April 13, 2010

Should You Get An MRI Before Using MRI?


Surely you know the Film, "American Beauty". One of the key lines voiced by Lester Burnham - our favorite trade magazine reporter - played by Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, reflects that "My life is like a commercial." Who can't relate to his experience at least once or twice in your Madison Avenue career?

However, the line that kills us and depicts Madison Avenue even more is voiced by Ricky, the kid next door, "Never underestimate the power of denial."

Besides possessing great lines, the film does an excellent job at communicating how preconceived notions about people and things can lead to risky business. We see this very much like the state of behavioral marketing in the 2000-o’s. In our opinion agencies or clients, or media companies who continue for one reason or another to use yesterday's data base methodologies - giving it the confidence to make brand media recommendations - should have their heads examined.

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As most of us know, the film's salty satire of American life underscores that underneath the imagery of a beautiful multi-cultural and diverse neighborhood lays nerve-racking trouble that shatters and destroys each of the lives in the story. Each person’s perceived notions about each other - and the denial which makes them unable to fray from their opinion - leads to devastating consequences.

This provides great metaphor for those and agencies and brand groups who deny the validity of new age behavioral marketing tools. By doing so they also risk creating sales trends that lead to the same outcome of our ill-fated hero.

This takes nothing away from the new targeting technologies that have evolved within the last few years such as Revenue Science, Tacoda, Claria and WhenU, all of whom are moving in the right direction. Some people see these properties as being radioactive, some the Holy Grail.

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Reliance on yesterday's tools was acceptable yesterday. Yet many media plans today at the most “data-savvy” shops continually rely on 20th century databases that boggle the mind today, as raionale for allocations of multi-million $$ budgets.

MRI is a database that has been widely used for virtually all media, for many years, by almost all agencies. For years, it was perceived by many marketers as a credible source for rationalizing media usage and brand marketing directions.

Objectively, the survey is clearly comprehensive as it relates to how it projects national media and product usage. Though the problem - is not how they project - but the sophistication of what they project.

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MRI conducts 2 waves of field study each year, each over the course of 6 months. MRI then compiles feedback consisting of around 26,000 interviews or thereabouts. Sounds good so far.

Two different methods are used to question each person interviewed:

1. Initially, a face-to-face interview is conducted so that various basic info can be collected such as demographics and general media usage of specific TV, radio, OOH and print per interviewee.

2. Then, the fieldworker leaves a questionnaire behind to be completed, at the discretion of the person interviewed; an unsupervised, self-completing booklet which asks them for their usage and frequency of some 500 product categories and services and 6,000 brands.

In return for answering what many people would today consider extremely private personal and household info, as well as their preferences regarding virtually all consumer media, the interviewee receives $20.00.

MRI does not actually conduct the fieldwork portion of the research themselves. They rely on another research company to do the interviews.

Brand Category Feedback is Worth $.04 Cents - $20.00/500 = $.04

We can't help but wonder about the level of a mind that could or would subject their memory to answer questions regarding 500 categories and usage of up to 6000 brands? We live in an A.D.D. society (attention, deficit disorder).

If some researchers have a difficult time getting people to remember what they ate yesterday, we believe it’s quite a stretch to assume 25 people, let alone over 25,000 will remember what they ate, bought, sold, registered for, read, watched, listened to, used, cleaned, drove, threw out, or called…and how frequently they performed these actions in the last 6 months. We know more than one person who might have a fun time answering this info requested, perhaps in a "jestful" manner, which may not reflect their exact behavior. Do you? Are you that person?

Individual Brand Feedback Is Worth 1/3rd of 1 cent - $20.00/6000 = $.0033

Once all the data is compiled, MRI goes to work. They apply a weighting process to filter those gaps, based on mirroring U.S. Bureau of the Census and Marketing Statistics--Survey of Buying Power as much as possible. This is positioned as strengthening the database. In our opinion, it weakens its value and reminds us metaphorically of the Frog DNA used to fill in gaps taken from insects to create dinosaurs in the film Jurassic Park. Go to the website yourself and make up your own mind. Read the methology MRI site for yourselves:

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The Guy Behind The Guy Behind The Guy Objectively, We are discomforted by the fact that MRI actually does not do the field work. This alarms us and think it would further alarm marketers using the data. While MRI can claim authenticity of the process, we question if brands generating millions if not billions of $$ sales can afford to do the same.

Sure, it would be great for agencies and/or marketers to get high quality data from 25,000+ people. However, when these individuals are asked to also answer questions about thousands of other elements, we believe you get what you pay for. We also ask ourselves what happens on each side of the neighborhood bell curve, where researchers have a difficult time for any number of reasons (poor security or too much security depending on the neighborhood).

At a minimum, on the upscale side - which marketers are most interested in reaching due to their high level of disposable income - imagine the challenge of gaining access in fast paced households where the incentive of receiving $20 bucks for sharing your lifestyle preferences and filling out a questionnaire on 6000 brands may not be strong enough incentive to let them in, let alone take the time to perform sit for and do the research.

We have a hard time envisioning households with an HHI of $100K or more willing to participate, let alone households with an HHI of $300K. Yet in fact, we see MRI runs on more than one media plan by more than one agency as a reliable source, for fairly narrow product categories.

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Maybe hired help in upscale households might be willing to participate, though getting the Boomers, Xer’s or the Why’erd (wired) PDA generation we know and market to, to spend hours giving away their behavioral usage data - when people are more guarded than ever about privacy and data theft - in our opinion, makes the probability of MRI’s accuracy highly questionable.

Why has its usage continued? For a while, there was nothing else, which is a legitimate excuse. However, in our opinion, this is no longer an answer for agencies of any type to rely on heavily or not to make media recommendations of consequence.

Through no fault of their own, MRI's heritage was originally in traditional media. We would be surprised if traditional agencies (and media companies) don't subscribe to it more than online shops.


We have no doubt MRI does the best job they can to deliver the best possible quality data to their marketer and client constituents. However, we believe its usage and strength to make an argument for any media usage skew or product and service usage is no longer valid.

In fact, we suggest that less then objective motivation sometimes plays a part here, not by MRI, but by its traditional agency and media clients. From what we have seen, in our opinion, it reinforces a stronger projection of 20th century media usage than our estimation of consumer behavior in the 21st century, especially among upscale hhlds. and youth-based audiences and products and services, who clearly must be challenge to survey.

Those who continue this media planning behavior may also see themselves in a commercial, though however much they deny it, the role they play may be one of those dummy's used in auto crash spots.

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