Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Arbitron - "Great Satan" or "Good Guys?"

Most who drop by this blog probably don't give a hoot about Arbitron, or even know who, exactly, they are. Well, they are the biggest publisher of radio station ratings information in the world. Bigger than the next nearest competitor by many, many dimensions. At least for right now. And how radio stations are programmed and how advertisers spend their money for commercials on those stations are based almost totally on the numbers that Arbitron produces. That is many millions of dollars there!

A recent article by Lindsay Wood Davis has some interesting takes on recent changes at Arbitron--rapid changes in a company that has always been very, very slow to do anything:

Customer relations with Arbitron often felt as if it was based on the famous Seinfeld episode about the Soup Nazi. Do it EXACTLY their way or, “No soup for you!” At anything less than the very top, it often didn’t seem to matter who you were dealing with, either. Somewhere in the great Arbitron training and indoctrination process there must be a secret blood-oath ceremony where one swears to always look for the hardest way, the more difficult course, the path of greatest resistance.

Are there exceptions to this? Oh, of course there are. Arbitron has (and has always had) many great employees. And most of them are fully aware that they work (or worked) for a company whose arrogance fit it like a patent-leather cat woman suit.

So it comes as more than a bit of surprise to find that things appear to actually be changing at Arbitron, and that those changes seem to be very much for the better. New CEO Michael Skarzynski is employing the ancient management dictum that, “a new broom sweeps clean” as he blows out position after position, and replaces the departed with dreaded “outsiders.”

Thank the Good Lord. There is at least a chance that these new people won’t have taken the blood oath (at least not yet). In spite of the loss of a number of good souls who would be a credit to any company, no organization anywhere near as important to Radio needs a thorough cultural housecleaning as badly as Arbitron.

Once I got past that image of some of the folks I once worked with in a "patent-leather cat woman suit," I started to think about this change at what some radio stations still call "The Great Satan." I was with those guys for four years and always felt like an “outsider.” So did everybody else who came over to Arbitron from the company they bought--Tapscan--primarily because we were dexterious, nimble, and quick to meet customer needs with our technology. Yes, all the stuff Arbirtron was alledgedly devoid of. The internal code name for our purchase and due diligence phase was "Magic." That was what they thought we were. And of course, they immediately began changing things, ignoring our guys, indoctrinating us into the Arbitron "way." Only a few former Tapscan folks are still Arbitroids.

I actually think it was the “we are smarter than everybody else” syndrome that was the cause of all that arrogance and stubbornness, and the reason they bought us for our "magic" and promptly sapped it out of us. They honestly felt that they knew better than anybody else how to do what they did, and they often looked down on their radio customers as a bunch of doofuses who should keep their mouths shut and drink the Kool Aid. Doofuses who wrote large checks that allowed for lavish sales meetings and generous stock options.

I doubt the “new attitude” is totally due to any sweeping changes from the guy with all the consonants in his name. I think they feel the threats, finally, from a plethora of sources: the general malaise in the radio biz, Nielsen entering the radio-audience-measuring business, inadequate internal technology, lukewarm acceptance of the PPM, and more.

I hope they make it, though, and not just because I still have some friends there. Accurate research benefits everybody except bad radio stations. Research from multiple sources using different methodology will give different results. The “man with two watches” thing. But I still think the PPM is as close to accurate as anything we are likely to get anytime soon. And it has the capability of measuring anything that makes a noise.

We need it to work. And, whether you know it or not, YOU need it to work.

Don Keith

No comments: