Gravy train: PwC's Facebook storm last week, KPMG this week with ThinkTV?
PwC continues to cop flak on its vanishing Facebook video consumption study - which will rise again - but there's a bigger conundrum: consulting groups are on a lucrative gravy train with cashed-up tech platforms and media groups are now catching on. What becomes?
Last week I sat across the table from a media company boss who had a compelling story to tell about his channel. It was common sense and made sense - characteristics often absent in the Australian market.
But to secure baseline credibility for his audience position, the media executive plans to tap a "Big Four" consulting firm to sign-off on the veracity of his channel's credentials - a tactic Google and Facebook have been deploying for years.
The tech-media duopoly has been handing out its gold to eager consulting firm operatives for near on a decade. PwC's former media unit director Ben Shepherd was one of them. Now chief media officer at CHE Proximity, ironically a Google "preferred partner", Shepherd is fighting for his own credentials as the fall-out continues over an Australian media study he says he convinced Facebook to fund as a good industry citizen - for the advancement and good of the industry.
Therein lies the problem. Wherever the truth lies in why PwC pulled its report - the firm says it's due to an insignificant data quality check; critics say it goes much deeper - Shepherd and his team were never going to be detrimental to Facebook. PwC was not impartial and therefore it was flawed.
Shepherd, who's gone rogue on PwC in this street fight, makes a reasonable argument for the study's intent. But from the get-go, he picked the wrong partner. This was more about PwC extracting revenue than any noble gesture for the industry's collective welfare.
Facebook created enough enemies in the television sector two years ago with a stealth campaign undermining the broadcast sector and ThinkTV's research series which benchmarked TV advertising effectiveness against YouTube and Facebook - via the work of Professor Karen Nelson-Field.
So when the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) hosted PwC and Facebook's launch on July 5 of the "My screen: Video Consumption in Australia" study, you could safely assume there were "interested parties" from another side on hand.
The launch was fronted by Shepherd, who had since left PwC to join CHE Proximity, Facebook's Ellie Rogers and PwC's chief creative officer, Russel Howcroft. Word got around.
The AFR's Max Mason and Edmund Tadros have a detailed update on the story today, countering the missives that Shepherd fired at the AFR earlier. Shepherd is certain to respond again to the latest round from the AFR, which included a diplomatic dressing down from Nielsen on PwC's use of its data.
And while we're there, Nielsen has a special global deal with Facebook for consumer research sampling and verification, which stirred another stoush last year when Facebook video viewing in IAB reporting made the social giant look pretty.
PwC has form on delivering the right stuff for Facebook handouts. Last year the professional services giant produced a rather sycophantic report on how the social media juggernaut had propelled Australian small business growth. There were devastatingly strong data points like "57% of small and medium sized businesses with a Facebook Page have hired more staff as a result of the growth they have experienced, aided by Facebook".
PwC is not alone on the report hustle, mind you. Deloitte too has done work for Facebook and Google. Indeed, a couple of years ago I was moderating a conference panel which included a Deloitte partner. A smart chap who agreed with some of the points I wanted to discuss but couldn't because it risked indirectly challenging Google, which was a Deloitte client. Shepherd, for all his sharp views on most things, never publicly gave stick to Facebook that I've seen. And there was clearly plenty around ropey measurement and audience projections to unleash on.
But perhaps to Shepherd and PwC's rescue this week is TV, when KPMG puts its stamp of credibility on a new ThinkTV study at AdWeek. Anyone who backs Shepherd and PwC in this saga will have to accept any report stamped by a consultant.
The answer to the reasonable question consultants could never credibly provide while on Facebook money around video is for advertisers to fund a research project that has strict terms and ideally does not use commercially compromised partners - consultants, research companies or agencies. The AANA, perhaps ADMA and the Australian Marketing Institute could join forces to create a brutally independent view but advertisers, of course, won't fund any such initiative.
So they'll keep having to distil perceived bias and self-interest in any research that's commercially produced. The important lesson here is don't elevate the consultants' stamp over others. They, like everyone else, have their own commercial interests.