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Advertisers: What Does the Department of Justice Know That You Don’t?

19 Oct

FBI LogoIt has been two years since the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) published its blockbuster study on media transparency in the U.S. marketplace. Among the study’s findings were that the use of media rebates paid by publishers to agencies was “pervasive” and that there was a “fundamental disconnect” regarding client-agency relationships and the agencies assumed fiduciary obligation to act in an advertiser’s best interest.

Later that same year, December of 2016, the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced that it was conducting an investigation into the practice of “bid rigging” by agencies for TV and video production jobs. The bid rigging was allegedly being done to favor the agencies in-house production groups over independent production companies. This was done by urging outside production vendors to artificially inflate their bids, creating a reason and a paper trail for supporting the agency’s decision to award the production job to their in-house studio, which coincidentally bid a lower price for the work. At least four of the major ad agency holding companies were subpoenaed as part of this ongoing investigation.

One year after the release of the ANA media transparency study the ANA conducted research among its members that found:

  • 60% had taken “some” steps to address the study’s findings
  • 40% had not taken steps or weren’t sure if their companies had taken action
  • 50%+ of those that had taken steps indicated that had revised agency contract language
  • 20% of those that had taken steps had conducted audits of their agency partners

Given the $200 billion plus in estimated U.S. media spending (source: MAGNA, 2018) and the $5 billion U.S. commercial production market the aforementioned numbers are stunning in that more advertisers have not taken action to safeguard their advertising investment by implementing controls and oversight actions that mitigate risks and improve transparency.

It would appear as though the Department of Justice is taking these matters more seriously than many advertisers. The reason that the DoJ and FBI have undertaken probes of U.S. media buying and creative production bidding practices is quite simple… fraud, price fixing and bid rigging are prohibited under federal law.

The question is; “Why haven’t more advertisers, whose media and production dollars are at risk, been more proactive in constructively addressing these issues with their agency partners?”

The fact that the federal government has determined that it was necessary to launch two separate investigations into U.S. advertising industry practices is a clear signal that marketers should reinvigorate their oversight and compliance efforts. The stakes are high and the risks have not abated since the aforementioned practices first came to light.

If federal investigations into ad agency practices in these areas isn’t enough to spur advertisers to action, perhaps the words of Jon Mandel, former CEO of Mediacom in an interview with Mumbrella following his whistleblowing presentation regarding media agency “kickbacks” at an ANA conference in 2015 will provide the necessary incentive;

Clients need to stop suspending disbelief. The agency is supposed to be a professional providing you with proper advice not tarnished by their own profit. Marketers need to know the limits of that.

 

 

Decision Time for Advertisers in Wake of ANA Study on Media Rebates

5 Jul

time to decideU.S. advertisers have long suspected their presence and agencies have steadfastly denied accepting rebates in the U.S. market. Depending on which side of the ledger one fell on, the ANA/ K2 study on media transparency may not have swayed your perspective on the topic one iota.

If such is the case, that is too bad. As the noted Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw once said:

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their mind cannot change anything.”

The study was thorough, insightful and shed light on some of the non-transparent sources of revenue available to agencies. These range from AVBs or rebates and value banks consisting of no-charge media weight to the spread earned by agency trading desks from the practice of media arbitrage or “principle buying” as it is often called. The source of these findings were agency, ad tech and publisher personnel that participated in the study in exchange for the ANA and K2 protecting their anonymity. Of note, not one representative from an agency holding company or ad agency was willing to go on the record and participate in this study.

We believe that the study should serve as a wake-up call for advertisers and agencies alike to engage in serious discussions regarding the level of disclosure desired by clients when it comes to the stewardship of their media investment. In the wake of the 4A’s shortsighted, premature withdrawal from the joint task force dealing with this topic and their subsequent challenges of the ANA/ K2 study methodology and findings, these discussions will have to occur on a one-on-one basis. Which, candidly, is the best means of affecting near-term change.

In most instances, it is not illegal for agencies to generate non-transparent revenue and is likely not even a violation of the agreements, which have been signed with their clients. Why? The contracts are lacking in the requisite control language to protect advertisers and agencies are masters at interpreting “gray areas” within those agreements and bending the rules in their favor. This coupled with the fact that only a small percentage of advertisers audit their agency partners and it is easy to see how such practices could exist.

Thus, as an industry we should not cast blame for the emergence of non-transparent revenue as an important element in agency remuneration programs… even if not sanctioned by advertisers. Nor should we accept the agencies excuse that client’s driving fees down somehow makes it acceptable for agencies to pursue non-transparent revenue to counter remuneration agreements, which agencies have knowingly signed on for.

Agencies are not suffering financially. Consider that in the first-quarter of 2016 the “Big 4” holding companies all saw increases in revenue ranging between 0.9% – 10.5%. WPP achieved a 10.5% increase on an 8.5% increase in billings, OMG saw net income per diluted share increase 8.4% and IPG achieved operating margins of 33.8%. Between these performances and media inflation outstripping GDP growth or increases in CPI and PPI it is easy to see how advertiser investments are fueling the trend of continued acquisition by these holding companies as they snatch up ad tech firms, content firms, digital agencies and traditional ad shops. Not to mention the fact that WPP’s chairman has an annual compensation package, which tops $100 million per year.

The focus of clients and agencies should be on returning to a principal/agent relationship predicated on full-disclosure. This is the surest path to rebuilding trust and establishing solid relationships focused on objectivity, transparency and a mutual focus on maximizing advertiser return-on-media-investment. Secondarily, both parties need to evaluate how to minimize the number of middlemen in the media buying loop, particularly for digital media, rethinking the role of ad tech firms, exchanges and publishers and the cut that each takes, lowering the advertisers working media ratios.

From our perspective there are four steps, which advertisers can take to address these issues:

  1. Revisit client/ agency Master Services Agreements to tighten terms and conditions, which deal with disclosure, financial stewardship and audit rights.
  2. Undertake constructive conversations regarding agency remuneration, with the goal of ensuring that your agency partners are fairly compensated, removing any incentive for non-transparent revenue generating behaviors.
  3. Pay more attention to the proper construction of statements of work (SOWs), establishing clear deliverables and review/ approval processes against which your agency partners can assess the resource investment required to achieve such deliverables. This will assist both client and agency in aligning remuneration, resources and expectations.
  4. Monitor agency performance, resource investment levels vis-à-vis the staffing plan and audit contract compliance to ensure that contractual controls and the resulting levels of protection and transparency are being met.

The ANA/ K2 study can and should serve as a platform for advertisers and their agency partners to work through any concerns or expectations regarding media transparency, both in the U.S. and across the globe. Experience suggests that progressive organizations will use the insights gleaned from the study as a launch pad for improving contractual controls, working media ratios and client/ agency relations.

For the industry, it is important to dispatch with concerns regarding media transparency quickly. This will allow all stakeholders to focus on tackling the myriad of issues that dramatically impact media effectiveness including ad fraud, cross channel audience delivery measurement, viewability and attribution modeling.

 

Is the Ad Industry on the Verge of a Revolution?

25 May

White clock with words Time for Action on its face

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Charles Dickens evocative opening to his book; “A Tale of Two Cities” described the period leading up to the French revolution. It may also be an apt description of where the ad industry and advertisers stand on the topics of transparency, fraud and trust.

As an industry, all stakeholders, including advertisers, agencies, ad tech firms, media sellers and the various associations, which serve these constituencies have long been talking about the need to implement corrective measures. Joint task forces have been formed, initiatives launched and guidelines published, yet little progress has been made in addressing these issues. As evidence of the quagmire, one need look no further than the 2016 Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and White Ops report on digital ad fraud, which saw the estimated level of thievery increase by $1 billion in 2015 to an estimated $7 billion annually. This led Bob Liodice, CEO of the ANA to boldly and rightfully tell attendees at this year’s ANA “Agency Financial Management” conference that; “marketers are getting their money stolen.”

The ANA’s message has resonated with the C-Suite within advertiser organizations the world over as CEOs, CFOs CIAs and CPO’s are working with their chief marketing officers to both assess the risks to their organizations and in fashioning solutions to safeguard their advertising investments. From this pundit’s perspective, it was refreshing to see the ANA take such a strong stance and a welcomed leadership position on remedying these blights on our industry.

Some may view the ANA’s recent stance on fraud and transparency and the upcoming release of its study with K2 on the use of agency volume bonuses (AVBs) or rebates as incendiary. However, in light of the scope of the economic losses, financial and legal risks to advertisers and the havoc which transparency concerns have wreaked on advertiser/ agency relationships we view the ANA’s approach as a rational, measured and necessary stake in the ground.

Mr. Liodice was not casting blame when he suggested that the K2 survey would “be a black and white report that for us (ANA) will be unassailable documentation of what the truth is.” It is refreshing to see an industry association elevate dialog around the need for full-disclosure, moving from disparate opinions to establishing a fact-based perspective on the scope of this practice. To the ANA’s credit, this will be followed by a second report, authored by Ebiquity/ Firm Decisions, introducing guidelines for the industry to proactively address the issue.

To be clear, it is not a level playing field for advertisers. There are many forces at play as a variety of entities look to siphon off portions of an advertisers media investment for their own financial gain. Thus, we’re hopeful that the ANA’s message to marketers to “take responsibility” for their financial and contractual affairs when it comes to protecting their advertising investment takes hold.

In our experience, the path forward for advertisers is clear. It begins with re-evaluating their marketing service agency contracts to integrate “best practice” language that provides the requisite legal and financial safeguards. Additionally, this document should clearly establish performance expectations for each of their agency partners, introducing guidelines to minimize the impact of fraud, including mandating the use of fraud prevention and traffic validation technology, banning the use of publisher sites that employ traffic sourcing and establishing a full-disclosure, principal-agent relationship with their agency partners.

Experience suggests that another key element of a well-rounded accountability initiative should include the ongoing, systematic monitoring of agency contract compliance and financial management performance to evaluate progress. Of note, wherever possible, these controls and practices should extend to direct non-agency vendors and third-party vendors involved with the planning, creation and distribution of and advertisers messaging.

The advertising industry is on the verge of a revolution and for the sake of advertisers we hope so. One that can usher in positive change and allow all legitimate stakeholders to refocus their collective energies on building productive relationships predicated on trust. It is our belief that knowledge and transparency are critical cornerstones in this process:

“I believe in innovation – and that the way you get innovation is you learn the basic facts.”

                                                                                                                                                  ~ Bill Gates

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

1 May

iceberg riskPart 2 of a two-part look advertiser concerns regarding “transparency” and the impact it is having on client-agency relations.

Why is a tight client-agency agreement important? One need look no further than the recent comments of Maurice Levy, Chairman of Publicis; We have a clear contract with our clients, and we are absolutely rigorous in respecting transparency and the contracts.”  It should be noted that other agency executives have also cited their compliance with the terms of their client agreements as part of their response to recent questions regarding transparency in the context of rebates and the lack of full-disclosure associated with trading desk operations.

As contract compliance auditors we would suggest that most of the client-agency agreements, which we review do not have sufficient language to deal with the evolving advertising landscape.  It is common to find contract language gaps when it comes to items such as; AVBs, related party obligations, disclosure requirements and or right to audit clauses. Therefore, it is quite possible for an agency to be in compliance with an agreement as Mr. Levy suggested and still not be operating in a fully transparent manner.

To the extent that reducing the level of opacity is an important step in establishing a solid client-agency relationship founded on the basis of trust, we would strongly encourage advertisers to review their marketing agency partner agreements.

If agencies truly functioned as principal agents for the advertiser, a less structured agreement may pose less risk. However, today we operate in a complex environment where agencies may have a financial stake in certain outcomes and those stakes are not always fully disclosed to clients. Thus the reality is that the potential for bias to impact an agency’s recommendations clearly negates the principal of agency neutrality.  Think about it, agencies today operate as independent agents, partnering with a range of third-party vendors in the research, technology and media sectors and actually owning and reselling media inventory to their clients.

Don’t agree? Consider the comments of Irwin Gotlieb, CEO of WPP’s Group M at the aforementioned ANA conference; “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.”

It is imperative that advertisers protect themselves from a legal and financial perspective by crafting contract language and implementing the appropriate monitoring and control processes to insure that they have the transparency that they seek in the context of their agency partners’ financial stewardship of their advertising investment.  This does not mean that clients cannot forge solid relationships with their agencies or that their agency partners should not be afforded positions of trust. Quite the contrary, it simply means that candid, direct dialog must occur so that each party in the relationship is clear and comfortable with regard to the guidelines that will be put in place to govern their relationship.

Once clients and agencies have aligned their interests in the context of their relationship, the ability to focus their time, talent and resources on driving business forward and tackling industry challenges will be greatly enhanced. Interested in learning more about industry best practices when it comes to client-agency agreements? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management, LLC at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this important topic.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Is Agency Ownership of Audience Measurement Providers a Good Idea?

13 Feb

transparencyRecently, WPP indicated that they were planning to take a large equity stake in comScore, one of the world’s largest online campaign measurement providers. This is in addition to WPP’s recent investment in Rentrak, a television audience measurement service, an organization in which WPP is now the largest institutional shareowner.

With WPP’s continued push into the campaign measurement space, advertisers may begin to question the consequences of an agency holding company’s ownership of audience delivery measurement resources. After all, these campaign measurement service providers gather and analyze data and publish ratings which are utilized to assess the efficacy of the agency’s media purchasing efforts on the advertiser’s behalf.

More broadly, based upon the business activities in which the agency holding companies now routinely engage in, one might legitimately question whether or not the designation of “agent” is even an apt description of the role which advertising firms play in support of their clients. Activities such as media arbitrage or reselling if one prefers, joint media and technology ownership deals with publishers, participation in AVB or volume rebate programs offered by media owners to agency holding companies tied to transactions entered into on behalf of their clients, all raise a legitimate question about “Whose” interests agencies are beholden to.

What recourse do advertisers have? After all, there are often distinct advantages to utilizing large agency holding company brands. Independent agencies, which while unencumbered by questions regarding their fiduciary focus, sometimes lack the scale or depth of resources required to perform in certain situations. Enlightened protectionism in the 21st century requires advertisers to aggressively push for enhanced transparency, improved controls and the unimpeachable right to audit their agency’s contract compliance and financial management performance. In the oft quoted words of President Ronald Reagan; “Trust, but verify.”

As a sound first step, it is essential for advertisers to understand their agency partners’ affiliate relationships. Secondly, it is imperative for advertisers to fashion contract language which requires their agencies to provide full disclosure when an agency affiliate is being utilized on their behalf, how that affiliate is compensated and by whom and whether or not the rates charged by that affiliate are competitive with comparable providers in the market. Whether in the context of ad serving, programmatic buying, trading desk operations or campaign measurement, an advertiser has a right to know when their agency has engaged an affiliate firm. This affords client stakeholders the opportunity to raise any questions or concerns they may have regarding such a selection and its impact on the agency’s objectivity. 

Once affiliate firms have been identified, tracking what percentage of an advertiser’s budget is being spent collectively at the agency holding company level can prove enlightening. More importantly, understanding the value of their account to the holding company based upon total revenues enhances an advertiser’s negotiating position when considering agency remuneration options going forward. 

As the ad industry has grown in size, generating approximately $521.6 billion in revenue in 2014 (source: MAGNA GLOBAL), it has also grown in complexity which is due in large to the rate and rapidity of technological change. Thus, it comes as no surprise that relationships among industry stakeholders have evolved, becoming more complex in their own right. The industry has begun to come to terms with the plurality of such relationships where partners may simultaneously be competitors or buyer agents may also function as sellers. However, “coming to terms” doesn’t mean blind acceptance. Rather it requires a new level of discourse and enhanced controls to protect advertisers and their investment.

Interested in learning more about agency network “affiliate management?” Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management, LLC at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on the topic.  

 

Have You Discussed AVBs With Your Media Agency?

6 Feb

agencies as resellersIf not, the obvious question is: “Why Not?”  More importantly, if your media agency hasn’t initiated dialogue with you on this topic don’t wait any longer; engage them directly to gain an understanding on their practices in this area and to share your organization’s perspectives on this complex topic.

What are agency volume bonification deals?  Commonly referred to as AVBs, agency volume deals, rebates or media kick-backs, these deals typically take the form of cash incentives offered to media agencies by media owners to incent them to spend more on their properties.  Long a part of the media landscape around the globe, there’s growing concern within the industry that the use of AVBs is more prevalent (and non-transparent) in the U.S. than had been previously thought.  Those were the findings of a 2012 survey conducted by the ANA in conjunction with Reed Smith on this topic. 

The value of AVBs, which vary by media, by spending level and by country, can be significant, ranging between 3% – 20% of an advertiser’s net media spend.  There are two primary issues with these deals.  The first concern regards the potential of this incremental revenue to unduly influence agency decisions on advertiser media placements, potentially allocating more dollars to a particular media or outlet than would be warranted based upon approved media strategies and or the media properties share of market.  The second has to do with the lack of transparency around these deals between the agency and their clients. 

Unfortunately, a lack of transparency into the presence of AVBs usually results in the advertiser not receiving their pro-rata share of any rebates secured by the agency as a result of the client’s media investment.  While the view regarding “who’s” entitled to the proceeds from AVBs varies somewhat depending upon the country and whether you’re speaking with an agency or an advertiser, one thing is clear… AVBs are earned as a direct result of the cumulative financial investment made by an agency’s client base.  Thus, it isn’t surprising that a majority of advertisers believe that they are entitled to their pro-rata share of any and all earned rebates by the agency brand and or holding company that they are working with.  In fact, in the aforementioned ANA survey on the topic, 85% of survey respondents believed that agencies “should remit all dollars to clients.”

As it stands, an advertiser’s contract with their media agency may not even address this topic, either specifically or in the broader context of any and all earned discounts, no-charge media weight and or rebates.  Thus, the best place to start is a review of the current Letter-of-Agreement that governs the client/agency relationship.  Additionally, direct open and candid conversations between senior members of the advertiser and agency teams are warranted to sort out whether or not the agency is in fact participating in AVB programs and, if they are, the resulting media allocation and or financial impacts on the advertiser.

A forewarning, do not get frustrated.  Too often when it comes to AVBs the first response back from an agency is often “What is an AVB?”  This is typically followed by a firm denial of the agency’s participation in any such incentive program.  To be fair, the day-to-day account team at the agency usually does not have insight into the agency or agency holding company’s practices in this area.  That is why it is best to engage senior representatives from the agency when it comes to this sensitive topic.  Let’s face it, if the agency is currently collecting and retaining any level of AVB rebates that goes directly to the agency’s bottom-line, they often keep this information extremely confidential.  Thus, clients requesting transparency into this practice and or demanding their pro-rata share of the AVB activity has the potential to significantly impact the agency’s income in a negative manner.  In the words of Winston Churchill:

“There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true.”

In our experience, a discussion regarding AVBs will likely lead to a broader conversation regarding agency remuneration, scope of work, agency staffing and deliverables.  It is our opinion that advertisers and agencies alike should welcome this conversation with open arms.  Why?  This represents an opportunity to put everything on the table ranging from billable rates, overhead rates, overhead components and guaranteed profit levels so that both parties can discuss the financial aspects of their relationship in a comprehensive, transparent and open manner. 

Finally, one of the more startling findings in the ANA research on this topic was that 40% of the advertiser organizations surveyed were “not sure” if their agency agreements had language dealing with AVBs.  If you harbor any doubt about the appropriateness of the language governing behavior in this area within your agreement, now would be a great time to review the document with your legal team. 

Interested in a second opinion of the soundness of your client/ agency agreement or whether your agency has been remitting any AVBs due your company?  Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM via email at ccampeau@aarmusa.com to schedule a complimentary review.

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