Will Transparency Concerns Undermine Trust?

17 Mar

transparencyAt the 2014 ANA “Agency Financial Management” conference, representatives from the Association of National Advertisers, Association of Canadian Advertisers and the World Federation of Advertisers each presented member survey results which indicated that their advertisers were concerned about the lack of transparency which existed into the financial stewardship of their advertising funds.

In their February, 2014 study, the ANA found that forty-six percent of the members’ surveyed expressed specific concern over the “transparency of media buys.” As contract compliance auditors, we know from our dealings that the resulting lack of clarity and in some instances, honesty surrounding issues such as data integrity, audience delivery, trading desks, reporting and financial reconciliations creates financial risks for advertisers. Sadly, the lack of transparency ultimately can serve to undermine attempts to improve trust levels between clients, agencies and media sellers. 

Fast forward one-year and two events come to light, which raise serious issues regarding trust.

The first was a speech made by Jon Mandel, former CEO of WPP’s Mediacom unit at the ANA’s “Media Leadership Conference” in early March, where he alleged the widespread use of volume based rebates or kickbacks from media sellers to agencies. He suggested that these practices, which have the potential to negatively affect advertisers, had migrated from cash advances to no-charge media weight which an agency can then deal back to clients or liquidate in barter deals. Mr. Mandel specifically stated that media agencies “…are not transparent about their actions. They recommend or implement media that is off strategy or off target if it works for their financial gain.”

The second event, which coincidentally involves Mr. Mandel’s former employer, Mediacom, deals with revelations regarding the use of “value banks” and the falsifying of media campaign reports by its Australia operation. For those not familiar with the term value bank, this is where media sellers provide a certain level of no-charge media weight to agencies based upon their aggregate client spending with that entity.

In a story which broke in Mumbarella, a media news website, it was reported that media “discrepancies” were found in late 2014 in an audit of Mediacom. The audit, conducted by EY was actually commissioned by Mediacom once it had learned of the problems. Among the findings of EY’s investigation were that Mediacom personnel had “altered the original demographic audience targets to make it appear as though the campaigns had reached the official OzTam audience ratings numbers.” Further, the review found that the agency had been taking “free or heavily discounted advertising time given to it by TV stations” and selling it back to its clients in violation of its parent company’s (GroupM) policy.

While Mediacom terminated several of the employees allegedly involved in these matters and pro-actively engaged an auditor, it should be noted that the audit found that the aforementioned fraud had been taking place undetected for a period of “at least two years.” This certainly raises questions regarding the efficacy of the controls that were in place at the agency to safeguard advertiser funds. The combination of lax controls and limited transparency had a negative financial impact on some of the agency’s largest clients (i.e. Yum! Brands, IAG, Foxtel).

As an aside, following Mr. Mandel’s comments to the ANA conference attendees, Rob Norman, Chief Digital Officer at WPP’s GroupM stated that; “In the U.S., rebates or other forms of hidden revenue are not part of GroupM’s trading relationships with vendors.” Sadly, in light of both Mr. Mandel’s revelations and the Mediacom Australia situation U.S. advertisers will likely take little solace in these reassurances from WPP. Worse, given the levels of advertiser concern about the lack of transparency within the industry, there is a high likelihood that other agencies will be painted by the same broad brush and assumed to be engaged in similar practices… whether they are or aren’t.

For an established industry with estimated 2014 global ad expenditures of $521.6 billion (source: MAGNA GLOBAL) it is amazing that some of the aforementioned practices would take place and that the industry would continue to deny rather than acknowledge their existence in an overt manner. Unchecked, the murky dealings of some media owners and a handful of agencies may ultimately push trust, not transparency to the fore of advertiser concerns and that is not a healthy dynamic when it comes to client/ agency relationships. The words of American humorist and journalist Kin Hubbard may serve to synthesize the crux of the issue:

“The hardest thing is to take less when you can get more.”

Interested in learning how you can improve your transparency into the financial management of your organizations marketing investment? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com.

 

 

 

 

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