Sometimes when trying to make sense out of something that is complex, one can find some wisdom in the annals of classic rock. So it is when trying to understand some of the issues surrounding the slowness with which a common vocabulary and set of standards around measurement and reporting of advertising on digital signage screens. I was asked at DSE 2011 what the biggest challenge facing the industry was, and my somewhat pat answer was that we need to make agencies and brands comfortable enough to spend part of their campaign budgets on digital signage screens. Part of making them comfortable, I reasoned, is establishing standards that they can buy into. But is it as easy as that? I’ve learned and observed quite a bit since February, and there is more to it than it seems. Looking at it from three perspectives and revisiting some rock ‘n roll lyrics may help.

Since the topic is measurement and reporting that relates to advertising, it is no surprise that the world of digital signage orbits around the sun of the agencies. The agencies control the purse strings and the campaign strategies for their clients, the brands, and as such are the focal point of various organizations trying to develop standards in these areas. They are on the Board at DSF, in the DNA at OVAB Europe, and very much active players at DPAA’s critical Media Operations Committee. One of the challenges that can’t seem to go away is the desire of some folks in the agency world to view digital signage in the same way that they view broadcast television. That means having reliable, third party measurement of audience and viewership related directly to ad rates. Never mind time shifting, ad skipping, potty breaks and laptop screens competing with the message on the television. The operative Latin phrase is In Ratings Speramus. The unwavering desire of some to make a narrowcast, targeted, location-relevant technology conform to traditional broadcast measures makes little sense, and ignores the very compelling factors that make a well-planned and executed DOOH campaign a terrific vehicle and a great value, not the least of which is that its effectiveness is not in doubt. Audience metrics are not a simple or inexpensive proposition, but proof of play and compliance ought to be. While there are some enlightened agency folks who do their homework on venues and ask primarily for a promise of delivery along with proof of same (and make-goods as required), the majority are hung up on audience related metrics over delivery, and can’t seem to find the comfort to make commitments. Without doubt, reliable delivery augmented by verifiable audience metrics will demand higher CPM rates than reliable delivery alone, but it should not change the inclination to make the buy itself. We are dealing with rates and value here, and not arguing over effectiveness. Markets have a way of calibrating value, and it will here as well. Yes, it would be nice if we could make DOOH look like good old broadcast TV to agencies, but Mick Jagger said it best:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find.
You get what you need.

Sing it, Mick.

The second constituency in the search for common ground are the network operators. The conundrum here is that they reflect the fragmentation of the technology base in our industry. Many of the largest network players on the DPAA Media Operations Committee, for example, run on their own legacy, home-grown platforms. They apparently work just fine for them, but from a business perspective, their core competencies are more likely skewed toward site acquisition, content development and management, and ad sales. It may be more convenient for some to rely on audience metrics to drive sales than on proof of performance or campaign compliance. Their motivation to drive toward technical standards that may require them to reassess or reinvest in their technology capabilities has to factor in to how quickly they want standards to appear. To be fair, they are moving ahead, albeit slowly. We need to pick up the pace. From a rock ‘n roll perspective, I would go with the wisdom of Led Zeppelin:

Hear my song. People won’t you listen now? Sing along.
You don’t know what you’re missing now.
Any little song that you know
Everything that’s small has to grow.
And it has to grow!

The Song Remains The Same

And finally there is the third perspective, that of the technology providers. Industry observers love to cite the hundreds of digital signage platform providers that make up the fragmented marketplace, offering a dizzying array of approaches, business models, prices and capabilities. The race to differentiate often degenerates into a battle of hyped feature bloat and intentionally misleading customer announcements. Neither practice advances the industry or the common interests of the vendors. Competition is great: it drives innovation. I’m all for it. But in this case, the technology sector of the industry needs to lead and bring the networks and agencies along the path to standards that legitimize our industry. Frankly, it is the software providers who pay the heaviest price for a lack of technical standards, as they must meet the divergent needs of customers, their content providers and agencies. Getting standards in place can redirect technical resources toward true innovation. So it is in their best interests to lead. Advice from the rock ‘n roll world comes from The Who:

You don’t have to play,
You can follow or lead the way,
I want you to join together with the band,
We don’t know where we’re going,
But the season’s right for knowing,
I want you to join together with the band.

Join together

The path to the next level for digital signage is littered with divergent perspectives, conflicting priorities, and competitive pressures. That is nothing new. But the path is going to get cleared, because it has to. Traffic is backing up behind us. All those British bands knew what they were saying.