End of era as TNS loses BARB ratings contract

AGB Italia’s success in winning the ratings management business from TNS marks the culmination of a convoluted tale. Torin Douglas unravels the yarn

If an ad agency lost the biggest account in Britain – an account it had held for over 30 years – you would expect it to be a big story.

Yet when Taylor Nelson Sofres lost the BARB contract last week, it aroused barely a flicker in the trades and not a line in the nationals. “BARB hands TV deals to three” ran one exciting headline. “BARB unveils new contract winners” yawned another.

Philip Kleinman, late of this organ, who now runs the Market Research News website (www.mrnews.com) can at least still spot a story. “BARB sensation: Colussi beats TNS” ran his front-page headline. “Taylor Nelson Sofres is to lose its UK TV audience measurement contract. In a sensational decision, BARB has awarded the lion’s share of its business to Dr Albert Colussi’s AGB Group.”

The decision is laden with irony. Almost two years ago, in a column previewing the race for the £10m contract, I wrote:

Q. How do you stop AGB winning another BARB contract?

A. Change its name to Taylor Nelson Sofres.

How wrong could I have been? Despite changing its name from AGB, TNS has now lost the industry ratings contract it has held since 1968 – to another company called AGB. It truly is the end of an era and, for those with shorter memories, some explanation is required.

AGB/TNS has been at the centre of British television longer than News at Ten or Thames Television. From its Hanger Lane base, it has until now withstood every challenge to its role as TV’s scorer, and has used its domestic strength to take on the world. It pioneered the switch from diaries to people-meters, built partnerships worldwide, and even challenged the mighty AC Nielsen in its home US market.

Its dominant position started to worry the UK television industry. The longer AGB held the contract, the harder it was for others to challenge it – for any change was bound to lead to a hiccup (or worse) in the ratings, on which advertisers, agencies and TV companies depend.

The last time round, BARB decided to split the contract, but it retained AGB for the lion’s share – the meter-measurement and the data-processing, though AGB had by now experienced financial difficulties. Taking on the Americans on their own turf had been as bold a move as those of Saatchi & Saatchi and WPP into Madison Avenue. But AGB’s US adventure had turned out to be a bridge too far.

The company fell into the hands of Robert Maxwell, and was broken up after his empire collapsed. The main UK group was bought by another British research company, Taylor Nelson, and the AGB suffix was dropped after a tie-up with the French Sofres group.

But AGB’s name lived on in Italy, where local partner Albert Colussi bought the business. And it is this AGB – the holding company for AGB Italia – that triumphed last week, winning TNS’s majority slice of the new four-part BARB contract.

Meanwhile, RSMB held on to its share, for sample design, methodology and quality control, and Ipsos-RSL will continue to run the establishment surveys and recruit panel homes.

BARB chief executive Caroline McDevitt says the decision was a tough call, but that the choice was unanimous. All the shortlisted companies had passed the high quality threshold and been subjected to stringent technical evaluation, reflecting the ever-growing complexity of the digital future.

An important factor was AGB’s meter, the TVM4, which uses a combination of methods to measure the various viewing possibilities. These include “audio-signature matching”, which samples the sound of each channel at intervals as well as recording channel numbers, Teletext “strings” and other data. Importantly, its software can be updated without requiring a home visit, saving on costs. The TVM4 has just helped AGB win the Australian ratings contract, in competition with TNS and Nielsen.

TNS managing director of UK television research Brian Roberts describes the decision as “highly disappointing”. He is confident that TNS’s new meter, the 5000, could also have done the job effectively. Last week it helped TNS win the Singapore ratings contract, in competition with AGB.

An entirely new BARB panel will now be recruited, leading to inevitable changes in ratings levels. This would be the case whichever company had won, but AGB must set up a new company in the UK to handle the business.

McDevitt is confident it will do well, and that its Australian contract won’t lead to it spreading its resources too thinly. “It’s a managed risk,” she says. There’ll be a six month trial period before AGB takes over in January 2002, and she points out that AGB has a significant UK shareholder in WPP, which also owns part of RSMB.

And what of TNS? Six years ago, the BARB contract accounted for a quarter of its business. Now, says Roberts, it represents just over one per cent of its turnover, and its departure won’t kill its TV meter business, even in the UK. In conjunction with ITV it is already expanding its tvSpan service, linking TV viewing to product consumption, into 3,000 homes.

Even so, the decision means the old AGB really will soon be dead. Long live AGB.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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