AVE: There's no debate

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

There’s been a lot of talk recently surrounding the use of Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) as a means of evaluating PR campaigns. It’s a debate that’s been rumbling on for years and AVE will undoubtedly resurface as a hot-button topic for many more to come. Just when will firms wake up to the fact this vanity metric is up to no good?

What is it?

AVE ‘measures’ PR value by calculating the advertising cost of earned media and multiplying this by an indeterminate numerical value, usually between 1.5 and 6, which can change considerably depending on what the individual conducting the evaluation had for breakfast.

Measuring to justify...

The result? An impressive but arbitrary figure somehow meant to reflect ROI and based on the assumption that earned editorial content is always inherently more valuable than paid media. Of course, this fails to take into account the quality not just quantity of engagement.

In fact, it tells us nothing about engagement at all.

AVEs add zero value to the measurement process. They provide no qualitative evaluation and no insight into audience reach, demographics or impressions – making the limited quantitative data they do provide equally meaningless. It’s a classic example of measuring to justify campaigns rather than to inform best practice or improve ways of working going forwards.

The technique is also wildly inaccurate with alarming margins for error. The subjective nature of the multipliers used to calculate PR value make AVEs easy to manipulate and almost impossible to verify, because after all who’s going to check?

As if AVE wasn’t already irrelevant as a measurement tool 20 years ago, the rise of digital media has surely sealed its fate with big data offering endless opportunities to improve the industry’s approach to measurement. And yet, AVE remains a stubborn presence within the profession.

From education to legislation

The metric has been put back in the spotlight of late with the announcement that the CIPR is changing its stance on the longstanding debate, shifting from an educational to legislative approach which will make the use of AVE a disciplinary offence for its members. The news has been largely welcomed by practitioners and, on the face of it, is a good indicator of how seriously PR’s regulatory body takes the issue.

There’s no arguing with the principle. AVE is an embarrassment to the modern PR profession but, as industry commentator and AVE critic Stephen Waddington rightly points out, the CIPR’s new hard line stance puts practitioners between a rock and a hard place.

The problem isn’t the lack of an unequivocal deterrent – which will likely prove difficult to enforce – as AVE is far from the metric of choice for any self-respecting PR. The real issue is changing the perceptions of clients and big business who still value the archaic measurement practice.

It’s about educating organisations on alternative methods of evaluation and why they should refuse to be fooled by a hollow and artificial measure of ROI – let alone stop actively encouraging its usage.

How to do this effectively of course remains open for debate, after all this argument continues decades after the industry started to cotton onto the fact AVEs offer no tangible data to help us improve as PR professionals. Any tough action on the issue is therefore welcome, but punishing practitioners because of a persistent ignorance at a top level when it comes to evaluation doesn’t seem like the answer.

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© 2018 Claire Simpson​. 

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