Bob Barocci led the Advertising Research Foundation back from the brink of collapse. Ten years on, he reflects on the organisation’s successes and the industry’s future challenges as he prepares to retire from the role.
When former ad man Bob Barocci joined the Advertising Research Foundation in 2003, things weren’t looking good. “We were really struggling back then – financially and member-wise,” he says. “We didn’t have enough money in the bank to last us a month.”
The first few years involved “a major fix job”, Barocci explains. “We had 14 people then and only three of them survived. We were in survival mode.” Members were lining up to resign, but many of them decided to stay on for another year to give the new leadership a chance to make a difference.
Barocci didn’t waste that opportunity. In 10 years the ARF has been transformed. “We have 35 people now and great momentum and we’re doing more things – more significant things – and we’re making an impact on the industry.”
He intends to retire as president and CEO in the spring, though he says: “I’ll only depart when the new person shows up.”
Research caught up with Barocci for a 20-minute phone interview before Christmas to reflect on his time with the ARF and the future challenges and opportunities for the organisation and the industry it serves.
When you joined the ARF and it’s future was uncertain did you get the sense that the organisation’s problems were of its own making or were external factors to blame?
BB: I’ve never spent a whole lot of time laying blame for the situation, but my guess is that the organisation’s problems were pretty much of its own making. It wasn’t that the industry was declining – we’d had the dot-com bust but I don’t think that affected things. It was just one of those times. The organisation has experienced these declines periodically in its 76-year history. When Mike Naples came in in the 1980s he had a very similar situation and he saved the organisation initially by asking members to pay double dues one particular year to make sure they had enough cash, then solved the revenue problem by getting the organisation more heavily involved in conferences and events.
From outside looking in it would appear that your strategy for saving the ARF was to make sure the organisation was right at the heart of the big meaty discussions affecting the industry – things like online quality standards and neuromarketing, etc.
BB: Generally speaking you’re right. The solution to the organisation’s survival and the driver of its success today are the issues we get on top of and get ahead of. We have this system now where we have subject matter experts in our research departments – more senior research people than we have ever had in our history. Most of them are not full-time though, so we can spread the money around more people and provide thought leadership on a broader variety of topics. That’s really enabled us to increase our impact significantly.
I’d say that we have been successful in influencing people in a number of ways. The first is our ability to aggregate and curate existing knowledge. Steve Rappaport runs our knowledge centre which is used by 2,000 people a day. We have a b2b search service called PowerSearch which is attached to one of the largest databases in the business which we update every night by sending out our robots to track our 50-odd member sites and extract from those sites all the new things they’ve uploaded. When I arrived here, less than 20% of our members were using the knowledge centre, and this year we’ll have more than 75% using it.
That’s one way. The other is in creating knowledge. In the last few years the Foundations of Quality study has had significant in-market effect. Our NeuroStudy was basically the first major study of the whole world of biometrics, and we are doing Neuro 2.0 at the moment. Also, we just completed a major study on the role of digital in the purchase process study. General Motors was one of the sponsors and they changed the entire way they use digital based on that study.
What do you see as the big topics of interest coming up, the kinds of things your successor might have to tackle?
BB: We use advertiser business needs as our starting point for these discussions. We ask, “What do they need to learn to help them make a big difference to the efficiency and effectivness of their marketing and advertising plans”.
The single biggest areas where there are huge knowledge gaps at the moment are mobile and social. It’s an experimental world – especially mobile – and we are trying to bring some knowledge to those areas. We are working with the Mobile Marketing Association on a major study of the role of mobile. Is mobile a location-based tool or a branding tool? The ANA just did a study which showed that less than 25% of advertisers have any way of measuring what they are doing in social and mobile, so measurement is another really critical issue that the ARF always spends a lot of time on.
In the meantime we have Foundations of Quality 2.0, involving 90,000 interviews – the biggest research-on-research study ever.
And you mentioned Neuro 2.0: what’s the focus of that?
BB: The first NeuroStudy involved eight suppliers and they all tested the same advertising and we tried to figure out what we could learn about advertising from the different techniques used. Now, though, we are trying to look at whether biometric testing enables an advertiser to predict marketplace success better than traditional testing. It’s still a TV ad-focused study, but we’ve started talking about Neuro 3.0 which is going to get into the digital world. But that’s for next year.