What is the True Cost of Opacity? (part 1 of 2)

29 Apr

icebergPart 1 in a two-part look advertiser concerns regarding “transparency” and the impact it is having on client-agency relations.

Ad industry concerns regarding the issue of transparency and the trust which exists between advertisers and their agencies have taken a new, decidedly negative turn over the course of the last month.  What had been largely an “in-house” debate focused on items such as AVBs, programmatic buying, media arbitrage and concerns over digital media viewability was thrust into the limelight as the result of one Wall Street analyst’s recommendation that ad agency holding company investors “sell their shares.”

The recent revelations about the utilization of media rebates or AVBs in the U.S. marketplace and the resulting firestorm in the advertising trade press seems to have been the tipping point that spurred Brian Wieser a Senior Analyst from Pivotal Research Group to downgrade the stocks of IPG, Omnicom, WPP and Publicis and to recommend that investors exit the category. Mr. Wieser’s recommendation provoked an additional round of denials by some holding company CEOs regarding the practice of agencies accepting rebates in the U.S. and spurred some debate amongst the holding companies about the transparency of their revenue realization processes. One notable CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP reiterated his company’s policy regarding rebates and encouraged WPP’s competitors to be more forthcoming on that front; “We said what the model is in the U.S., the way it’s a non-rebate model. We’ve made that quite clear. I would urge greater transparency in what’s happening to net sales and revenues, then we would have less black box and more open box.”

While the topic of rebates seems to have garnered a lion share of the attention, when it comes to transparency the rebate issue carries with it much less financial risk than the challenges associated with the rapidly evolving digital media landscape. Consider the fact that various research studies have suggested that digital media advertisers may be losing 50% + of their investment to click fraud, bots, piracy and excessive fees related to supply chain complexity.

Given that digital media now ranks second only to television in terms of media spending and that it continues to grow at double-digit rates the potential for Wall Street commentary regarding advertiser investment in this area could be much more problematic. For instance, at the recent ANA conference on “Agency Financial Management,” Peter Stabler, Managing Director, Senior Equities Analyst with Wells Fargo Securities raised concerns about one particular aspect of the digital media space… agency trading desks. Specifically, Mr. Stabler cited the inconsistent manner in which holding companies report on trading desk operations, the potential for the proceeds from trading desks to inflate revenues and create margin dissolution and the potential for conflict-of-interest concerns between advertisers and their agencies.

If there is a silver lining to this maelstrom, now that the genie is out of the proverbial bottle, perhaps the highly charged nature of these issues can serve as a galvanizing force to bring clients and agencies together to address these issues in an objective manner… without the emotion and finger-pointing which has characterized the discussions to date. Let’s face it, the last thing either party wants is to see their market capitalization rates decline because analysts and investors have concerns about how they transact business and or the state of client-agency relations. 

While the individual issues raised are substantive, many feel that they have taken on additional import as a result of an erosion of trust between clients and agencies. Thus, shoring up the strength of these strategic relationships could yield significant asset value both in the context of issue resolution and the ongoing business of building brands and generating demand. As automotive pioneer Henry Ford once said;

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”

In our opinion, the best place to begin is to develop a sound client-agency letter-of-agreement, which clearly articulates both parties expectations and desired behaviors. Further, the agreement should specifically identify the level of disclosure required by the client of the agency, their related parties (i.e. holding companies, sister agencies, trading desk operations, in-house studios, etc…) and their third-party vendors. We believe that this is a critical first step in establishing accountability standards and controls.

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