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Can Your Agency Support Its Billings to You?

25 Aug

estimated billing processOnce ad budgets have been approved and purchased orders issued, your ad agency generates an invoice based upon estimated costs. Theoretically, this estimated billing is reconciled to actual costs once a job is closed or a campaign has run its course.

Do you know if the process is occurring in an accurate manner, on a timely basis?

Why the question? Firstly, ad agency invoices are not accompanied by third-party vendor invoices that support the billed amount. Secondly, those invoices are often submitted directly to an advertiser’s accounts payable department that is simply checking to make sure the “billed” amount does not exceed the approved purchase order amount.

Thus, the only way a marketer can vouch for the accuracy of the agency’s billing is to periodically request and review agency financial support. This can be done through internal audit or by an independent contract compliance and financial management auditor.

If your organization is not testing the accuracy of its agency billings, corrective action should be taken.

The good news is that client/ agency agreements require an ad agency to retain documentation to support its billings and entitles the advertiser to review that support to assess the accuracy and completeness of the financial detail.

Thus, if you haven’t already taken such actions the path forward is clear… inform your agency partner of your desire to enact your contractual audit rights and issued a request for the requisite files to conduct an historical review of agency billings. This would include third-party vendor costs and payments to those vendors along with agency time-of-staff detail to support its fee billings.

Such reviews are designed to identify potential billing errors, overbillings, aged media credits, earned credits, rebates and discounts that have been earned, but not yet returned, the status of approved but unused funds and the time that it takes the agency to close jobs and process payments to third-party vendors. Given the material nature of advertising spend, fact-based reviews of agency billings are a sound practice that is consistent with an organization’s governance and accountability standards and controls.

Unfortunately, when it comes to auditing this important area protestations from client-side marketing personnel regarding the need for or timing of such reviews or the potential impact on a preferred relationship can scuttle an organization’s efforts in this area. While we appreciate this perspective, we have found such views to be unfounded. In the words of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: “Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes.” After all, outside of marketing/ advertising spend, how many other suppliers invoices are paid without supporting documentation or a review of such detail?

Experience dictates that periodic financial reviews help to improve processes and tighten agency reporting, providing advertisers with a clear line of sight into the disposition of its funds at each stage of the advertising investment cycle.

Advertising agencies for their part are accustomed to these reviews and have the personnel and processes in place to comply with their clients’ contract compliance and financial management audit requests. In the end, all stakeholders benefit from such reviews. The learnings, financial recoveries and future savings related to identified process improvements identified as part of the audit are important, but no less so than the peace-of-mind that advertisers acquire, knowing that their advertising funds are being properly managed.

Media Agency Estimated Billing Should Be Eliminated

24 Oct

accountspayableLet me start by saying that Advertising Agencies are not banks and should never be asked to settle vendor obligations, made on behalf of clients, with their own funds. That said, the long-standing practice of “estimated billing” is a relic of a bygone era and one which should be abandoned.

In a day and age where the electronic transfer of funds is commonplace and where most media owners invoice agencies based upon “actual” activity, following the month of service, the notion of an advertiser being billed upfront on an estimated basis is no longer necessary for the vast majority of media being purchased. From an advertiser’s perspective, this antiquated system results in burdensome levels of paperwork, drives up accounts payable processing costs, needlessly extends the invoice reconciliation process, restricts client use of funds, results in lost interest income opportunities for the advertiser and perhaps one of the less apparent benefits, eliminating the apprehension/reliance on an agency to accurately track and timely reconcile such estimated billing.

Can anyone cite a single benefit that accrues to an advertiser from this approach? If an advertiser were to purchase inventory directly from the media seller they would pay based upon actual costs, so why should it be any different when purchasing media via a client-agent relationship?

The move to final billing has but one drawback, to one stakeholder… the loss of agency float income on pre-billed activity. While conceptually we don’t believe that it is appropriate for an agent to make money on the use of client funds, we do understand that eliminating this non-transparent source of revenue would have a negative impact on an agency’s bottom-line. This, however, should not be the concern of the advertiser community, as this was never the intent of the estimated billing process to begin with. After all, it is the advertiser’s money and as such, they should be the only stakeholder to benefit from access to and the use of those funds.

Transitioning to actual billing makes good sense from both a treasury management and a transparency accountability perspective. It is more efficient, can reduce payment processing costs and can potentially improve days payable outstanding performance for the media seller.

As it is, advertisers generally have little to no insight into the time gap between remittance of their funds to their agency and in turn the time it takes for the agency to reconcile media activity and remit payment to an advertiser’s third-party media vendors. If client-side CFO’s were aware, there would certainly be significant interest in reforming the estimated billing system and the stewardship of an advertiser’s media advertising investment.

When it comes to financial management within the advertising sector, we have always been cognizant of the words of Robert Sarnoff, past president of NBC and RCA in the mid-twentieth century:

“Finance is the art of passing currency from hand to hand until it finally disappears.” 

Interested in learning more about improved financial management practices across your marketing agency network? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at [email protected] for a complimentary consultation on this topic.

The Problem with Focusing on Payment Terms

24 Jun

agency floatNever one to forgo an opportunity to harangue client-side Procurement and Finance professionals, Sir Martin Sorrell couldn’t help but single out those two groups during a session at the Cannes Lions International Festival.  While the topic was client payment terms, Mr. Sorrell suggested that their influence on marketing decisions is putting pressure on the system and the supply chain.

For the record, I am not an advocate of marketers extending payment terms.  The reason is simple, the savings are illusory as those costs simply get factored into the “cost of doing business,” it incents bad behavior and the trickle-down effect of such policies negatively impacts a range of marketing suppliers in the creative, production and media sectors. 

However, for the agency community in general, and Mr. Sorrell in particular, to rail on the client-side procurement and finance teams for the actions of a handful of advertisers who have extended payment terms to their agencies seems disingenuous.  Why?  For years agency holding companies, such as WPP have exerted their influence which is a bi-product of their increased size and clout to arbitrarily extend their payment terms to 3rd party vendors.  The difference between advertisers such as P&G, Mondelez, AB-InBev and Johnson & Johnson and their counterparts in the agency community is that they at least went public with their policies. 

Agency income from float, the interest earned on the agency’s  between the time a vendor invoice is due and when funds are actually dispersed by the agency to pay that vendor, can be significant.  As part of our contract compliance auditing practice, AARM conducts billing reconciliation and days-payable-outstanding analysis pertaining to agency payments to 3rd party vendors.  It is not uncommon to see average day’s payable levels in excess of 75 to 90 days.  When one considers that most agencies bill their clients upfront, on an estimated basis, the interest income that can be 

earned by agency holding companies on their use of client funds is rarely, if ever, openly discussed or factored into agency remuneration.  Unfortunately, save for a small number of large multi-media conglomerates, suppliers downstream simply have no recourse when agencies extend their days-payable-outstanding.  

Thus when the chairman of one of the world’s largest agency holding companies intones that client-agency relationships are  “in danger of being eroded” due to a handful of advertisers extending payment terms it rings shallow.

Regardless of whether an advertiser views their ad agency suppliers as “partners” or “vendors” is immaterial in the context of this discussion.  One thing everyone should agree on is that the ad agency should never be put in the role of “banker.”  Clients should structure payment terms so that their funds are on hand for the agency to pay 3rd party vendors when those invoices come due.  To extend this concept further, client-agency agreements should contain language requiring agencies to promptly reconcile all 3rd party vendor activity and to process payment to that community within a pre-determined timeframe.

There are numerous opportunities for advertisers to improve treasury management practices when it comes to the handling of their marketing investments.  However, issuing edicts to extend agency payment terms is short-sighted and belies the ripple effect that this practice can have on inflating the cost of doing business for those advertisers.  It is time for advertisers and their agencies to deal with the issue of payment terms; client to agency and agency to 3rd party vendors, in a constructive and transparent manner.  The fact that either side would look to achieve a financial edge at the other’s expense when it comes to the disbursement of funds is not where the focus should be.  As Voltaire, the noted French philosopher once said;

“When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.” 

The focus, lest we forget should be on leveraging that marketing investment to build brands and drive consumer demand for the client’s product and service offering.

Interested in learning more about improved treasury management practices when it comes to agency stewardship and 3rd party vendor payment processing?  Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM at [email protected] for a complimentary consultation.

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