Robert Heeg

Ruud Wanck of GroupM on digital media and research

As the media sector continues its surge online, we talk to Ruud Wanck about what it all means for market research. The chief digital officer EMEA at GroupM, the leading media investment management operation, promises a bright future for those who can make sense of the growing mountain of data.

Ruud Wanck and GroupM operate in an increasingly fragmented media environment. Although this fact hasn’t changed the basic principle of advertising – reaching one’s target audience in the most effective way possible – it’s become even more important to understand the consumer, he explains. “The most important role for market research is to help understand and describe the groups a marketer wants to reach. That’s where the role of market research will only grow in the future.”

We meet in the London headquarters of Mediacom, one of GroupM’s media agencies, and an integral part of the Martin Sorrell-led WPP conglomerate. GroupM services the world’s leading brands, and Wanck feels that they have mostly made the online transition quite successfully (although he admits there is still much to learn for all involved). “This is still an incredibly young medium; the first banner was displayed online in 1994, and major players like Facebook didn’t even exist ten years ago. For us, too, analogue media were easier to analyse and implement than digital. Today, there are so many more opportunities for our advertisers. But simultaneously, the complexities have grown exponentially.”

The most radical transition of content and services we’ve seen in recent media history obviously presents many challenges. Wanck doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the biggest current challenge. “For our sector, it is the privacy debate, most notably legislation about the use of data, and especially the classification of data.” Last year he tweeted that not all data is as privacy-sensitive as we are led to believe, and that we should differentiate between anonymous data and more specific personal data. He explains that “initial political interest in privacy created a very black-and-white, almost populist discussion. The only distinction made was the one between generic data, like how many people visit a website, and personal identifiable information.”

In between the two, he argues, is a third category that is used predominantly by marketers and media companies. “This is data that determines how people search for information on the web collectively.” As a company, GroupM says it is not interested in personal data. Media companies, after all, are built on their ability to reach large groups of people who have a similar profile in a short space of time. Wanck calls it ‘pseudonymous’ data, because it is personal but contains a large element of anonymity. “Of course you could argue that, if I were to really look for someone with certain identifiable qualities and connect all types of data, I could possibly trace the data back to a certain individual. But why would we? It is not the business we’re in. The essence of advertising is that it’s more efficient to reach a large target group through marketing and communication in one go. That is more cost-efficient than to have a call-centre approach individuals.”

Stricter regulation
In his talks with politicians and interest groups, Wanck says that initially the discussion revolved around the proposition “It’s either personal or not.” But in fact, he says, “On the web, the vast majority of business models are based on pseudonymous data; we don’t need to know who is who. And we don’t even want to, because it’s incredibly expensive to save all that data.”

Media investors and marketers work hard to safeguard their self-regulation models, he says. There are various international self-regulation initiatives, such as Your Online Choices, a European guide to online behavioural advertising and online privacy that allows consumers to indicate whether they want to see ads based on their anonymous data. “But I think that we could do better in supplying information as a sector,” Wanck admits. “At the same time, we would wholeheartedly support stricter regulation on privacy-sensitive data. Currently, legislation makes no distinction between someone who is being targeted on the basis of his personal data and someone who gets shown an ad based on an anonymous profile.”

In this age of big data, Wanck regards extracting usable information from the available mountain of data as one of the biggest challenges. “We have to get better at this. Data in itself is of no value to us. Martin Sorrell captured it well when he said that we’re evolving from the age of the mad men to the age of the math men. You see that in the profiles of people working for us. Previously they would be marketing communication specialists; now we increasingly hire people who studied maths and econometrics, and who can develop and build algorithms and data models. This mix will become ever more important.”

In 2009, Wanck was involved in the founding of Xaxis (from ‘x-axis’), a technology platform that supplies ads based on anonymous data in a much more targeted way. Xaxis was developed on a proprietary data management platform which offers advertisers the ability to reach specific target groups more efficiently.

Wanck is interested in both relatively new ways of measuring and observing new media consumers, like social media monitors, and more traditional forms of research. “The combination of the two offers tremendous opportunities. Social media monitoring is now one of the most important fields for us, enabling us to watch almost in real-time what the trends are in social media and how people talk about brands. Coupled with more static research like interviews, it creates an incredibly powerful measuring tool. The traditional forms of market research can still play a very important role in how a brand wants to position itself and what its starting point is. Online monitoring can then see if this is actually taking place.

“In physics, it is widely recognised that the initial state is just as important as the ensuing consequences. I feel that market research is ideal to determine the initial state of things and that the real-time environment of the internet can show what happens next. Not only does it give us the quantitative results of a campaign’s success – by showing sales figures or purchasing intention – but it also shows how people respond and talk about it during the campaign.”

One dashboard
Technological advancements in research have affected media accountability in the online era, Wanck observes. “The old adage that ‘half of every dollar spent on advertising is wasted, but we just don’t know which half’ is now dated. Online, everything has become totally measurable.” This in turn leads to advertisers demanding ever more value for their ad spend.

Looking at what research suppliers should improve in order to service his business better, Wanck would like to bring all the different components of individual tools onto one dashboard. “That is where the biggest need is. For media agencies and advertisers, there is so much information available in so many different places. To bring all of those together into a kind of overall analysis – whether through algorithms or simply by presentation – that’s where the brightest future lies for market research. Whoever manages to pull that off will be very successful.”

Ruud Wanck is a veteran of the online media industry. He has a degree in applied physics, and he is still obsessed with anything to do with physics and the Universe. But after turning to business economics, he landed in marketing and founded his own internet company in 1994 – which makes him one of the web’s earliest adopters. In 1999, he co-wrote the digital handbook Internet Advertising & Marketing, which became a Dutch bestseller. Publishers have approached him for a sequel, but he can’t find the time in his current position as chief digital officer EMEA at GroupM and member of the global board of Xaxis.