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Ad Industry: Lack of Transparency Limits Trust

5 Dec

dreamstime_s_38659968“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” ~ Stephen Covey

The question often asked of senior marketers by their C-suite peers and in turn by marketers of their agency partners is: “Are we getting optimal value in return for our marketing investment?” A simple question, but one that is not easily answered given the breadth and intricacies of an advertisers marketing communications investment.

Let’s face it, with the pervasiveness of non-transparent fees and AVBs throughout the supply chain along with the number of intermediaries involved in service delivery (often without the advertiser’s knowledge) the strains on working ad dollars are many and can be profound. Combine this with the industry’s “estimated billing” methodology where few if any agencies ever provide third-party vendor invoices to support their billing to clients and it is easy to understand the difficulty advertisers have addressing the question of “did we get what we paid for?”

While the challenges to building trust between advertisers and the myriad of suppliers that touch their business are real, the means of addressing this issue is clear… the industry needs to commit itself to providing full transparency at every level.

Marketers will need to take the first step, reviewing all marketing services agency agreements to ensure that there is adequate language granting them audit rights, establishing record retention criteria and extending these guidelines to not just their agencies, but to third and fourth-party vendors. Further language regulating the appointment and monitoring of “interested parties” by their agency partners and limits to the use of principal-based buys must be incorporated into all agreements. Also, clear reporting and invoicing guidelines must be established with each agency partner to provide advertisers with a clear line of sight into the disposition of their marketing spend at each stage of the investment cycle.

Importantly, marketers will need to invoke their audit rights to conduct periodic reviews of agency compliance with these contract terms as well as each agency’s support of their billings to the client. This is a cost of entry for marketers if they’re truly interested in evaluating the efficacy of their marketing investment.

Consider but one aspect of advertising spend, digital media.

  • Digital media represents more than 50% of client ad spend.
  • Programmatic buying represents better than 90% of all digital display ad buying.
  • Publishers only receive 51% of advertiser programmatic ad spend.
  • Costs such as DSP fees, SSP fees and technology costs represent between 15% and 35% of advertisers spend in this area.
  • An “unknown delta” of one-third* of programmatic supply chain costs could not be identified.

*Source: Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), Association of Online Publishers (AOP) and PwC “Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study.” 

While alarming, these statistics may represent a “best case” scenario when one considers the poor visibility that exists into the layers of intermediaries between advertisers and publishers, including but not limited to agencies, DSPs, SSPs, Ad Exchanges and data verification vendors… each charging a fee for their involvement. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which earlier this year commissioned a study on programmatic transparency, estimates that of the $200 billion plus in programmatic digital media spend “70% doesn’t reach the end consumer.” Where does it go? According to the ANA “it goes to fraudulent or non-viewable impressions, non-brand-safe placements and unknown allocations, as well as being spent on ad fees.”

Take SSP’s for example, they typically bundle fees with media costs once an auction is won and an impression purchased. Thus, advertiser visibility into SSP take rates, revenue share deals with publishers, margin realization rates and the number of hops is obscured.

We do not want to belabor the point, but similar examples of limited transparency exist across the entirety of the marketing communications supply chain.

In closing, we believe that the notion of trust is certainly attainable, but not until transparency reform becomes a reality for advertisers. Near-term, advertisers have another reason to push for transparency and audit the financial management practices of their agencies… stagnant and or reduced budget are putting pressure on marketers to do more, with less. The knowledge gained, historical dollars recovered and future savings realized from a formal accountability program can help to refuel marketing budgets.

Ad Industry Trends Pose Real Risks to Advertisers

26 Oct

Risks

“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.” ~ John F. Kennedy

The advertising industry is an important, dynamic, complex, and rapidly evolving part of the global economy. As such, it is susceptible to the same challenges facing other business sectors… inflation, rising interest rates, recessionary pressures and geopolitical uncertainty.

However, there are unique aspects of this industry that pose challenges to advertisers, agencies, media owners and AdTech companies alike. If you’re a marketer and have not conducted a compliance and financial management audit of your ad agency partners, consider the following:

  • The global economic climate is uncertain for the coming year with economic growth projected to slow from 6.1% in 2021 to 2.7% in 2023 (Source: International Monetary Fund).
  • The economic slowdown is causing advertisers to reconsider and often curtail advertising budgets for the coming year, with ad spend growth projected to slow from 8.3% in 2022 to 2.6% in 2023 (Source: WARC “Ad Spend Outlook 2022-23” Study).
  • Media inflation is anticipated to grow by 6.2% or more in 2023 (Source: ECI Media Management).
  • Marketing and advertising expenditures are a material SG&A expense, with organizations spending between 7 – 8% of gross revenue in this area (Source: Deloitte CMO Survey – 2017)
  • The advertising industry works on an “Estimated Billing” basis, with advertisers paying their agencies in advance of expenses being incurred, with the understanding that estimated costs will be reconciled to actual outlays at the time jobs are closed.
  • Agencies can take months to close and reconcile production jobs and media campaigns, which delays the identification and issuance of credits to advertisers, impacting the accuracy of budgets and subsequent planning.
  • Final Invoicing from ad agencies that reconcile advance billings to actual costs incurred rarely, if ever, include copies of third-party vendor or affiliate invoices. Without documentation to support actual expenditures, your Finance and Marketing departments can only compare final billed amounts to an estimate.
  • Almost one-half of advertisers listed “Transparency” as their leading concern when it comes to their marketing investment (Source: WFA survey, 2017).
  • Digital will represent 61% of U.S. advertising spend in 2023 (Source: Statista).
  • In 2022, 90% of all U.S. digital display advertising ($123 billion) was placed programmatically (Source: eMarketer).
  • Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble referred to the digital supply chain as “murky at best, fraudulent at worst.”
  • In 2021 over 20% of programmatically served ad impressions in the U.S. were “fraudulent” (Source: Statista).
  • Digital ad fraud in the U.S. is forecast to be over $80 billion in 2022, representing 15% of U.S. digital media spend (Source: Statista).
  • Between 35% – 60% of U.S. marketers’ digital ad spend goes toward the “AdTech Tax” or the fees spent on each vendor or intermediary down the supply chain (Source: ANA Study)
  • The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) study on AdTech Transparency being conducted by PwC and Kroll, originally scheduled to be released this month, has been delayed until 2023. Digiday reporting cited “conflicted reporting methodologies,” vested interests,” a lack of full participation (i.e., Google and The Trade Desk are not participating in the study) and the complexity of tracking payments between “relevant parties” as contributing factors.
  • The annual agency employee turnover rate is estimated to be around 30% (Source: Association of National Advertisers and Forbes).
  • 96% of consumers “don’t trust ads” (Source: 4A’s 2019 study).

The preceding stats are alarming to both an organization’s stakeholders and shareholders. A marketers’ ultimate leverage and truth lever is the “Right to Audit” clause contained within the client/ agency agreement. Enacting that right, conducting a formal compliance and financial management review of your agency partners to validate actual costs and time-of-staff along with assessing third-party billings makes good business sense. Such reviews result in financial recoveries, future savings, stronger controls, improved supplier alignment, and enhanced levels of trust in a marketers agency network.

Best of all, each of these outcomes has a positive impact when it comes to optimizing your organization’s advertising investment.

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.

3 Reasons Advertisers Should Audit Their Advertising Spend

29 Jun

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Virtually all client-agency agreements contain both an “audit” and “record retention” clause. The purpose of this language is to afford advertisers the ability to answer the question, “Are we getting what we paid for? Yet, few advertisers ever implement contract compliance, financial management or performance reviews of their agency partners.

There are multiple reasons why the marketing budget, a material expense, and the stakeholders responsible for stewarding those funds (e.g., advertising agencies) have not undergone more scrutiny. Few of those reasons make much sense when compared to the risks and costs faced by advertisers choosing not to periodically assess how effectively their funds are being managed.

Below are three key reasons why we believe that advertisers should exercise their audit rights:

  1. Flaws Tied to Estimated Billing Process – The ad industry operates primarily on an “Estimated” billing basis. Plans are approved by the client, purchase orders issued, and the agency then bills the advertiser in advance for the approved amount. In theory, estimated fees and third-party costs are reconciled to actual costs once a job is closed. However, this does not always occur in a timely or accurate manner. Experience shows that perils abound such as, approved but unspent funds are accumulated by the agency, unused funds are rolled over to other brands/ jobs/time periods for future use, unapproved and non-transparent mark-ups are applied, unbilled media balances are retained for inordinately long periods of time and aged credits are not always returned to the advertiser in a timely manner. In the end, left unchecked, agencies can hold and direct how and when client funds get applied to a greater extent than most client-side CFOs or Internal Audit directors would approve of.
  2. Review of Support for Agency Billings to Client – Because clients are typically billed in advance by their agencies on an estimated basis, and agency final invoicing almost never contains third-party or fourth-party invoice support, the only way an advertiser can evaluate whether agency billings are accurately supported is to conduct a financial review of all underlying billings being passed through from the agency to the advertiser. At a minimum, this includes validating billing costs from vendors to the agency and payments from the agency to the vendors. Further, for direct labor-based remuneration programs, which rely on the accurate entry and tracking of time by agency personnel, advertisers should independently review agency timekeeping system data and processes to validate any time tracking reports being provided. Such reviews should also include assessing the types of personnel logging time (i.e., full-time employees, temporary employees, freelancers, interns, etc.), the staffing mix relative to the approved staffing plan and agency employee turn-over rates on their business… data not always shared with clients.
  3. Performance Validation – Results matter. Whether in the context of compliance with contract terms, attainment of agreed upon goals and KPIs or delivery against planned spend levels advertisers stand to benefit from independent reviews of their agency partners’ performance. Given the increased pressure on CMOs to achieve results, it is imperative they have confidence in the outcomes associated with their and their agency’s stewardship of marketing funds. As importantly, their C-Suite peers routinely question the efficacy of an organization’s marketing investment and to what extent that expense is contributing to the attainment of company goals and objectives.

Audit is not a four-letter word. We have witnessed first-hand the positive impact that an independent review of an organization’s marketing investment can have on both safeguarding and optimizing those funds. These reviews yield solid learning as it relates to improved controls, risk mitigation and efficiencies tied to process improvements. Further, the identification and recovery of funds tied to billing errors, compliance violations, aged credits, rebates, and under-delivery (i.e., agency resources, media, etc.), when combined with the identification of cost avoidance strategies for the future, far exceed the cost of an audit.

Importantly, advertising agencies also benefit from these projects when client-side instructions, process inefficiencies and timing issues (i.e., ineffective briefing processes, disorderly client approval process, short project lead times, the timing of the release of funds, etc.) are brought to light and addressed.  As well, it’s always a great result when the clarification of the intent of certain terms included in client-agency contracts aligns with everyone’s future expectations.

In short, properly structured audit programs, which deal with both client and agency stakeholders in a candid and collaborative manner identify solutions and help to lay the groundwork for implementing the changes necessary to improve the client’s return-on-marketing-investment. As such, Chief Financial Officers and Chief Audit Officers should require marketing to allocate funds in their annual plan to cover this important transparency and accountability program. The cost? Tenths of a percentage of an organization’s annual spend, with financial returns that dwarf the outlay for implementing a formal audit initiative.

Building a Foundation for Trust in Client/ Agency Relationships

27 Feb

dreamstime_s_38659968Perhaps I was fortunate. Perhaps it was a sign of the times. When I began my career at J. Walter Thompson, we took great pride as an organization in the number of client relationships that we had, which were measured in decades. Clients such as Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, and others were celebrated, revered, and nurtured.

Not unlike today, there were challenges to be faced and pressures to be dealt with, whether market-driven or internal.  So, what allowed those relationships to flourish through good times and bad?

The answer was simple. Trust and a mutual commitment to the partnership combined with alignment on business objectives.

Today it is believed that the average length of client-agency relationships is around 3½ years. Is this reduction in longevity correlated with the fact that there has been a slow, but steady erosion in the level of trust between advertisers and their agencies? Consider that a couple of years back, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) conducted a survey and found that only 29% of its member marketers ranked the “current level of trust between client-side marketers and ad agencies as high.”

A waning level of trust can inhibit communication between stakeholders leading to difficulties that throttle the productivity of the partnership. Conversely, as Stephen Covey once said:

When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

Thus, if you believe that stable, long-term strategic partnerships are more conducive to achieving an organization’s business and marketing objectives, then the obvious question is “How can we establish client-agency relationships that endure the test of time?” The answer seems obvious… addressing the issue of trust.

In our experience, there are three fundamental steps that can be taken to build and maintain trust between advertisers and their agency partners.

  1. Contractual agreement predicated on a “Principal-Agent” model – Simply put, in this type of relationship the agency is charged with acting on the client’s behalf and in their best interest. This legally binds the agency to always put the client’s interests first and eliminates their ability to benefit from the relationship at the client’s expense. One of the beneficial outcomes of this type of model is that the client can take solace in knowing that the advice and recommendations of the “Agent” is more likely to be unbiased. In the event that an agency recommends the consideration of principal-based or inventory media buys or the use of or procurement of services/products from a related party of the agency, then the agreement language should require full-disclosure and prior written client approval.
  2. Periodic agency contract compliance and financial management reviews – Having a sound contract in place is a positive step in the right direction. However, if an agency’s compliance with contract terms and conditions is uncertain then achieving the desired level of trust may be elusive. Given industry concerns regarding transparency, all stakeholders will benefit from an independent evaluation of compliance and performance. Further, knowing that there will be an additional layer of oversight inspires stakeholders on both sides of the partnership to uphold the client organization’s desired levels of governance and transparency established within the agreement. This is not a sign of mistrust, but a signal of an advertiser’s commitment to the principle of “assurance.” As the saying goes: “In God we trust, all others we audit.”
  3. Establishing a fair and compelling agency remuneration program – Properly compensating agency partners is fundamental to securing the requisite level of support and bolstering an agency’s commitment to its fiduciary role. Additionally, a well-paid agency is less likely to engage in practices such as the pursuit of vendor kickbacks, the application of non-transparent mark-ups, profiting from the use of client funds, or the unauthorized use of sub-contractors and related parties. Contractual language capping agency revenue to that which is authorized within the agreement and subsequent statements of work will also protect the advertiser from these tactics and help curtail agency temptation to inappropriately supplement its income at the expense of its fiduciary obligations to its clients.

We have seen firsthand the benefits of this proven formula in promoting transparency and bolstering an organization’s trust in its agency partners. Thus, marketers and their agency counterparts should consider embracing this approach to strengthen and reinforce long-term agency-client relationships by ensuring a solid footing.

Can Advertisers Justify the Use of Programmatic Buying?

28 Dec

Programmatic SpendWhich of the following two statements do you find most surprising:

1.  Only 30 cents of every dollar an advertiser invests programmatically reaches the consumer.

2. More than 8 out of every 10 U.S. marketers use programmatic technology to purchase media.

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) indicated that global programmatic spending “is on track to exceed $200 billion” this year. Further, it noted that PwC estimated that “more than 70% “of a typical advertiser’s budget “does not result in media that reaches the end consumer.”

Where does the money go you ask? According to the ANA the shortfall “factors in ad fees, fraud, non-viewable impressions, non-brand-safe placements and unknown allocations.”

These findings should do little to inspire confidence within the C-suite of any advertiser organization. The alarm bells should be going off when one considers that more than 50% of an advertiser’s spending goes to digital media and that the majority of that is purchased programmatically. Add in the growing percentage of TV, radio and out-of-home advertising being purchased programmatically and the level of working media for most advertisers is seriously compromised.

Thus, while we applaud the ANA’s recently announced initiative to engage PwC, Kroll, and Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) to conduct an in-depth study of the “programmatic buying ecosystem” we continue to have reservations.

The reason for our apprehension? The lack of meaningful progress that followed the findings of the ANA’s 2016 study of “Media Transparency in the U.S. Advertising Industry.” This combined with the fact that advertisers continue to allocate a greater share of their ad budget to sectors of the media marketplace that are fraught with non-transparency and brand safety challenges, fraudulent activity and where intermediaries tack on fees that seriously dilute an advertiser’s investment.

We understand that the advertising marketplace is complex and rapidly changing. But there is no rationale for money being siphoned away from delivering an advertiser’s message to consumers.

It is our belief that the quickest way to address these challenges is for advertisers to publicly announce that they will be curtailing their programmatic ad spending until the requisite safety measures and processes are in place that safeguards their investment. Then and only then will media ownership groups, ad technology providers and media service agencies get serious about eliminating waste and improving efficiencies. In the words of the 18th century French writer, Voltaire:

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

At a minimum, as good measure to vouch for the funds already invested, advertisers may want to seriously consider a combination of financial and media performance audits to fully understand how their advertising investments are being managed.

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.

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We Know We Should Audit, But…

30 Mar
Hesitation

We’ve all seen the look on the face of an anxious toddler as they prepare to jump into the waiting arms of a parent in a pool.

The child wants to leap, knows there is little risk, trusts their parent and knows that the feeling of satisfaction related to their action will far outweigh their apprehension, yet they hesitate to take the plunge. This scenario can be analogous to organization’s considering an independent contract compliance audit of an advertising agency partner.

Managers’ go through a series of considerations when weighing whether or not to conduct an agency compliance and financial management review, including:

  • It’s not that we don’t trust our ad agency partners
  • It’s not that we don’t believe our agencies are putting forth their “best efforts” to safeguard our marketing investment
  • It’s not that we don’t have confidence that our marketing team is effectively safeguarding our marketing budget

But…

  • We have never audited this aspect of our SG&A
  • Marketing spend is a material expense
  • Our C-suite executives are asking questions regarding risks and controls
  • Over time, our agency roster has grown and spending has increased
  • We read the trade press and are concerned about fraud, brand safety, adherence to fiduciary standards and the like

In the end, Finance, Procurement and or Internal Audit leadership know they should undertake this important risk reducing work. They also realize that an outside specialists provides valuable industry expertise. Yet, they often cannot get to “yes.” 

Why the hesitation? The reasons are many; Marketing indicates that the timing is not right, we don’t have the budget, we’ve conducted internal reviews ourselves, our agency is a trusted partner, we’re considering transitioning agencies… and the list goes on.

The good news is that all rationale cited for not moving forward with comprehensive testing of  ad agency partner billings, costs and contract compliance can be readily addressed. The audit process is not time consuming, poses no relationship risk, is allowed for in the client-agency agreement, and most importantly the benefits far outweigh the cost / risk of the audit not proceeding.

Audit results yield a combination of historical financial recoveries tied to billing errors, unauthorized mark-up, unreconciled jobs, and outstanding credits.  Financial true-ups and learning far outpace the initial audit investment. And most importantly, the work yields forward looking process improvement, contract language improvement, financial refinement, and risk mitigation opportunities to generate cost savings and peace of mind.

With proper oversight, we have seen concerns regarding agency accountability replaced with a sense of trust and confidence. Key benefits in a market sector noted for its lack of transparency, murky supply-chains and lack of trust.

Where does your organization stand on this important accountability practice? Perhaps the words of Daniel Wagner, a widely published author on current affairs and risk management, can embolden organizations to take the prudent action:

“Some risks that are thought to be unknown, are not unknown. With some foresight and critical thought, some risks that at first glance may seem unforeseen, can in fact be foreseen. Armed with the right set of tools, procedures, knowledge and insight, light can be shed on variables that lead to risk, allowing us to manage them.” 

Freelancers Are Not Employees – How Is Your Ad Agency Billing Them Out?

24 Mar

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Why state the obvious? Because many agencies bill freelance and temporary labor to their clients at fully-loaded contract rates, rather than on a pass-through basis, net of any mark-up.

This is simply not an appropriate practice, unless the client is fully aware and understands the cost differential between a full-time employee and an independent resource.

There are no issues with using freelancers and temps to flex agency staffing to meet fluctuating work levels, backfill for an employee on an extended absence or to access someone with a specific skill set. This is a common and acceptable practice which makes good sense. However, it is also an area often marked by a lack of transparency and, dependent upon agency/client agreement language, the application of unauthorized mark-ups by agency financial teams.

In many, if not most instances, agencies do not inform their clients as to which service team members are freelancers or temps. Our experiences show rather than being identified as freelancers, they are often assigned agency job titles and classified as full-time employees in time tracking reports and fee reconciliations.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen, particularly with direct-labor-based remuneration agreements, is that these individuals are routinely billed out at negotiated contract rates, just the same as the agency’s full-time employees would be.

Without performing comprehensive contract compliance and financial management audits or diligently validating adherence to agreement language already in place, this practice is typically left unabated. Our viewpoint is that unless specifically authorized by a client, billings for freelance and temporary employees should reflect the actual net cost invoiced to the agency. Even if costs are billed at net, agencies are still being compensated for the additional time incurred by full-time employees to procure, educate and supervise these non-employees.

Further support for this position is that agencies simply do not incur the same costs for freelancers and temps as they do for full-time employees. For example,

  • Freelancers do not participate in agency benefit plans such as health insurance, profit sharing or 401K matching. Nor are they paid for holidays, personal comp or vacation time.
  • Agencies seldomly provide onsite workspace at their offices.
  • Agencies bear no cost in training and or career development.

Net, net, freelancers and temps are third-party suppliers. Inferences that charging freelance at full contract rates is an “Industry Standard” or should be considered “fair” is simply not supportable. 

This is a profitable endeavor for agencies, one that can yield extraordinary margins. Consider a scenario where an agency pays a freelancer $100 per hour for their services, then charges that time at a contract rate of $150 per hour. This practice would net the agency a 50% mark-up!

Over the years, we have not had a single client who knowingly allowed subcontractors, of any type, to be charged in this manner. Contract language often dictates and or clients usually expect that these charges are being billed on a pass-through basis. At times, we have seen instances where an allowance has been granted for a modest mark-up on freelance cost (e.g. 10% to 15%) to offset the administrative cost of engaging such individuals or for processing them through their payroll system to cover costs such as FICA. Beyond this, agencies really don’t have a basis for applying fully-loaded rates.

For advertisers, this is a worthwhile conversation to have with their agency partners to determine current practices and to reinforce expectations on a go-forward basis.

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