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Playing by the Accounting Systems' Rules

  |  January 4, 2002   |  Comments

No matter how sophisticated we get in our thinking about online media performance, antiquated accounting systems often get the last word.

They say that in war, the victors write the history. I guess in online marketing the accounting departments would be the ultimate winners in the process. They certainly write the history.

No matter what type of agreement a buyer makes with a sales rep, it's the performance that's recorded in the agency's accounting database that counts in the end. This has some strange effects on how we buy media.

The Accounting Systems

Agencies and their clients tend to have highly structured processes and software packages that demand the firms work in a particular way. Most of these systems were developed back in the days before cable and syndication. We're talking about when the Grateful Dead was a hot new band, back in the days of the Kennedys. This stuff was programmed on dumb terminals, complete with vacuum tubes and data cards.

Those business process models, developed when our mothers and fathers were worried about Vietnam, have locked us into a fairly simplistic way of purchasing media. Media just wasn't that complicated back then. We had three networks. The biggest challenge was dealing with all the periodicals, which had recently multiplied into the tens and even hundreds.

Even as the media have proliferated, we've managed to keep patching these ancient systems with figurative spit and duct tape. Large accounting-system companies come out with new "modules" that allow new pieces of information to be shoveled into the existing database.

Senior managers love these new modules because it allows them to compare the new media to the existing data they've collected over time. They can bill their clients through the same systems and not have to worry about changing over to something new and expensive. And, of course, managers love charts, and these systems pump out an amazing number of charts.

The downside comes when the managers' lust for charts causes them to direct their buyers to make irrational deals, just so they can be crammed into these relatively simplistic databases.

This happened all over the place when the online stuff got going. The Donovan system, for instance, wasn't capable of tracking much online data, so the company recommended customers use their print module. The more advanced agencies found that the outdoor module worked better, but neither was very good at capturing the bulk of the important performance data. These systems just aren't designed for campaigns with direct response metrics.

Worse still, any performance they do track has to be entered manually from the data sources. There isn't any data interchange between, say, the Donovan system and the major banner servers.

Next week, I'll cover the step-by-step process of dealing with the accounting systems, including wrestling with data entry. Then we'll be able to see what types of data analyses we can wring from these systems.


Tig Tillinghast

Tig Tillinghast helped start and run some of the industry's largest interactive divisions. He started out at Leo Burnett, joined J. Walter Thompson to run its interactive division out of San Francisco, and wound up building Anderson & Lembke's interactive group as well.

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