Bill MurrayBill Murray Chair, Commercial Board, UKOM

In the years between the boom-bust of the dotcom era and the financial meltdown of almost a decade later, the digital ad sector grew almost exponentially. But despite (or perhaps because of) this, it went through several stages of denial where the thorny problem of audience research was concerned. Matters finally came to a head in the autumn of 2008.

Initiatives to pull the industry together – and move the debate towards a conclusion – were led by IAB boss Danny Meadows-Klue, his successor Guy Phillipson and AOP boss, Bill Murray. Here, Bill recalls the events leading to a landmark Town Hall meeting – which led to the creation of UKOM

FOR MUCH OF THE NOUGHTIES, internet stuff was just exciting for everyone – not least because it was the “ultimately measurable” medium. Or at least so it seemed – everyone had tons of weblog data to share with advertisers and marketers. Transparency was the name of the game. 

There were a number of measurement companies, each of which had their own take on how to measure audience and activity – traditional players like Nielsen/MMS plus new entrants like Hitwise and comScore – and the data they produced was layered on top of (100% accurate, honest guv) figures produced by media owners.

Progressively, though, it started to dawn on everyone that there was actually no greater transparency or accuracy of measurement here at all. The myriad sources and methodologies and terminology had simply created an opaque (at best) and chaotic (at worst) landscape where no one knew the truth.

As the decade progressed, there had been lots of discussion about this, informally at first then under the auspices of the Joint Industry Committee for Internet Measurement Systems (JICIMS). By 2005, almost everyone agreed that an industry solution was required.

But what sort of solution? In other sectors, the proposition is relatively straightforward – you just give the problem to a research company, pay them some money, and they do the rest.

Digital is different. Here, the debate included what to measure, how to define what you wanted to measure, how on earth you measured it, how that might be audited, whether that would be relevant in six months, how much it might it cost to stay abreast of developments in a rapidly evolving market – and how best to underwrite those costs.

JICIMS had already produced outline proposals for something that looked a little like a conventional JIC. It would require the ground-up construction of a massive new research enterprise. And it would be very expensive not just to set up but to maintain and develop. This notion didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

But surely there was another way – IAB boss Guy Phillipson and Louise Ainsworth, the then CEO of Nielsen, had been exploring possibilities and shared a different approach with me.

Might it not be possible to explore a partnership route where governance, technical specification and oversight came from a joint industry body but the commercial risk and management came from the provider? We reckoned it might.

One way or another, everyone in the business knew that important decisions needed to be made… but there was also a general sense of paralysis – and that only got worse with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the ensuing financial market uncertainty. Suddenly, no-one seemed in the mood to make big picture decisions about the future.

We (Guy and myself) knew we had to do something to break the paralysis. So we called a summit meeting.

It took place on 15 October 2008 at the IAB. In attendance were 84 senior executives from media owners, advertisers and agencies. This was the now-famous Town Hall event.

There were some frank exchanges of views. I particularly remember robust language from some of the commercial and digital directors of the various newspaper groups. Senior executives from Procter and Gamble, Unilever and Honda all spoke too.

Then we had our first vote. Were we set on producing an industry-regulated source of audience measurement research? 100% yes.

Then we outlined the three options – continue as we had been doing with multiple solutions, go the traditional JIC route or go the “3rd way.”

Again the outcome of the vote was almost unanimous. The industry wanted the 3rd way.

We now had a mandate.

It would be glib to suggest that it was plain sailing from then on [see timeline for UKOM’s subsequent evolution]. But we’d made a little bit of history. 

UKOM came into being early in 2009 and began releasing data a year later.

It’s one of the things in my professional career of which I am most proud. I think Guy would probably say something very similar.