsel eventually prevailed.
The support of media owners was magnificent. We had built strong personal and professional relationships over the years. But now, as a new stand-alone, new-format company, things might have been different. It didn’t come easily on every occasion. Many presentations and meetings were hastily fixed. We had to work hard to get there, and then to sustain credibility. But all offered us credit terms and agency commission. The support of industry legends like Tony Vickers, Dennis Ridley and Harry Turner, amongst many others, was humbling.
A long and tortuous route charted our access to industry media research as legitimate paying customers. One might have expected that the thought of additional income for the underfunded world of Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) and the National Readership Survey (NRS) would have acted as a spur to do business. But the vested interests of the then-Luddite trade bodies meant that we had to scrape around, beg and borrow, and act under moonlight to track performance. When, eventually, we were granted access, it was on punitive financial terms which served only to delay the inevitable trend toward greater accountability in media trading and the eventual outcome of the more ‘business-like’ approach to measuring and optimising the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of advertising.
Fortunately, the reaction of entrepreneurial privately operated research operations was in complete contrast, and they welcomed Billett & Company. Industry research greats were enthusiastic that we represented another avenue for them to market their wares. Bob Hulks at TGI (Target Group Index), and Stephan Buck and Michael Brown at AGB, were businesses with which we undertook good and sometimes innovative work.
(Our often-quoted ‘Advertising in a Recession’ presentation, based on evaluations of AGB Superpanel data tracked over many years, is a good example of creative entrepreneurial work.)
#4 Ideas into sustained income streams
From the outset, it was self-evident that, to succeed as a business, we needed to distinguish ourselves from the competition. For sure we had to buy media brilliantly and drive hard bargains with our media owner counterparts, but that was just the same as everyone in the market. Two further strands were available to us, based on the skill sets we had worked on throughout our first years in the media business: presentations to industry trade organisations such as the UK Media Circle, elected chairman of the pan-industry Media Research Group, and writing articles in the trade magazine ADMAP (advertising media analysis and planning) among many others. But turning these into income would be challenging.
First was the impact of that extra insight into consumer behaviour that one could only access by original and, ideally, proprietary research. Not the classic insight from what Tom Corlett called “soft data” – awareness, belief, intention etc. – but using “hard data” covering actual TV viewing, traffic flows past poster sites, buying stuff, repeat purchase patterns. Applying these understandings to planning would create cost benefits even before we started buying.
The second strand was to make better use of existing research by combining separate research studies in ways we could not generalise but which – on a client-by-client, tailor-made basis – would give us unique insights into how the advertising was actually working and not just the cost efficiencies we could achieve through buying.
“We saw a new advertising planning system for direct mail as a distinct possibility, using some of the research thinking described earlier”
Our breakthrough in applying these notions and turning this into ongoing sustainable revenue came from a seemingly unusual source, Royal Mail. Our early tipping-point ‘Eureka’ moment, when our campaign plans featuring direct mail were rejected for reasons of agency profitability, turned out to be a very profitable decision for Billett & Company.
We had already had some ideas as to how this might work. We saw a new advertising planning system for direct mail as a distinct possibility, using some of the research thinking described earlier. We took these observations to Royal Mail, which responded enthusiastically – it saw them as a way to market. It would increase attention on the positive aspects of direct mail and open up new revenue streams.
And so it proved.
The essence of what became the Royal Mail’s ‘Consumer Location System’ was our linking together of four individual data sets. We brought together (a) Richard Webber’s revolutionary ‘Residential Neighbourhood Classification’, subsequently brilliantly recoded as ACORN, with (b) product purchase and broad media-exposure data from the Target Group Index (TGI) and (c) Royal Mail’s postcode files of every residential address, added to (d) names from the electoral register.
ACORN provided social-data clusters which, with data fusion, we could match with behavioural data and media exposure. We then took these models and applied them as behavioural probabilities to names and addresses.
This became the first of many endeavours to bridge the planning gap between mass marketing – based on matching social class and demographics from massive data sets in which customers were treated as large homogeneous lumps – and developing specific target marketing based on individual-by-individual behaviours.
Armed with this new planning system, Royal Mail launched the Direct Mail Sales Bureau under the direction of Michael Manton and Michael Schlagman. Together Royal Mail, the DMSB and Billett & Company, made money for research companies; opened up new revenue streams for Royal Mail; and created inspiring work for ourselves (and awards from the direct marketing industry) that turned ideas into sustainable income and served to distinguish us from competitors.
#5 Challenging the industry media research status quo
The absence of legitimate customer access to the bread-and-butter industry media audience research was a considerable obstacle to our achieving status and respectability as a professional media company. We were not alone.
All independent media companies were in the same position. It was not as though we were a bunch of media hooligans bent on damaging the business. We were specialists in the field, building business operated by established top proven operators.
Two strategies to address this situation were developed to challenge the status quo of the full-service agencies who dominated the BARB and NRS industry bodies and were determined to deny us access.
First, the independent new media companies had to act together to exert pressure for change. Individually we were small companies, but together we represented a meaningful and expanding proportion of media owners’ advertising revenue. We had to act as the newly formed Association of Media Independents (AMI).
Second, the long-standing industry media research model (i.e. individual and separate research for each medium, principally funded by the media owners) had to be challenged. The accelerating fragmentation of media audiences across a wider range of options, combined with advertisers’ enhanced needs for faster action and insights into advertising effectiveness, demanded a more integrated approach. This became known as a move away from “media research” toward more “people research”.
“No longer could we assume that folk behaved like lemmings in identi-blocks. It was nonsense to accept that all ABC1s acted identically and that all 16- to 24-year-olds could be considered in the same way”
Our collective negotiation approach was a success. In the end, the pressure from media owners to allow us legitimate access, coupled with endorsement from advertisers using our services, prevailed. We reluctantly accepted the decision that we should pay a higher rate than full-service agencies to cover their administration and committee involvement. Fortunately, this did not last long when we offered to do the admin for them and participate in management committees.
Having achieved that key operational objective, and now paying for industry research, as AMI we were able to take a leadership role, turning our attention to putting forward ideas and strategies to change the operation of industry research. At least we now had a listening audience of advertisers and media owners. Change there had to be, and change was in the air.
Industry media research was organized in silos. Each medium focused on itself and financed its own research. Indeed, the basic model was that media owners paid and ad agencies used. (For many years, The Media Research Group only allowed membership from ad agencies, so they could take an impartial view on the research from media owners.)
The first time it was suggested that the National Readership Survey should include broad questions on TV viewing so as to provide some multimedia planning data, the newspapers regarded such suggestions as insurrection from religious heretics.
The explosion in media opportunities had begun. Many more TV channels were erupting, there were many more printed opportunities, and commercial radio was a reality. Change in consumer behaviour was rampant. No longer could we assume that folk behaved like lemmings in identi-blocks. It was nonsense to accept that all ABC1s acted identically and that all 16- to 24-year-olds could be considered in the same way.
We needed to determine the varying roles of media in the audiences’ lives. We needed to focus on people and their interrelated media exposure, and no longer on media reaching blocks of consumers. Backed by several leading industry media thinkers, we assembled our ideas with the particular help of Unilever’s Don Wightman. We had a serious business proposition to present and a fully costed programme for change, all within existing budgets.
Our plans envisaged placing separate readership surveys in the homes of BARB metre panelists and expanding the TV research by a focus on set meters into a much larger panel, thereby obtaining actionable data across media.
We took these proposals, called “AMI people research”, to all the media-owner trade bodies. No prizes for guessing the outcome. It was wasted short-term effort. The vested interests prevailed.
But two longer-term benefits emerged. First, we had established our independent media research credentials. We were no longer in second place to advertising agencies. And second, we had established the principle that “people research” was the way forward. It took a couple of decades to achieve that objective.
The IPA (now welcoming media independents as active members), supported by significant media-owner contributions, created Touchpoints. This is the first ongoing people research project in the world to collect media behavioural data from the same respondents covering their holistic media exposure over time.
#6 Revolutions in media auditing
Time moves on. I had enjoyed considerable success as an independent media planning and buying company. Billett & Company had been sold to Chris Ingram. We had launched the expanded CIA Group successfully on the London Stock Exchange, with me as CEO of CIA Billett, a substantial UK media-buying organisation. We had seen the increasing pressure on margins and needed diversity programmed into new revenue streams. The Billett Consultancy was launched to offer a range of added-value services across the board, with good initial success.
But a second Eureka Day was to come. Weetabix, supported by its media buyer AMV, was adamant that Billett’s auditing systems were invalid because of our ownership by CIA Group. AMV saw us as an insurgent fifth column, undermining its probity to weasel out the Weetabix buying for the CIA Group. This was not the case, but perception is commercial reality. To be rejected because of inability is one thing. But to be rejected despite acceptance of your ability just because of a holding company’s ownership structure was another.
The time had come to set out and start again. We bought our name back and launched the newly independent Billett Consultancy, quickly named by everyone as “Billetts”. We offered a series of analytical services, all focused around the single-minded objective of “enhancing advertising effectiveness”.
“The basic fundamentals of a data pool of unknown size and scale and unrepresentative components meant that the analysis was rarely worth the cost”
Our core offering was a wholly different media-auditing service, independent from all media-buying offerings. The market really needed a top-quality professional auditing service. Marketers demanded independent verification. But we tracked dissatisfaction with existing offerings.
Indeed, our own experience as media buyers with companies such as Media Audits was unsatisfactory. We had a good understanding of the marketplace but, too often, our good performance was measured as “unsatisfactory” and, even worse, our occasional poorer performance was measured as “acceptable”. The basic fundamentals of a data pool of unknown size and scale and unrepresentative components meant that the analysis was rarely worth the cost. There was no worth in an average in the absence of any indication of spread.
The increased interest in performance-related pay for media-buying companies was accelerating demand for media auditing. But when your income is determined by auditing normative data, those norms must be robust.
We set out to change the auditing business. The active involvement and partnership of Andy Pearch was invaluable. He was a colleague within CIA who I persuaded to join this new venture. (He founded and runs MediaSense.) We built mathematical models of media-traded markets (concentrating initially on TV), using published data as well as proprietary research. We adjusted the focus from that of only relative pricing (i.e. your performance versus some norm) to adding absolute pricing (where the prices paid were evaluated alongside other costs of doing business). We were able to track performance by market sector and created a parallel model of the TV contractor trading desks. Another former CIA colleague, Mike Tunnicliffe (now a US resident), helped us develop a subsequent national newspaper auditing system.
A development that seemed like just a good idea at the time, but turned out to be a sustaining long-term, added-value service, was The RACK. We created a model that related prices paid for media to the quality of the buys, for example reach, targeting, ad positioning, centre breaks. We established and quantified the relationships between cost and quality. The simple scale that encouraged buyers to stretch their skills and highlighted those who delivered the best quality for the lowest price was immediately named by a top buyer (Chris Boothby of Aegis) as The RACK. Chris imagined himself arrayed on the “Billetts torture chamber” to get more stretch year after year. At a time of continuous change, The RACK remains an ongoing international feature of the media planning, buying and evaluation scenes.
We invested considerably to create unique insights that would benefit our clients. We were good supporters of the research companies. Billetts’ original research programme helped to lock in our advertisers’ customers. We had the best repeat-purchase quotient I have ever enjoyed.
Among our research initiatives, we were to discover:
– The value of centre breaks within programmes versus end brakes between programmes
– The value of different positions in breaks
– The worth of different spot lengths versus prices charged
– The added value or otherwise of colour versus mono press advertising
– The worth of different ad positions in magazines
– Large press ads versus several smaller ads for the same cost.
It was a major challenge to take on the existing well-established operations, especially when the then brand leader, Media Audits, joined forces with Accenture.
Our solution to accelerating progress was to expand the concept of the audit and broaden the offering into true marketing effectiveness. This we did with the launch and development of Billetts Marketing Sciences. We recruited statisticians, mathematicians and management consultants to build a division that would establish on a client and project basis the relationships between marketing inputs (such as price, promotions, branding, advertising weight and content) and business outcomes (such as sales, volume, repeat purchase and income).
To say this was a real business and marketing challenge would be an understatement. We made progress for individual clients and, over time, built some collective insights across the emerging wider client base, amongst which we understood:
– Running price promotions sequentially or in parallel with image advertising
– How to get trial versus repeat purchase
– Wasting money with excess advertising bursts.
Our reinvention of the media-auditing business with the second business we built was something of which we feel proud. The number of favourable comments we still get for the Billetts brand is staggering.
#7 Advertising on the BBC
A recurring feature of the UK advertising media scene is the ongoing debate about the wisdom and benefits of introducing paid-for advertising as a way of financing the BBC, in whole or in part.
At a time when TV advertising pricing was accelerating far faster than other media costs, and way ahead of improvements in advertiser profits, ISBA (the trade organisation for advertisers) was vocal in putting forward the case. Increased access to commercial audiences would, it believed, slow the increase in prices, which would allow them to increase spending on the medium and improve profits.
The then director of ISBA, John Hooper, and the then head of its TV Group, Bernard Balderston of Procter & Gamble, commissioned us to undertake a third-party assessment of the circumstances and make recommendations in the best interests of advertisers. They were to be very disappointed with our conclusions.
We drenched ourselves in as much generally available UK material as possible. The IBA library contained a gold mine. Previous studies and commissions had already reviewed and reached conclusions. Learned economic authorities had presented rigorous analyses. We decided to update this work with more recent data and developed our own econometric model for ISBA.
“It would come as no surprise if the subject re-emerges for serious consideration as part of the forthcoming BBC charter review. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
In short, we concluded – controversially for some – that advertising on the BBC would be contrary to advertisers’ best interests.
To some rather bizarrely, but to others perfectly sound, our conclusion was that the key determinant of advertising pricing was the actions of advertisers themselves. The laws of supply and demand did not apply to advertising spending and audience delivery. Changes in audience size and profile have a limited effect. TV advertising expenditure was a function of competitive pressures and company profits, modified by a quotient of forward-looking economic optimism or pessimism.
The UK TV media scene enjoyed buoyant revenues because of the variety of funding: license fee, plus advertising revenue, plus subscriptions, plus pay TV. Advertising expenditure was a large, variable amount. The financial requirements of the BBC were extensive. There was no way that advertising revenue would meet the gap, even if greater access to BBC viewers would be attractive to many. The total pot of money for programme-making would shrink, leading to reduced choices for viewers.
We were subsequently invited to develop our work in this area for ITV, and Ofcom commissioned us, along with Paddy Barwise of the London Business School, to develop ad revenue-forecasting models. In every situation we could then consider, the introduction of advertising to the BBC, whether in part or whole as a substitute for the license fee, would not help reduce the price of TV advertising.
It would come as no surprise if the subject re-emerges for serious consideration as part of the forthcoming BBC charter review. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
#8 Moving on
The Billetts business expanded internationally and in 2006–2008 we “put the pension in the bank” and moved on. Billetts had become market leader in size, performance and profitability.
The major thing we learned was the necessity for continuous improvement – which applied to us as a media evaluation company as much as to our clients’ activity and the media-buying conducted on their behalf.
The maxim we used in response when asked what we did after New Year’s Day celebrations, was that, from 2 January, we concentrated not only on delivering this year’s service, but also on creating next year’s services.
 We were to repeat that precise experience over 30 years later when, in 2004, Billetts – the media evaluation business – opened in the US. The established American advertisers – with many of whom we had worked extensively in the UK and across Europe – promised much, but in the end prevaricated and delayed. Our subsequent success in the US (where the business continues, now under the Ebiquity brand), owed much to the ‘immigrant’ companies from the Far East, looking to expand competitively in the US, plus the indigenous, often privately owned, #3 and smaller brands looking for real competitive advantage.
 It was this struggle that fuelled the subsequent approach and pressure from we media independents collectively – as the AMI – to reframe the focus and approach of the then world of the badly named “media research”, a topic on which we elaborate later.
 Over the years, we were fortunate to get to know and work alongside many of the advertising world’s original and great thinkers and operators. To highlight these few seems selective, but our “success” owes much to Paddy Barwise, Dr. Simon Broadbent, Michael Brown, Bert de Vos, Prof. Andrew Ehrenberg, Erwin Ephron, Prof. John Philip Jones, Sue Stoessl, Tony Twyman, Richard Webber and Don Wightman.
 No joint industry research featured here. At that time, we were still persona non grata operators.
 We had no idea at that time how this research-linking approach would develop. With the evolution of digital communications and technology permitting easy handling of massive data sets, this individual one-to-one marketing has become commonplace and now dominates the planning and execution of cost-effective communications.
 We took as our template for collective action the endeavours of Richard Attenborough and John Whitney. In the post-pirate radio era, many individuals lobbied Parliament to allow legitimate onshore radio stations to challenge the BBC and operate a wider range of local radio services. Acting individually, their voices fell on deaf ears. Attenborough and Whitney formed the Local Radio Association (LRA) and overnight were seen as “an Authority” (rather than a Rag, Tag and Bobtail collection) to which Parliament had to listen. The rest is history.
 The case histories using Touchpoints are now many and varied, and point to the worth of people research. It is sad it took us so long.
 A media audit showing an average price of, say, £50 is by itself meaningless. If that average covers a spread of observations spanning 48 to 52, the average of 50 has some value as an indicator. But if the spread covers performances ranging from 25 to 75, the average of 50 is useless as a measure of anything.
 The experience of undertaking comprehensive reviews for ISBA, ITV and Ofcom brought us head-on to a philosophical conclusion. For those operators/organisations with deeply felt emotional reasons for holding a point of view, no amount of independent in-depth logical analysis and comprehensive academic assessments from a wide range of perspectives reaching a different conclusion will serve to elicit acceptance that they might just be wrong.