One Good Reason to Audit Your Advertising Spending

31 Oct

contract compliance auditingExperience from his early days in accounts payable brought home an important lesson…

I was recently talking with a friend, who retired as a senior financial executive for one of the large global airline companies. During our conversation he began to probe on AARM and our agency contract compliance and financial management audit service. While most finance professionals today came into the business long after electronic data processing (EDP) and payment systems came into vogue, this finance executive did not.

After we talked for a while about the nuances of agency compliance and financial auditing, he shared a remembrance from his starting position in the accounts payable department in the early ‘70s… prior to EDP. He recounted processing invoices from the company’s ad agency and the “stacks of paper” that accompanied their invoices. One of the nagging concerns that the finance team always had was whether the agency was reviewing the third-party vendor invoicing for both accuracy and to validate performance or simply passing along the documents. As a result, they implemented a policy that no invoice would be processed until the marketing team had reviewed and signed off on the billing detail. The goal was to encourage both the marketing team and the agency to examine the billing support for accuracy, rather than simply processing for payment. 

The estimated billing approach employed by most ad agencies used to be a paper-intensive process. Billing records not only had to be reviewed but stored and retained for at least 3 years. Thus, most advertisers waived the requirement for agencies to provide third-party vendor billing support with their bill-to-client invoices. Even with the advent of EDP and the digitization of records, advertisers were content to require their agency partners to retain the billing support and to make those records available for review if an advertiser chose to audit those documents. Today, if an agency invoice has been reviewed by a marketing representative and the dollar amount falls within the approved purchase order amount/balance the agency invoices are processed for payment.

Despite the size and material nature of marketing and advertising budgets, most organizations do not invoke their contractual audit rights to validate their agency billing support.

This reality evoked an interesting observation from my friend: “Processing payment, without a review of the supporting third-party vendor documentation is one thing, but to forgo periodically auditing those records is a classic example of blind faith.” His words, in turn, reminded me of a quote from rock legend Bruce Springsteen: “Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.”

It’s Time to Address the Biggest Risk to Your Ad Budget

26 Oct

iceberg risk

As year-end draws near, many organizations are hard at work on 2022 planning

Significant effort will be invested in preparing next year’s internal audit plans, financial plans, operational plans, and marketing plans / budgets. The question is “Will any of these initiatives address the biggest risk to an organization’s advertising spend?”

When annual planning commences, representatives from internal audit, finance, procurement, and marketing are all proactively evaluating different mechanisms for driving performance and profitability, while mitigating risks to the organization.

Yet we know from experience that one of the best tools for doing just that, on behalf of a significant P&L line item, is likely not being considered.

Which P&L line item are we referring to? Advertising Expense. And the tool that simply is highly effective at mitigating risks and returning significant financial value is advertising/ media agency financial contract compliance audits.

The “Right to Audit” clause is a cornerstone control & financial protection in all client/ agency agreements. Further, organizations such as the Association of National Advertisers, World Federation of Advertisers and the ISBA strongly recommend that advertisers routinely perform compliance reviews to maintain transparency and safeguard their marketing investment. 

When a company’s control environment does not include detailed testing of advertising agency billings and costs – there are real risks that come into play for a few reasons. For one, client marketing teams are forward looking, focused on building brands and driving demand. Testing past financial activity is not necessarily on their radar. Secondly, agency finance teams are hyper-focused on their own profitability. And finally, the estimated billing process employed by ad agencies, takes client money upfront based upon projected expenses. In turn, these expenses are to be reconciled to actual costs once a job is closed. The long lag times for when this final accounting takes place and the lack of detailed billing support that is typically shared with the client creates risks for the advertiser.

The good news is that advertisers can proactively address these concerns and establish a compliance testing audit program that is cost effective, respectful of the agency’s time, and yields material near and long-term benefits, including: 

  • Identification of past overbillings and financial non-compliance for remedy.
  • New contract language including industry best practice & agency reporting guidelines.
  • Financial efficiencies and cost savings tied to process improvements.  
  • Comfort in knowing that the organization has a full understanding and strong controls in place to manage one of its largest expenses.

Most importantly, the work helps to build an organization’s level of trust in each of its agency partners and an appreciation for the role that the agency plays.

Reduce Your Content Management Risks & Costs

1 Oct

Content Management Systems

Content curation and production continues to grow in importance as marketers expand their message distribution to multiple devices across a myriad of channels including mobile, web, social media, shopper marketing, public relations, etc. The result is an ever-growing quantity of brand specific content that needs to be managed and shared.

For most marketers this content is being accumulated, produced, and stored by multiple of their marketing service providers. This can create logistical challenges when it comes to managing and accessing these critical assets, invariably creating risks related to compliance, brand consistency and usage rights violations while driving up operational costs.

The solution can be straightforward… a centralized enterprise-wide content management system (CMS) that improves a marketer’s ability to manage and protect this disparate set of images, videos, logos, and text files across its marketing agency network. Further, creating a content management “center of excellence” makes it easier to search, access, transform and distribute these assets in their proper format for use by each marketing partner.

The centralization of this function, whether in-house, with a designated “lead agency” or with a specialized CMS provider can boost productivity and improve both time and cost efficiencies. How? Eliminating the redundancies in labor and costs related to accessing content curation, creation, formatting and cataloging from multiple agency providers. This allows brand management personnel, and their advertising agency partners to focus on their specialty… “origination” rather than “adaption” projects.

How Should Marketers View Digital Media in a Post-Cookie World?

30 Sep

Third-Party Cookies

As both government regulatory bodies and the advertising industry have become serious about data privacy, browsers such as Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Explorer have announced safety measures that include restricting first-party cookies and blocking third-party cookies by default.

These moves will clearly have an impact on a range of outcomes, including user experience, data access, ad targeting and attribution. This will limit marketers ability to personalize content, target their advertising to individual users or assess which impressions had an impact on a consumer’s actions.

That being the case, how should marketers view the value of programmatic advertising in a post-cookie world?

For some, their focus has turned to first-party data for which consumers have given their consent. Yet, gathering this data and harnessing its value will take time. Further, this approach still requires an ad ID solution for which there is currently no standard or consensus among publishers, AdTech companies or device makers. That said, there is hope on the horizon as organizations such as the Advertising ID Consortium have emerged and are offering people-based identifiers that are compliant with “self-regulatory codes” and applicable privacy and security laws.

While the industry awaits a robust, unified ad ID solution, the loss of behavioral or deterministic targeting tools will clearly weigh on the efficacy of programmatic digital media.

According to Statista, global digital ad spend will reach $389 billion in 2021, with nearly 85% of that being place programmatically. In light of the challenges posed by the restrictions on third-party cookies, the question is, “Should marketers continue to allocate such a high percentage of their overall media spend in this area?”

In the words of 19th century author, Henry David Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

How Will Post-Pandemic Employee Compensation Impact Your Agency Fees?

26 Aug

Virtual OfficeWith COVID-19 vaccination rates increasing, organizations across the globe are evaluating whether and or when their employees will be required to return to the office. As part of the consideration process, many are deliberating on whether to allow all or select employees to continue to work remotely.

The question being assessed by employers considering extending remote work privileges is, “How will this decision impact employee compensation?”

Many organizations are weighing different pay scales for remote workers. As an example, Google is planning to adjust employee compensation based upon the local market wages where an employee works from. Which certainly seems like a reasonable trade-off.

By way of example, in a recent article by Reuters, which had seen Google’s “salary calculator,” an employee living in Stamford, CT, which is an hour from New York, would earn 15% less if they opted to work from home, rather than commuting into New York City. Of note, Google is but one Silicon Valley company that has implemented location specific compensation models for employees living and working in less expensive areas.

As advertising agencies evaluate their post-pandemic approach to the use of flexible staffing and or remote workers, it stands to reason that while some will opt for location agnostic pay models, others may implement location specific remuneration programs for remote workers. In the case of the latter, the obvious question is, “How will cost-of-employment adjustments impact the fees charged to advertisers?”

Will those on commission-based fees adjust rates downward? Will those employing direct-labor-based compensation programs reduce bill rates?

It is certainly reasonable to assume that if an agency reduces its salary and overhead expenses, that the fees charged to advertisers should be reduced accordingly. That said, it is likely that any adjustment to agency bill rates will need to be the result of collaborative discussions, initiated by the advertiser, between themselves and their respective agency partners.

At a minimum, location-based employee compensation adds an interesting dimension to the ongoing quest for a fair and balanced agency remuneration system.

Advertisers: What is Your Line of Sight into Your Ad Agency’s Use of Affiliates?

23 Aug

Line of SightDo your client-agency agreements require your agency partners to disclose their use of related parties? To secure your permission prior to engaging affiliates? To document how those affiliates are compensated?

If so, then you are in a better position than many. At a minimum, testing for agency compliance to such contractual requirements is an option that you can pursue. If not, the level of work being channeled to related parties by your agency may surprise you.

In our contract compliance and financial management audit practice, it is not uncommon to see 5 to 7 different related parties engaged by an advertiser’s agency. Examples of services provided by affiliates include items such as barter, programmatic buying, direct response TV, event marketing, principal-based buying and ad serving. Yet, oftentimes these affiliates and the manner in which they are compensated are not known to the advertiser.

Why should an advertiser care? For one, if work is assigned to an agency affiliate without undergoing a competitive bid process, what assurance can the advertiser have they are not being charged above-market rates? Secondly, the added profitability by recommending certain affiliates, such as those engaging in the procurement and resale of media inventory through principal-based buys or barter, could adversely influence an agency’s recommendations to the advertiser. And to compound matters, if said affiliates are also applying non-disclosed mark-ups to the media inventory procured or services provided, how can an advertiser fairly assess whether the total fees the agency is generating from its business are commensurate to the services being delivered?

Thus, it is important to revisit contract language to ensure that the following controls are in place:

  • Principal-Agent language that requires the agency’s fiduciary responsibility is to the advertiser and that all decisions and actions are undertaken in a manner that maximizes benefits to the advertiser.
  • Require the agency to disclose any and all related parties that it intends to deploy on the advertiser’s behalf and to secure the client’s prior written approval. Requiring quarterly updates to this list would provide an added layer of protection.
  • For instances where principal-based buys, barter or other non-disclosed transactions are being considered, require a double opt-in process:
    • The first step would be a formal letter of notification from the agency to be signed by the advertiser granting permission.
    • Secondly, any purchase authorization form presented by the agency to the client for approval should reiterate the agency’s intent in this area.

With these agreement guardrails in place, advertisers can further protect their interests by periodically auditing the agency to validate compliance and verify the accuracy of charges made by and or for related party activities.

Ultimately, this approach will allow an advertiser to leverage the full breadth of its agency partner’s resource offerings in a very transparent manner, providing comfort that its agency’s practices are aligned with its expectations.

A Key to Rebuilding Client – Agency Relationships

28 Jul

Bias and ObjectivityThe state of client-agency relationships has been on the decline for several years. Whether measured in terms of longevity, the increase in project-based work versus retained relationship commitments or the waning level of advertiser trust in their agency partners, all of these important partnerships are under pressure.

Regardless of the reasons behind the current situation, this is not a healthy dynamic for either advertisers or agencies. The result has been shorter, more volatile relationships, higher levels of agency personnel turnover and some would argue less effective, less efficient advertising outputs. Reason enough for both sets of stakeholders to thoughtfully assess the current situation and seek corrective action.

There is, we believe, a clear starting point for improving client-agency relationships. It involves a return to the tried and true “principal-agent” business model that once formed the basis for relationships between advertisers and agencies. The woes currently besetting these partnerships and driving advertiser concerns over transparency and trust are direct outcomes of the industry’s deviation from this important principle and the resulting practices that are averse to this model.

A basic tenet of principal-agent relationships is that the agent is bound to make decisions and to take actions that are in the best interest of the principal…always. This, in turn, guides interactions between the parties in a manner that achieves the highest possible degree of accountability and ultimately trust.

It wasn’t long ago that all client-agency agreements contained language establishing the principal-agent relationship, the need for agencies to provide unbiased counsel and the resulting fiduciary obligations of both parties.

Sadly, agency compliance with and commitment to this framework began to wane within the agency community. Some may remember the controversial comments by Irwin Gotlieb, once CEO of WPP’s Group M who opined at the 2015 “Agency Financial Management” Conference hosted by the ANA: Those relationships, rightly or wrongly, don’t exist anymore” he said, adding that “You cease to be an agent the moment someone puts a gun to your head and says these are the CPMs you need to deliver.” Blaming advertisers for the bad practices adopted by some agencies was inappropriate at best.

Even with contractual safeguards in place, problems occur when “agents” have hidden agendas or substitute their interests over those of the principal. This is why the topic of “media rebates” secured and retained by media agencies, without client knowledge or approval proved to be such a lightning rod topic when it initially surfaced.

Fast forward to the present and certain revenue-generating practices that are pursued by many agencies such as principal or inventory buys (media arbitrage), acceptance of incentives from third parties (i.e. rebates, value pots, EPI’s, etc.), agencies awarding work to their holding company affiliates without a competitive review or client authorization, and the application of non-disclosed, unauthorized mark-ups.

Whose interests are being served by such practices…certainly not the advertisers. To paraphrase Shep Gordon, Hollywood producer and talent manager:

“I think a problem for most people in a fiduciary capacity is to eliminate self and greed and all those things so that they can actually be in a fiduciary capacity where the client comes first, whoever the client happens to be.”

Advertisers must protect their legal and financial interests by crafting contract language and implementing the appropriate controls, including performing periodic audits. How else can they ensure that they have the transparency they seek in the context of their agency partners’ financial stewardship of their advertising investment and the confidence that their agencies are acting in their best interest?

On the topic of principal-based buying specifically, we have a contrarian perspective and don’t believe that it is ever appropriate for an agency to purchase media inventory in its name, mark it up by some undisclosed amount and re-sell that to its clients. Yet, these non-disclosed buys have proliferated as programmatic digital media buying has exploded. While the 4A’s issued guidelines to address this practice including documentation including client opt-in, explanation of an advertiser’s audit rights (if any) and access to the underlying costs, oftentimes agreement language is silent on these recommendations or are simply not followed in actual practice.

Thus, if both parties want to establish trust and rebuild the client-agency relationship, begin by eliminating the risk of bias in an agency’s recommendations and or actions and reinforce the principal-agent framework in agreement language.

What Role Will Media Agencies Carve Out for Themselves?

29 Jun

Role QuestionPoint of fact: The media marketplace is evolving at a pace never previously experienced.

While consumers have a dizzying array of choices for accessing content, ad sales are dominated by a handful of media ownership groups. According to a recent GroupM report, the “Top 10” firms accounted for 55% of global ad revenues in 2020. Of note, the “Top 5” firms (Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Amazon and TikTok owner ByteDance) represented 46% of global ad sales during this same period.

In the U.S., the world’s largest ad market, digital media represented 62.9% of U.S. media spend with 88.1% of digital display spend being placed programmatically in 2020 (source: eMarketer). Not surprisingly, Google, Facebook and Amazon increased their share of the U.S. digital market to almost 90% in 2020 (source: GroupM).

Top media ownership groups such as Comcast, Disney, ViacomCBS and AT&T have expanded their offerings to advertisers on a direct basis to include media space/time, content, product integration, experiential support, audience research and production services… somewhat reminiscent of the days of full-service advertising agencies.

And finally, media planning and buying decisions are becoming more highly automated as AI-powered algorithms and machine learning continues to expand their role in the advertising and media sector. This in turn has spurred advertiser investments in AI marketing, totaling over $6 billion in 2019 (source: Statista).

The question to be asked is, “How will media agencies distinguish themselves and their client offerings to protect their share of the media services market?”

This is an important topic, one which is surely being discussed within the major ad agency holding companies. Why? Media agency contributions to agency holding company financial performance are significant. This has been particularly so with the growth of digital media over the last decade-plus. According to Ad Age Datacenter, digital work in 2020 accounted for 58% of 2020 U.S. revenue for agencies from all disciplines. Yet, overall revenues for U.S. ad agencies have been lackluster at best, with low single-digit growth in 2017, 2018, 2019 and a 6.8% drop-off in 2020.

For advertisers seeking to boost campaign performance, improve media ROI and reduce time-to-campaign launch times, they will inevitably evaluate a range of approaches to planning and placing their media budgets. These may include adding consolidating their media agency networks to achieve better integration and improved leverage, in-housing certain aspects of the media strategy and or placement processes to improve efficiencies, working directly with media ownership groups and a host of other alternatives.

In a dynamic, evolving marketplace marked by uncertainty, the onus is clearly on media agency management to defend their role as gatekeepers and stewards of client media spend. Perhaps agency leadership can draw some inspiration from the words of American educator and the founder of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan: “Wisdom is knowing what to do next; skill is knowing how to do it and virtue is doing it.”

What Is the Basis for Variable Commission Rates?

15 May

dreamstime_m_35343815Until the late 1980s, agency remuneration models that were based upon commissions charged on ad spend were typically universally applied across media types. As alternative media channels began to expand, agencies began to charge variable commission rates, based upon media type.

The question to be asked is “Why?” and, is this approach still appropriate?

Presumably, planning, buying, and monitoring certain types of media required more time on the part of agency personnel and or certain experience levels, thus the higher rates. It is fair to question whether or not that premise still holds true. The most obvious area to question is the higher commission rates charged for programmatic advertising, which utilizes automated technology to execute and monitor media buys as opposed to traditional, manual buying methods.

Unfortunately, advertisers that employ a commission-based agency pay-model typically don’t see agency staffing plans or time-of-staff reporting. Thus, the ability for an advertiser to assess the resource level required to plan and place its media mix is limited at best.

Another concern regarding the variable commission rate pay-model is the potential for the higher rates charged for certain media types to bias an agency’s media mix recommendations. The possibility that an agency would approach the allocation process with the goal of optimizing its revenue, rather than the advertiser’s media investment certainly exists.

So, what should advertisers do? The answer is straightforward. Require their media agency partners to submit formal staffing plans, with an estimate of hours and utilization rates by employee/ position along with their annual commission rate schedule… just as they would with a retainer or labor-based fee compensation method. Further, advertisers should require agencies to provide monthly time-of-staff reporting, so that both parties can assess the resource levels, staff seniority and experience required to execute the scope of work.

With clear insights into an agency’s staff investment, advertisers can now knowledgeably adjust their remuneration programs, if needed. The goal, as always, is to equitably compensate media agency partners to effectively plan and execute an advertiser’s media program, while eliminating bias and optimizing working media levels.

Advertisers would be wise to heed the words of Oliver Markus Malloy, the German American novelist and to analyze the impact and efficiency of their variable commission rate compensation programs more closely:

“We live in this bubble of ignorance. Most people know nothing about history, or the historical context of the traditions they still follow today. People do things without knowing why they’re doing them.” 

Ad Industry Launches Programmatic Probe

30 Apr

thThe Association of National Advertisers (ANA) recently announced that it will commission a study to identify ways to address the myriad of issues plaguing the programmatic marketplace. Both the ISBA and World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) are supporting the effort.

Citing ongoing concerns regarding “thin transparency, fractured accountability, and mind-numbing complexity” the ANA believes that these issues, combined with the percentage of digital spend going to cover fees charged by ad tech intermediaries, are costing advertisers billions of dollars per year. By their estimate “only 40% to 60% of digital dollars invested by advertisers find their way to publishers.” Of the funds that do reach publishers, a recent study by the ISBA found that “15% of budgets simply disappear without a trace” supporting thin transparency claims.

Picture1

For perspective, according to Zenith Media, 65% of U.S. digital media is placed programmatically. For perspective, advertisers spent approximately $139 billion on digital media in the U.S., representing 54% of total media spend.

Unfortunately, the promise of improved efficiency and effectiveness related to programmatic has yet to be realized. With evolving privacy regulation and a higher incidence of fraud (fake traffic) to add to the lack of clear insight into the fees charged, true inventory costs and placement quality, it is difficult to explain the rapid growth of this form of buying. Yet it seems there is no turning back as programmatic buying has become dominant in digital and expanded to other media types as well.

Despite these challenges, many media pundits suggest that traditional metrics for evaluating media success (i.e., impressions, clicks, views, completed views, etc.) are not apropos for assessing the efficacy of programmatic. They argue that in the end, it is all about actions and outcomes. However, a Google Ad Manager study found that an increase in video ad viewability, for instance, from “50% to 90% can result in a revenue uplift of over 80% (averaged across desktop and mobile).” No one would argue that views and outcomes cannot occur without exposure to real people and legitimate human traffic.

Thus, with advertisers continuing to fuel the growth of programmatic buying across media types, the timing could not be better for the ANA’s initiative to investigate this sector of the media marketplace.  As the 1st century BC writer and philosopher, Publilius Syrius once said: “It is better to learn late than never.”

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