Almost exactly a year ago, the Indian Newspaper Society rejected the Indian Readership Survey 2013. Much has happened since then - there has been some reconciliation but differences remain. The point is: why should we be reporting on the matter of a standoff one year after it began?
The provocation is a new trade campaign by Dainik Bhaskar which proclaims itself the largest circulated daily in India: 'With 35.57 lakh copies sold, Audit Bureau of Circulation declares Dainik Bhaskar as India's largest circulated national daily.' It is unusual to see a newspaper thump its chest on circulation, since readership has been the most commonly used measure since long.
And Bhaskar has not been the only one. The Times of India was the first to back ABC after expressing its unhappiness with IRS. But now with Bhaskar and earlier Malayala Manorama announcing their faith in circulation, does it mean that the break with IRS is getting exacerbated? And if that is true, how will this change media planning when it comes to newspapers? All these newspapers are members of the MRUC - Media Research Users Council - which conducts the IRS.
So where does it leave the industry - with IRS or will ABC find greater prominence than before?
Many of the current generation executives in the business are unaware that the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) was set up in India in 1948 and is a founder member of International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulations. The body which includes advertisers, publishers, and ad agencies, lays down a standard procedure by which a member publisher can compute its net paid sales. The circulation figures are checked and certified by a firm of Chartered Accountants, approved by the Bureau and the ABC certificates are issued for six-monthly periods.
ABC was the norm till the '70s, recalls a former media planning professional, Dwipal Kumar Bose. In the post-independence era, businesses were sales driven and since advertising was small and basic in nature, ABC was good enough to get by. "For a strong brand, advertising in a particular geographical area was enough, while for a drowning or a stagnant brand to lift sales, it took two or three publications to reach out to everyone," says Bose.
As marketing emerged as a function, managers began demanding basic information on readers such as gender, age and income profile. This led to the emergence of the first National Readership Survey (NRS), which was conducted by the National Readership Survey Council (NRSC). The Council consisted of members from the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) and ABC. The survey also helped create a profile of consumers based on the kind of goods that they bought.
Raghav Subramanian and Sudha Natrajan, founders, TMC - The Media Consultants, recall that NRS was "the definitive readership currency during its existence until the release of the 2001 Census" where two rounds of the NRS, 2001 and 2003, were released on the basis of the 1991 census. The census of 2001 had changed the way in which India saw herself from a demographic and economic point of view - the alterations were dramatic because of the economic reforms of the 1990s. "For nearly three years, NRS reported an India which no longer existed. This was a serious lapse and, as it is, advertiser representation in NRSC was not strong," they remember. Besides, there were long time gaps between one round of NRS and another.
That is how a section of the industry, again represented by publishers, agencies and advertisers, started the MRUC, which commissioned the IRS in 1995.
IRS took the lead in 2003 because it was the first currency to use the 2001 Census as its basis. It was also committed to half yearly reports based on continuous field work. It went a step further in relevance in 2010 when the reporting became quarterly. In any case, IRS covered readership in smaller towns while NRS was more metro-focused.
In the first 10 years after the turn of the century, there was a dramatic change in Indian consumption patterns. Entire swathes of new consumers and categories emerged and demand began to gradually emerge from smaller towns. The rise of the internet was another factor aiding change.
In the midst of this swirl, marketers and agencies needed greater details of the media they were buying. It was becoming evident that the business could not support two rival readership surveys. In 2011, the NRS and IRS were merged to form the Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI). MRUC owned the IRS, while the ABC owned NRS on behalf of the National Readership Studies Council (NRSC). The newly merged entity, RSCI, was a partnership of equals between MRUC and ABC. The common survey was called IRS.
Every round of a readership survey invariably draws some controversy but when RSCI released the IRS figures for the Q1 2013 on January, 28, 2014, the explosion that followed was something else altogether.
The IRS 2013 survey saw several changes in the methodology. It had the largest deployment of dual screen computer aided personal interview devices; a major departure from the pen and paper survey mode followed earlier.
The IRS also saw the inclusion of the North East states for the first time in the history of media research in India. The industry also moved into district wise sampling with IRS 2013. The survey also included new geographies: Jammu, Dadra Nagar Haveli and Andaman.
The results had many major publishers in a snit: they boycotted the results, fought a legal battle, forced MRUC and RSCI to send the results for re-validation. The field work was done by Nielsen, a research agency.
The figures were released again in August 2014 after undergoing revalidation, with the agreement of INS, RSCI, MRUC and ABC. Some publishers continue to nevertheless express their unhappiness.
The Q1 2014 results of the IRS are now awaited curiously by the marketers, agencies and publishers as they have no other readership currency to use other than the old IRS data or the ABC figures.
Paritosh Joshi, chairman, TechCom and board member, MRUC, says, "It is in the interest of all players across the value chain to support and strengthen IRS. You strengthen anything by constructive criticism and not by passivity. I think it is in the best interest of any such system, to accept it, embrace it and act on it. I don't think there is any worry and fear about criticism. It is a very healthy thing."
There has to be one uniform currency for buying-selling. Will it be readership or circulation?
Ravi Dhariwal, CEO, Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd (BCCL), publisher of The Times of India, says, "The latest round of IRS has lost all credibility. Whether you look at readers per copy or any other parameter, only a couple of publications have benefited from it hugely while everybody else has suffered. An advertiser depends on both ABC and IRS but with the latter being discredited, they are naturally relying more on the former."
Others are still trying to make up their minds. KRP Reddy, director (Advtg & Mktg), Jagati Publications, publisher of the Telugu daily Sakshi, says, "Apart from TOI, others are thinking along similar lines. We are not in agreement with the current IRS survey which is full of errors. We are still in the process of deciding whether or not to stay with it."
Some like the Odia daily Sambad are going along with the IRS in spite of their unhappiness because they have no option, says Monica Nayyar Patnaik, MD of Eastern Media which publishes the daily. "We are not happy with the new IRS but we opted out of ABC a couple of years ago so we don't have a choice," she explains.
Nitin Chaudhury, business head, HT Media, publisher of Hindustan Times, has a contrary point of view, contending that MRUC has re-validated the reports with the consent of different industry bodies. So what's the problem? "We cannot shoot the messenger because we do not like the news. We cannot trash IRS because we did not like the results," says Chaudhury.
Ashish Bhasin, chairman & CEO, South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network, chairman, Posterscope and psLive - Asia Pacific, says that whenever there is a change, there is some issue of it being accepted. "The controversies have put a cloud over the actual research which, to my mind, is of a very high quality. I believe product IRS will improve every time it is released," adds Bhasin.
The methodology for the new IRS was chosen after agreement with all the stakeholders, points out Debu Mishra, consultant: "Why are the same stakeholders disagreeing with the results now?"
Is the question one of methodology or an inadequate sample size? Peter Suresh, head, business intelligence unit, Dainik Bhaskar Group, says that at a recent meeting called by the MRUC, Nielsen made clear that most of the complaints were directly or indirectly the result of 'inadequate sample deployments'. Peter says that the 2014 report will therefore suffer the same inadequacies. "Even if there is agreement on increasing subscriptions and thereby growing the sample size, this will bear result only in the 2015 report," he points out.
Is ABC a valid means of measuring the reach of a publication? Bhasin points out that media planners have always used ABC figures: "In an attempt to present their case, some people are trying to hype one vs the other, depending on what suits them - but that is not the right way to look at a research."
Sandeep Tarkas, president (customer strategy) and CEO (Bengal Warriors) at Future Group, dismisses circulation as a parameter saying that "advertisers do not buy copies, they buy readership. I am buying audiences and not the newspaper."
Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer - financial services, Aditya Birla Group, says, "ABC does not report all publications; nor does it offer insights such as demographic profiling, incremental reachability and therefore cost efficiency considerations. Relying solely on circulation numbers is an incorrect and inefficient way to decide on addressing the target audience and allocating large spend volumes."
Varghese Chandy, chief general manager, marketing, advertising sales at Malayala Manorama feels that IRS findings have to be in sync with the ABC numbers, because ABC is also part of the body. "We certainly believe that ABC is the currency that everyone should follow, as in the western countries. It is like a census and you get actual numbers while readership is a sample survey and is based on estimation," says Chandy.
To this Bharat Kapadia, founder, email@example.com, says, "Some publishers are under the misconception that readers per copy is pro-rata. If one's circulation is so much, the readership has to be this much. It is not necessary that if the circulation increases, the readership will also increase."
There is an additional factor that comes into play in the ABC vs IRS debate.
A J Christopher, national head, marketing, Eenadu Newspaper, says, "Local advertisers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana do not bother about the IRS numbers. They swear by the ABC figures. We swear by both IRS and ABC. While the latter serves the Andhra market, the former works for the national advertiser. A strong ABC makes us the first point of approach in the market. IRS numbers work well when it is about raising ad rates."
A lot will depend on the forthcoming IRS numbers. Kakar of Aditya Birla Group, says, "There is a felt need for the veracity of the data provided by IRS under the new dual screen system. In the absence of accurate data of current standings, we have no option but to make do with the last uncontested survey." As time passes, however, the figures will become increasingly outdated - unless a way is found out of the impasse.
A Note From the Editor
It is a year since the Indian Readership Survey 2013 was released, leading to an explosion of unhappiness among major publishers. The Indian Newspaper Society got into the act and asked publishers to boycott the findings. The survey was sent for revalidation, and at the end of it all the industry bodies involved agreed that there was nothing wrong.
However, some of India's largest newspaper groups continue to reject the findings: among them, The Times of India, Dainik Bhaskar and Malayala Manorama. Several others criticise the Survey but haven't taken the final step of dismissing it (Sakshi, for example). If the findings of the new IRS are not to their liking, they might rebel as well. This is unprecedented.
What will the industry go by? Circulation, say the IRS haters. The fact is, readership is what the industry has lived by with ABC providing a reality check since circulation is an absolute financial examination and readership is arrived at by sampling.
There is an argument that some western countries manage quite well by circulation alone but there, a reader picks up a copy at a shop and reads it alone unlike India where the copy is delivered at home and read by many people. In a country where newspapers are shared, readership plays an especially important role. As an advertiser we interviewed says, "I am buying audiences and not the newspaper."
Will there really be a break between publications which will choose between readership and others that will go the circulation route? Or is all this jockeying over the methodology to be adopted in the coming IRS?
Television is undergoing turmoil too with the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) redoing from scratch the way in which television viewing is measured. I have appreciated the way in which BARC has conducted roadshows more than once to keep all the stakeholders informed about what the new system will be like. While there is no saying that broadcasters will be ecstatic with the results that the new rating system will throw up, at least they can't accuse BARC of not being transparent.
In hindsight, I wish the same effort at explaining the new methodology for IRS had been made through roadshows. There might have been less grief.