This week Warc is reporting from the Advertising Research Foundation's (ARF) Audience Measurement conference in New York City. The theme is the 'measurement crisis' – but is 'crisis' a fair description of the current state of audience research?

Terry Kent, the Kantar Media North America CEO who served as co-chair of the first day, told the audience: "We've adapted and transformed our industry in the face of what we call 'big data'."

However, Kent did allow that the reinvention had been – and would continue to be – costly, confusing, and challenging. The size of the transformation would demand the cooperation of partners not accustomed to working side by side.

"The cost of collecting and storing through legacy systems simply is not tenable," he volunteered. "And massive data can result in massive confusion. We're all struggling with these questions." And the biggest challenges: "How do we turn information into insight? That's what clients are asking for. They're drowning in data."

The solution? "Companies cannot be islands. We need to work together – to share information among media, advertisers, and research companies." And, he added, that may necessitate "non-traditional relationships – partnerships across technologies and research companies."

Insights from L'Oréal, Citi and Pfizer

For three marketers featured in an ARF 'Understanding Media Behavior and Media Usage' panel, the changes cannot come quickly enough. Indeed, their concerns seemed to reintroduce the "crisis" theme.

In L'Oréal's US Digital Media group, for instance, "Our rallying cry is, 'Put a lot more rigor behind being transparent,'" said Esohe Omoruyi, the unit's vice-president. "We need to know what the numbers mean – not to shift budgets, but to make smarter decisions."

Case in point: L'Oréal's brands are active in social; beauty is active in social. L'Oréal can see raw numbers of followers, but how does it take the next step? "What do the numbers mean?" Omoruyi asked the ARF assembly? "What do they ladder up to?"

Compounding the search for such insight, added L'Oréal's Omoruyi, is the inclination "to prioritize tools before human resources… There's a lot that goes into the skillset to mine and understand data."

Shifting focus away from those personnel needs to the "shiniest" new platform or dashboard is self defeating: "Garbage in, garbage out."

David Grueneberg has been in his post as SVP/advertising and marketing at Citi Strategic Sourcing for only 10 months, but brought perspective from stints at ZenithOptimedia and Bristol-Myers Squibb. For Grueneberg, there is a need for "strategic vision" regarding the way forward in new media categories on a global basis. "Measurement is a key part."

Because marketing in the pharmaceutical industry is so tightly regulated in the US, companies such as Pfizer Pharmaceutical are often forced to observe before they can act. But, the frustrations with data are much the same, even though the pace may be slower.

According to Ben Versch, Director/media, Pfizer's research work is embedded into the marketing, media, and agency teams that support six lines of business. "But the information that comes in has been siloed. It needs to catch up with the ways we design our team metrics."

Versch continued: "Upwards of 20% of our [online] can be attributed to social… We're doing listening, engaging our agencies and their tools to experiment with Huffington Post. And we've done video campaigns. It's challenging for pharmaceutical companies. But we have a lot of questions and very few answers."

Follow Warc's Event Reports page for further insight from the conference.