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ABC head of data and insights talks streaming adaptation, measurement issues and time travel

Technology & Data

ABC head of data and insights talks streaming adaptation, measurement issues and time travel


ABC’s head of audience data and insights discusses prevailing issues in the Australian media landscape, Michelle Guthrie’s impact on the brand and why measurement should be taken out of commercial hands.

Last week saw ADMA’s 15th annual Data Day take place in Melbourne’s Sofitel hotel. Presenters spoke on how data use is changing in organisations, how legacy systems adapt to new landscapes, realigning internal attitudes to trust data in the decision making process and how different industries are struggling to evolve data use while keeping privacy and transparency at the forefront.

Among those speakers was Alicia Olson-Keating, head of audience data and insights at the ABC, speaking about how the national broadcaster is using AI and machine learning to drive audience-first decision making from broadcasting to content creation.

Having spent more than 20 years in the media game on the commercial and now the government side, the Canadian-born Olson-Keating brings a wealth of technical wisdom and a no BS attitude to consolidate the ABC’s data and insights function. “My catchphrase is, ‘If you don’t like it, you can always send the Canadian home’,” she says.

Prior to her presentation, Olson-Keating sat down with Marketing to discuss the how data attitudes are changing in the Australian media landscape, issues with Australian measurement systems, how traditional broadcasters are adapting to a disrupted streaming economy and much more.


Marketing: The media industry is still in a transition between traditional and digital. How has the ABC’s perception data shifted during this period?

Alicia Olson-Keating, head of audience data and insights, ABC: It’s shifted massively – which is why it has recruited someone like myself from Canada. When I first arrived at the ABC it was like going back in time two years, which was very helpful.

In Canada I had led the first cross-platform team, so I had radio, TV, digital and also I did change management. I was working for the media giant in Canada, Bell Media, which had bought three media companies – so I had to merge different teams and cultures together.

When I say ‘two years behind’: I arrived in November 2015, Netflix came into the marketplace around March or April of 2016, when it had already been in the Canadian marketplace for nearly two years. We’d already seen what the impact of something like that would have and the shifting behaviours.

Also, television measurement used to be very much [based] on overnights. In Canada we got time-shifted content [measurement], we call it PVR [named after personal video recorders] – that didn’t come here until February of 2016. They got seven-day and 28-day consolidated data. Why that becomes really important is if you’re just looking at overnights, you’ve lost. Nothing is in overnight anymore, it’s all about audiences – what they want and how they want. People will record and shift when it suits them.

The way it works today is you produce a piece of content, it costs you a million dollars. Where are you going to put that content? You take that content and put it on different platforms. You need to, because audiences are in different places and spaces. The challenge we have, the reason it’s become such a difficult time right now, is we’ve actually seen ‘time spent’ grow. It might look like linear TV is falling off a cliff, but it’s not. I have a big graph that shows that. The video on demand (VOD) and the subscription video on demand (SVOD), the Netflixes and all of that, actually show that there’s more viewing and more content being consumed, but it’s just in different places.

Why it becomes challenging is television still has that 24-hour time slot. You still have to book content in that old, antiquated scheduling – who’s going to make the first shift? Primetime is the bread and butter of revenue and obviously you put your biggest bang [forward] for the buck. We need to maximise whatever investment we make now, but then you’re going to put re-runs and different types of content that you can fulfil the TV schedule with.

Why that’s so challenging is you’re straddling both worlds; you’re still having to commission and produce really great content to put on primetime and have to put content elsewhere – but must grow in the digital space too. You’re really having to fulfil both.

In terms of data, it’s changed a lot at the ABC. We’ve done a lot of work to change that. What really helped us is: for a period of time – it’s a controversial conversation – we had Michelle Guthrie who came from Google. I’m very thankful to Michelle Guthrie, me personally, because she’s a smart lady and when she came in she was ahead of her time, the ABC wasn’t ready for her. It’s a different organisation, strong culture, strong journalism footprint; but Michelle came in and did some things really well. She said, ‘I want everybody to be thinking about how we’re performing.’ Where audiences are, all of that data – we created posters for her, we worked on presentations.

She really was challenging everyone within the organisation to know the data. It’s our job to understand it – why we’re challenged, why we have to make different decisions, why we have to make difficult decisions, why we might have to shut something down.

Diminishing investment from Government, our budgets being cut consistently – so there’s less money, content costs more to produce and we have more channels our content has to reach. The biggest metric we have for our evaluation is our weekly net reach, which means on any given week we have 70% of the Australian population – and we only count a person once. That’s massive in today’s landscape, but it’s going to become ever-more challenging to keep that. As long as reaching all Australians remains our remit, then we’re really challenged as an organisation to fulfil that.

That sums up some of the challenges we’re having now, but we’re definitely doing things better. Looking at things more critically, I still think we have a long way to go – where data’s actually impacting decisions consistently. We’ve made great inroads, but we have a lot of work to do.


The industry is still trying to figure out how to integrate television-style ad breaks into online offerings. The ad serving on Australian media companies’ online VOD offerings still feels awkward. How will they resolve this?

We don’t have ad breaks on ABC iview. I come from a commercial background – we’ve done a lot of research, people don’t like interruptions and it becomes challenging. It’s about time and place. I get it, it’s really challenging for the commercial players, they really have to think about it a little more around the audience, and they can’t always do that.

I know that because I’ve worked on the commercial side for so many years, and to me it was so refreshing to come to the ABC for that very purpose, because we can really actually focus on the audience. If I were ever to go back into the commercial landscape, that’s the one thing I would really stress – there needs to be a deeper understanding of cause and effect and a deeper understanding for tolerances for audiences and what works and what doesn’t.

Also, the measurement is improving (it’s got to be helpful, right?), but I don’t think we’re at a place yet where agencies feel like they have a really good sense of how they buy in that digital space and whether it will it get the ROI. It was so much easier when radio and television was black and white, right? Black and white in the sense that people like doing things the old ways, it’s just easy, it doesn’t cause a bunch of headaches.

At the end of the day, as digital measurement starts to catch up, we’ll be able to give a better indication of what’s happening. We should be able to measure and see the effectiveness of our ads within an environment; to see the attrition, if people are leaving because of a particular spot break and things like that.


You’ve had the unique position of working in both the Australian and Canadian media industries. What is your view on how the Australian industry is keeping up in terms of technology use?

It’s a little behind, but, in comparison, it’s behind by the very nature of [Canada’s] proximity to the US. Those influences hit Canada sooner. I sit on the board for OzTam [Australia’s television measurement body] and you can see that there’s still real trepidation at the agency buying and planning level and there’s still broadcasters looking at their overnights. From my observation that’s been slower to change here.

There’s less players in the Australian market and the ratings systems are owned by Seven, Nine and Ten. That did my head in. What do you mean they own the measurement? I could tell you the real difference: in Canada when you sit on a measurement council – I sat on a lot of them – if you arrive and you have a personal opinion or a mandate, if it’s clear that you’re trying to get something over the line because it’s going to benefit the organisation you work for, you’re out. In Australia, because of the way the measurement council is set up and with Seven, Nine and Ten having owned [the measurement systems], everything‘s driven by personal agenda.

It was very shocking for me. I don’t like it, I think it’s wrong. I come from a research, data and analytics background – I’m more of a purist. I think about ‘what is the greater good?’ We should be thinking about how we can improve this measurement and really get under the skin of the measurement approach without thinking about who it’s going to benefit and who isn’t.

It’s challenging because every organisation has its own personal agenda, right? So it’s hard to pull an industry together, or harder, at least.

That would be my one comparison that would be a bit of a criticism – but there are other things that are very interesting about Australia as well. I do think the measurement system for VOD that OzTam and Nielsen have done is really quite good. It’s a great system and now they’ve introduced streaming meters into the household – and that’s really going to help.


Do you have advice for marketers who aren’t confident in the data side of their role?

Knowledge is power and I think we all realise that everything is about the customer. Doesn’t matter what area of business you’re in or who you’re a marketer for – you should be thinking about the customer and understanding who your audience really is. Data is a game changer, it’s about understanding who they are, not just themselves but remembering too that they are an influencer in some way.

Whether it’s a parent who is being influenced by teenagers in the household, for example, or it’s a grandparent being influenced by their grandchildren – you’re seeing all of a sudden the age group of 50 to 64 are quite digital savvy, quite tech savvy; they’re on the digital platforms and that happened quickly.

Knowledge is power and learning is important – and don’t be afraid about it. Get in there.

Whoever is in your organisation that actually is charged with that on their day-today, get to know them. Spend time, get to really understand, ask a lot of questions and don’t ever make assumptions. A lot of people have their gut feeling – that’s great, but validate your gut.


Further Reading:



Image credit: S O C I A L . C U T

Josh Loh

Josh Loh is assistant editor at MarketingMag.com.au

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