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Who Says Advertisers Don’t Want Transparency?

26 Nov

transparency“No one wants full transparency.”

It was alleged that this intriguing pull quote echoed the sentiments of agency buyers at a gathering of agency executives dealing with the topic of “Transparency in Media Buying.” The event, hosted by Digiday in London, provided participants with complete anonymity with regard to their name and or company affiliation in order to encourage an open exchange of information on the topic. Understood.

Participants shared a range of thoughts as to why advertisers weren’t truly interested in media transparency. The ideas proffered by this group included:

  • A belief that advertisers were concerned about the costs associated with revamping how digital media is purchased.
  • Advertiser concern related to the impact of “overhauling how much” they spend on media.
  • A general lack of advertiser interest in the “mechanical” detail that underlies the media acquisition and delivery process.

There are two major problems with this perspective.

The first is the belief among digital media supply chain participants that advertisers should bear the financial burden related to the poor decisions made by agencies, ad tech vendors and publishers with regard to how media buys were executed, tracked and reported on. For years these intermediaries knowingly shirked their fiduciary responsibility to serve the advertiser’s best interest and to safeguard their media investment. To come back now and suggest that if advertisers want a return to normalcy it will cost them more in fees and the actual rates paid for media inventory is preposterous. Did these firms reduce their fees and costs to advertisers while they were participating in media arbitrage and purchasing low quality, high risk inventory (often without the advertiser’s knowledge)? Of course not. They padded their respective bottom lines at the expense of advertisers.

Secondly, the notion that advertisers aren’t interested in the mechanics and science behind the planning, buying, stewardship and performance analysis of media buys seems to be misguided. Or at the very least, not representative of the views held by a majority of advertisers, many who have cited media transparency as one of their most important concerns in industry survey after industry survey. Additionally, Gartner Research recently released the results of its “CMO Spend” survey and noted that chief marketing officers at advertiser organizations in the U.S. and UK were focused on areas such as email marketing, online media management and digital analytics as their top tech priorities. This further underscores advertiser interest in leveraging technology to improve transparency and drive media performance.

Perhaps the clients represented by the agency personnel at the Digiday event are different than those with whom we interact with on a regular basis or those who participate in industry surveys.

Or perhaps the more accurate sentiment is that no one on the agency, ad tech or publisher side wants full transparency. Either way, if the media supply chain doesn’t recognize and begin to address client concerns and the corrective actions that advertisers are already taking the risk of revenue contraction and ultimately disintermediation is real.

One only needs to read the Association of National Advertiser’s (ANA) October, 2018 study; “The Continued Rise of the In-House Agency” to understand the cost to intermediaries of not taking advertisers’ best interest to heart:

  • 78% of ANA members surveyed had an in-house agency in 2018 versus 58% in 2013 and 42% in 2008.
  • 90% of the survey respondents indicated that the workload of their in-house agencies had increased in the past year, including 65% for whom the workload had increased significantly.

Media supply chain stakeholders may want to heed the words of 20th century Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand:

“We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

 

Programmatic Digital Media Reforms. Too Little, Too Late?

23 Oct

toolittletoolate

There was an interesting announcement earlier this month, regarding the potential for introducing much needed reforms to the programmatic digital media marketplace.  Specifically, several of the top exchanges announced that they had reached out to the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) for help in cleaning up some of the non-toward practices that have plagued digital advertisers. 

As part of the group’s efforts, these exchanges have agreed to not charge hidden fees or offer rebates that unduly influence agency holding companies. Further, they have pledged to notify buyers in advance if they change auction dynamics, to clearly mark first-price and second-price auctions and to not bid cache without notice.

Translation, the exchanges have been employing these practices all along to the detriment of advertisers as a means of shoring up their bottom lines. Step in the right direction or affirmation of the ongoing murkiness associated with programmatic digital? Advertisers will have to decide, or have they already weighed in on this initiative.

Coincidentally, findings from an important research study and a forecast on digital marketing were also released earlier this month. The results of these efforts may very well shed some light on how advertisers are viewing the ongoing malaise within the digital media marketplace.

In the first study from the In-House Agency Forum (IHAF) and Forrester Research called “The State of In-House Agencies” it was revealed that 64% of corporate America have in-house agencies, which is up 50% from 2008. Interestingly, of those firms with in-house agencies, 38% have digital capabilities. The second piece of information came from an eMarketer forecast “Flight to Quality” which predicted that by 2020 open exchanges will see a declining share as programmatic money goes direct.” eMarketer is predicting that $4 of every $5 will go to private marketplaces. For reference, today, approximately 58% of all programmatic display spend, which totals $27 billion goes to private marketplaces.

The reasons for the move to programmatic direct are clear and compelling and have been at the root of advertiser concern for several years:

  • A desire to minimize the risk of digital ad fraud
  • The need to improve brand safety
  • A concerted effort to move away from low-quality, non-viewable inventory
  • Interest in a greater level of transparency (both as it relates to pricing/ fees and the content/ sites where their ads are placed)

Thus, it would appear that while the announcement by top exchanges to engage TAG to assist with reforming the practices employed by the exchanges may be a little too little, too late.

The time to take action to safeguard advertisers’ digital media investments and address advertiser concerns may have come and gone, at least as it relates to the open exchanges. Rebuilding advertiser trust and confidence was an excellent strategy… in 2016 at the height of the U.S. media market’s “Transparency Crisis.”

Unfortunately, as results from the aforementioned studies suggest, many agencies, adtech firms, and exchanges may have waited too long to remedy the woes that led to the epic level of waste that has negatively impacted advertisers’ programmatic digital media spend.

In the words of Og Mandino, the late 20th century American author:

There is an immeasurable distance between late and too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Programmatic Ever Address Advertiser Transparency Concerns?

20 Aug

dreamstime_m_35343815It has been two years since the Association of National Advertisers released its study on media transparency issues impacting advertisers within the U.S. media marketplace.

While much has changed, there remain reasons for concern. Most perplexing is the fact that with all of the intermediaries in place between advertiser and publisher, few seem to be looking out for the advertisers’ best interests.

The reasons for this lack of an advertiser-centric perspective are many and include greed, a lack of knowledge, insufficient oversight processes and often times indifference up and down the programmatic digital media supply chain.

Thus, it was with great interest that I read a recent article on Adexchanger.com entitled; “Index Exchange Called Out for Tweaking Its Auction.” In short, the article dealt with the fact that Index Exchange had altered its auction processes, without notifying advertisers, ad agencies or DSPs. Ostensibly, the exchange’s motivations for this move was to boost its market share, although in fairness, they claimed that they believed their approach reflected “industry practice.”

Of note, Index Exchange made the aforementioned change more than one year ago, employing a technique referred to as bid caching. In short, bid caching is where the exchange retains losing bids in an effort to run advertiser content on subsequent content viewed by the consumer. From an advertiser perspective there are a number of issues with this practice, as detailed by author Sarah Sluis of the aforementioned article on Adexchanger:

  1. Buyers will bid higher prices for the first page in a user session. Thus, if the losing bid is retained and the ad is served deeper into a user session, the buyer will have overpaid for that inventory.
  2. Any delay between the initial bid and the ad actually being served, using a bid caching methodology, increases the chance that the DSP will have found the user elsewhere, resulting in the campaign exceeding the pre-determined frequency caps.
  3. Brand safety definitely comes into play, because even though the ad is served on the same domain, it is on a different page than what was intended.

What is truly remarkable about this scenario is that buyers just learned of this practice and, according to Adexchanger, “not from Index Exchange.”

How many advertisers were negatively impacted by Index Exchange’s unannounced move? What were their agency and adtech partners doing in the placement and stewardship of their buys that an exchange’s shift in auction approaches went undetected for more than one year? Unsettling to be sure.

Ironically, this exchange had implemented a similar move previously, adopting a first-price auction approach, which was known to publishers but not announced to buyers.

Advertisers would be right to raise questions about the current state of programmatic affairs; exchanges not notifying the public of shifts in auction methodology, agency buyers and DSPs unable to detect these shifts to adjust their bid strategies, ad tech firms not catching the shift to safeguard brand ad placements, and publishers that were aware, but settled for the higher CPMs resulting from the shift, rather than informing the buy-side.

This is disheartening news, particularly when one considers the percentage of an advertiser’s dollar that goes to fund each of their intermediaries (at the expense of working media). Yet, advertiser fueled growth in programmatic digital media continues unabated.

Clearly a case of buyer beware. Advertisers that have not already reviewed their supplier contracts or enacted the “right to audit” clauses of their agency and adtech supplier agreements may want to make plans to do so as they begin finalize their 2019 digital media budgets. As the old saying goes:

The buyer needs a hundred eyes, the seller but one.”

 

Try This Quick Programmatic Digital “Transparency” Test

16 Aug

exam resultsIf you’re like most marketers, your organization is spending considerably more of its media budget on programmatic digital media today than it did last year and certainly more than it did five years ago. The question is, “Are you getting value for that shift in media spend?

While agencies and ad tech firms have clearly benefited from the rapid growth of programmatic digital media many marketers have seen their working media levels languish due to the third-party costs and intermediary fees associated with programmatic media.

As marketers know all too well, every dollar invested programmatically is subject to what has been referred to as the “tech tax,” which according to David Kohl, CEO and President of TrustX this can account for over fifty cents of every dollar invested. In his article; “The High Cost of Low CPMs” written for AdExchanger, Mr. Kohl points out that “whether or not the ad reaches its target audience and whether or not it is served into the viewable window or below the fold, DSPs, SSPs, data providers, viewability and verification providers, tag managers, re-targeters and others all take their few cents.”

The question to be asked is; “To what extent is this happening to my organization?” Fortunately, there is a quick, three-step method for testing your risk profile when it comes to programmatic digital media.

Step 1 – Ask your accounts payable department to provide you with a few examples of the digital media invoices that comprise the billing from your digital media agency partners. Check if they have a description of the services provided and the type and level of media inventory purchased. The objective of this exercise is to determine whether the invoices are highly descriptive or general in nature and if a non-media reviewer would be able to ascertain the breakdown of “what” was actually provided for the amount being billed.

Step 2 – Review the third-party vendor invoices that accompany the billing from your agency. If supporting vendor documentation is not provided, ask your agency to provide detail for a handful of invoices. This detail should include the invoices from the actual media sellers, not the agency’s trading desk or an affiliate. Apply the same filter to your review of these invoices as you did for the agency’s billing, with regard to the adequacy of the descriptions breaking out the media purchased and all of the attendant costs (i.e. net media expense, agency campaign management fees, ad tech and data fees, etc.).

Step 3 – Evaluate both sets of invoices, agency and vendor, for an itemized list of the fees being charged such as:

  • Agency campaign management fees
  • Data fees
  • Pre-bid decision making/ targeting fees
  • Ad tech/ DSP fees
  • Publisher discrepancy fees
  • Ad verification fees
  • Bid clearing fees
  • Ad serving fees

If you find that invoice descriptions are less specific than you would like or that third-party vendor invoices don’t contain an itemized list of fees being charged, it is time to have a conversation with your agency partners.

The first topic to be discussed is establishing your position and preference for “How” your programmatic media buys are to be structured when your agency goes to market on your behalf. If it is transparency that you seek, they should be executing your programmatic buys on a “cost-disclosed” rather than a “non-disclosed” basis. This is the only way that you will be able to identify the net costs being assessed for the media inventory purchased and to calculate what percentage of your buys are going toward working media. Fraud and viewability concerns aside, advertisers have found that after fees are subtracted, they’re lucky if 50¢ of a dollar spent on programmatic digital media actually makes it to the publisher to fund the media that your consumers see.

Once you and your agency have agreed on the desired level of disclosure, conversation must necessarily turn to the need for updating client-agency agreements, statements-of-work and each of the media control documents utilized by the agency (i.e. media authorization form, electronic RFI templates, digital insertion orders, etc.). In spite of the ad industry’s efforts to reform what remains a murky digital media supply chain fraught with bad actors, questionable practices and a lack of transparency, advertisers remain at risk. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure all parties are held accountable that they employ the appropriate descriptive invoice detail, reporting requirements and itemized cost breakdowns mandated by the advertiser.

Testing the current state of your programmatic buys’ level of transparency is a necessary first step to stripping away the opacity that can surround digital media buying. In turn, the results of this self-examination will assist advertisers in both safeguarding and improving the return on their digital media investments. In the words of David Ogilvy:

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

Will the Media Industry Find Its Way?

27 Apr

agencies as media ownersThere was a time when ad agencies represented an advertiser’s interest when interacting with media sellers to secure time and or space for the conveyance of the advertiser’s messaging. The media supply chain was uncluttered, machine-to-machine buying was not even a distant thought and the roles of the various players were understood by all parties.

As the media industry has evolved, the complexities of the supply chain and the clarity of “what” each intermediary does, what they are responsible for and what they earn have sown confusion, limited advertiser transparency and eroded stakeholder trust.

One of the key drivers of supply chain complexity, and all that comes with it, has been the rapid growth of digital media in general and specifically the expansion of programmatic buying. Thus, there may be no better barometer of this dynamic than the “Marketing Technology Landscape” prepared annually by Scott Brinker. Mr. Brinker’s landscape chart incorporates the logos of each available advertising, marketing and search solution. This year’s version contains logos for over 6,800 solutions, up from 150 in 2011. That is a staggering number of ad tech and mar tech solutions vying for a slice of an advertiser’s digital media dollar.

In spite of the dramatic increase in the number of marketing technology solutions and the exponential increase in the level of data available to inform practitioners media decisions, the industry is still grappling with issues that negatively impact media performance. Issues that include ongoing limitations in attribution modeling, difficulties with omnichannel measurement, a lack of standardization in assessing audience delivery and continued concerns regarding ad viewability, fraud, ad blocking and privacy.

Many would agree that the current state of affairs is not healthy for the global media industry which totaled $500 billion in 2017 (source: MAGNA Global Advertising Forecast, December, 2017).

Marketers, who are under increasing pressure to improve performance, are clearly not satisfied with the status quo within the media supply chain, which many describe as “murky” and “inefficient.” These marketers are committed to seeking out new partners, processes, tools and solutions that can improve working media and increase the chance that each dollar they invest in media has the opportunity to positively impact business outcomes.

Media agencies, for their part are increasingly being challenged to improve both transparency and the cost effectiveness of their clients’ media spend. Sadly, many agencies have taken the stance that there is a cost to be paid for improved transparency, enhanced viewability and brand safety and believe that these costs should be borne by the advertiser. Advertisers rightly disagree with this position.

Let’s be clear. When agencies strayed from a singular focus on their fiduciary responsibility to their clients, they did so at their own risk. Their pursuit of principal based media buys, non-disclosed relationships with other commercial entities in the media supply chain (including their own affiliates) and the myriad of unauthorized, non-transparent revenue generation practices employed by some agencies netted them significant profit gains… in the short-term.

However, as advertisers became aware of these practices and began to understand the negative impact on their business this created a crisis in confidence among advertisers and lessened the level trust that they had in their agency partners. In turn, this has created opportunities for management and technology consultants to make inroads with CMO’s as it relates to their media business and incented many advertisers to begin looking at taking control over portions of their media business, including bringing work in-house.

These trends coupled with the corresponding reduction in non-sanctioned revenue opportunities resulting from greater levels of advertiser transparency have constrained agency margins. How agencies positon themselves for the future in light of the evolving competitive set, while rethinking their service offerings and charging practices remains to be seen, but will be of critical importance.

As for the ad tech sector, there will surely be a shakeout that will result in a reduction in the number of vendors (over 6,200 in 2018) providing solutions. This will be driven in part by consolidation due to the convergence of ad tech and mar tech solutions and the dominance of large players, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. In addition, the emergence of consumer privacy protection regulatory actions and the eventual emergence of blockchain technology within the media market has the potential for significant disruption.

Clearly, there are uncertainties and challenges facing the media industry and the myriad of supply chain participants. That said, while continued change will be the norm and course corrections required, there will be winners that are able to navigate these turbulent times and position their organizations for future success.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” ~ Charles Darwin

 

Advertisers Beware: Agency Margin Optimization Efforts

19 Apr

Traffic LightIt was with great interest that I read an article on Digiday dealing with “key issues” facing ad agencies and, ostensibly, the “agency model” ranging from transparency to in-housing.

Masked behind the author’s perspective that transparency comes at a high cost was the reality that marketers remain at risk to the predatory non-transparent revenue practices applied by certain agencies.

Why? With marketers demanding more transparent ad buying practices and transitioning certain tasks and or ownership of elements of the tech stack in-house, agency gross margins are under pressure. In turn, this has created an environment where agencies attempt to make up for the margin shortfall from clients that don’t actively monitor agency contract compliance, financial management or media performance.

Of note, one anonymous agency executive went so far as to suggest that some agencies use a “traffic-light system to determine how knowledgeable the procurement teams at clients are.” This guidepost allows the agencies to assess how much margin they can make on a given account.

This certainly reinforces the reality of the old adage; “Where there is mystery, there is margin” and signals the importance for all marketers to get up to speed on both the potential benefits and the pitfalls related to their digital and other advertising investments. For client organizations, most of which do not have the bandwidth or subject matter expertise in-house, engaging an independent contract compliance or media performance auditor or consultant could greatly help to mitigate risks in this area.

In spite of the potential for efficiencies that fueled the rise of programmatic media buying, what we have all come to realize is that the costs related to algorithmic, machine-to-machine buying have far outweighed these efficiencies. One dynamic, which drives costs is the number of agent firms involved in a typical programmatic digital media buy and the fees that each charge for their role. Below is an overview of typical fees or mark-ups that are charged by those on the demand-side of a programmatic transaction.

Digital Dollar

Source: Industry Experts

As is readily apparent, the dollar dissipation that occurs between the advertiser’s initial investment and the money that actually ends up with the publisher is significant. Industry studies have consistently shown that less than forty cents of each digital dollar invested makes its way to the publisher.

To combat this trend, rightly or wrongly, marketers have focused on reducing the number of intermediaries and the fees charged by each, with the goal of improving working media ratios and ultimately the performance of their digital campaigns. Thus, the agency margin squeeze.

That said, the agency practice described in the aforementioned Digiday.com article of taking advantage of unsuspecting, less knowledgeable clients to make up for the margin lost on those that have moved to transparent buying models, is neither appropriate nor sustainable. Agencies conducting themselves in this manner may want to reflect on the words of the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking:

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

This is particularly true given the competitive inroads being made by the management consultant and tech consultancies that are focusing on the digital media segment of the market. The best path forward for agencies is to actively engage their clients in an open dialog about mutually beneficial remuneration methodologies.

In our opinion, it is right and just to eliminate the potential for media arbitrage, non-disclosed fees, no charge media weight and volume-based rebates that often accrue to agencies, and much of the time without the advertiser’s knowledge. Further, we also don’t believe that clients are obligated to make up the gap in lost agency revenue tied to transparency reforms. That said, we are fully supportive of an agency’s right to earn a fair and reasonable profit and to have the potential for incremental gains tied to extraordinary performance.

Near-term, the best way to balance an advertiser’s quest for transparency and an agency’s ability to generate a reasonable profit will likely be a compensation schema that incorporates a base fee using a direct-labor or cost-plus methodology with an outcome-based performance incentive. This approach is particularly apropos for advertisers that are leaning toward a managed-service model. With this approach, ownership of the tech stack and or tech platform licensing agreements transition from agency to advertiser; and the agency is then engaged to oversee the digital planning, buying and ad operations chores associated with programmatic media.

Try This Quick Programmatic Digital “Transparency” Test

26 Feb

exam resultsIf you’re like most marketers, your organization is spending considerably more of its media budget on programmatic digital media today than it did last year and certainly more than it did five years ago. The question is, “Are you getting value for that shift in media spend?

While agencies and ad tech firms have clearly benefited from the rapid growth of programmatic digital media many marketers have seen their working media levels languish due to the third-party costs and intermediary fees associated with programmatic media.

As marketers know all too well, every dollar invested programmatically is subject to what has been referred to as the “tech tax,” which according to David Kohl, CEO and President of TrustX this can account for over fifty cents of every dollar invested. In his article; “The High Cost of Low CPMs” written for AdExchanger, Mr. Kohl points out that “whether or not the ad reaches its target audience and whether or not it is served into the viewable window or below the fold, DSPs, SSPs, data providers, viewability and verification providers, tag managers, re-targeters and others all take their few cents.”

The question to be asked is; “To what extent is this happening to my organization?” Fortunately, there is a quick, three-step method for testing your risk profile when it comes to programmatic digital media.

Step 1 – Ask your accounts payable department to provide you with a few examples of the digital media invoices that comprise the billing from your digital media agency partners. Check if they have a description of the services provided and the type and level of media inventory purchased. The objective of this exercise is to determine whether the invoices are highly descriptive or general in nature and if a non-media reviewer would be able to ascertain the breakdown of “what” was actually provided for the amount being billed.

Step 2 – Review the third-party vendor invoices that accompany the billing from your agency. If supporting vendor documentation is not provided, ask your agency to provide detail for a handful of invoices. This detail should include the invoices from the actual media sellers, not the agency’s trading desk or an affiliate. Apply the same filter to your review of these invoices as you did for the agency’s billing, with regard to the adequacy of the descriptions breaking out the media purchased and all of the attendant costs (i.e. net media expense, agency campaign management fees, ad tech and data fees, etc.).

Step 3 – Evaluate both sets of invoices, agency and vendor, for an itemized list of the fees being charged such as:

  • Agency campaign management fees
  • Data fees
  • Pre-bid decision making/ targeting fees
  • Ad tech/ DSP fees
  • Publisher discrepancy fees
  • Ad verification fees
  • Bid clearing fees
  • Ad serving fees

If you find that invoice descriptions are less specific than you would like or that third-party vendor invoices don’t contain an itemized list of fees being charged, it is time to have a conversation with your agency partners.

The first topic to be discussed is establishing your position and preference for “How” your programmatic media buys are to be structured when your agency goes to market on your behalf. If it is transparency that you seek, they should be executing your programmatic buys on a “cost-disclosed” rather than a “non-disclosed” basis. This is the only way that you will be able to identify the net costs being assessed for the media inventory purchased and to calculate what percentage of your buys are going toward working media. Fraud and viewability concerns aside, advertisers have found that after fees are subtracted, they’re lucky if 50¢ of a dollar spent on programmatic digital media actually makes it to the publisher to fund the media that your consumers see.

Once you and your agency have agreed on the desired level of disclosure, conversation must necessarily turn to the need for updating client-agency agreements, statements-of-work and each of the media control documents utilized by the agency (i.e. media authorization form, electronic RFI templates, digital insertion orders, etc.). In spite of the ad industry’s efforts to reform what remains a murky digital media supply chain fraught with bad actors, questionable practices and a lack of transparency, advertisers remain at risk. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure all parties are held accountable that they employ the appropriate descriptive invoice detail, reporting requirements and itemized cost breakdowns mandated by the advertiser.

Testing the current state of your programmatic buys’ level of transparency is a necessary first step to stripping away the opacity that can surround digital media buying. In turn, the results of this self-examination will assist advertisers in both safeguarding and improving the return on their digital media investments. In the words of David Ogilvy:

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

4 Questions That Can Impact Your Digital Buys

15 Nov

four

According to eMarketer, in 2017 advertisers will spend 38.3% of their ad budgets on digital media – in excess of $223 billion on a worldwide basis. Yet, in spite of the significant share-of-wallet represented by digital media, there is generally little introspection on the part of the advertiser.

Looking beyond the “Big 3” [ad fraud, safe brand environment and viewability concerns], the lack of introspection begins much closer to home. Simply, in our experience, client-agency Agreements do not adequately address digital media planning / placement roles, responsibilities, accountability or remuneration details.

Standard media Agreement language does not adequately cover digital media needs – specific rules and financial models need to be included in Agreement language that covering each potential intermediary involved in the buy process and to guarantee transparent reporting is provided to the advertiser. It is our experience that Agreement language gaps related to “controls” can be much costlier to advertisers than the aggregate negative impact of the Big 3.

And, regardless of Agreement language completeness, a compounding factor is that too few advertisers monitor their agencies compliance to these very important Agreement requirements.

To assess whether or not your organization is at risk, consider the following four questions:

  1. Can you identify each related parties or affiliate that your ad agency has deployed on your business to manage your digital spend?
  2. Does your Agreement include comprehensive compensation terms pertaining to related parties, affiliates and third-party intermediaries, that handle your digital ad spend?
  3. Is your agency acting as a Principal when buying any of your digital media?
  4. What line of sight do you have into your ACTUAL media placements and costs?

If you answered “No” to any of the questions, then there is a high likelihood that your digital media budget is not even close to being optimized. Why? Because the percentage of your digital media spend that pays for actual media is likely much lower than it should be, which is detrimental to the goal of effectively using media to drive brand growth.

Dollars that marketers are investing to drive demand are simply not making their way to the marketplace. Often a high percentage of an advertiser’s digital media spend is stripped off by agencies, in-house trading desks and intermediaries who have been entrusted to manage those media buys. A recent study conducted by AD/FIN and Ebiquity on behalf of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) estimated that fees claimed by digital agencies and ad tech intermediaries, which it dubbed the programmatic “technology tax” could exceed 60% of an advertiser’s media budget. This suggests that less than 40 cents of an advertiser’s investment is actually spent on consumer media.

A good place to begin is to ask your agency to identify any and all related parties that play a role when it comes to the planning, placement and distribution of your digital media investment. This includes trading desk operations, affiliates specializing in certain types of digital media (i.e. social, mobile) and third-party intermediaries being utilized by the agency (i.e. DSPs, Exchanges, Ad Networks, etc.). The goal is to then assess whether or not the agency and or its holding company has a financial interest in these organizations or are earning financial incentives for media activity booked through those entities.

Why should an advertiser care whether or not their agency is tapping affiliates or focusing on select intermediaries to handle their digital media? Because each of those parties are charging fees, commissions or mark-ups for services provided, most of which are not readily detectable. This raises the question of whether or not the advertiser is even aware charges are being levied against data, technology, campaign management fees, bid management fees and other transactional activities. Are such fees appropriate? Duplicative? Competitive? All good questions to be addressed.

When it comes to how an agency may have structured an advertiser’s digital media buys, there is ample room for concern. Is the affiliate is engaged in Principal-based buying (media arbitrage)?  Is digital media being placed on a non-disclosed basis, versus a “cost-disclosed” basis where the advertiser has knowledge of the actual media costs being charged by the digital media owner?

Evaluating your organization’s “risk” when it comes to digital media is important, particularly in light of the findings of the Association of National Advertiser’s (ANA) “Media Transparency” study released in 2016, which identified agency practices regarding non-transparent revenue generation that reduces an advertiser’s working media investment.

The best place to start is a review of your current client-agency Agreements, to ensure that the appropriate language safeguards are incorporated into the agreement in a clear, non-ambivalent manner. Once in place, monitoring your agency and its affiliates compliance to those contract terms and financial management standards is imperative if you want to assure compliance, while significantly boosting performance.  

“Today, knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement.” ~ Peter Drucker                                                                                                                    

Interested in learning more about safeguarding your digital media investment? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal, AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this important topic.

 

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 ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this topic.

Lawsuits Expose the Seemly Underbelly of Programmatic Digital

25 Sep

fraudsterAt the rate things are progressing in digital media and programmatic trading, the tenuous relationships between advertisers, agencies, ad tech providers, exchanges and publishers are about to come unglued.

While many in the ad industry have had their doubts about programmatic digital, this sector has grown unabated for the last several years. According to eMarketer in 2014 advertisers invested 28.3% of their ad budget in digital media. Their projection is that this will grow to 44.9% in 2020, likely topping $100 billion in total spend. eMarketer estimates that 80% of U.S. digital display activity in 2017 will be transacted programmatically. 

Interestingly, since 2014 the industry has become much more attuned to the risks encountered by advertisers when it comes to optimizing (or should we say safeguarding) their digital media investment. Yet in spite of the findings regarding unsavory practices emanating from the ANA’s seminal 2016 study on “Media Transparency” advertisers continue to pour an increasing share of their advertising spend into this media channel.

However, not all advertisers are continuing to embrace digital media quite as readily as they once did. A handful of progressives, namely Procter & Gamble, have begun to rethink the share of wallet being allocated to digital media and programmatic trading. Marc Pritchard, P&G’s Chief Marketing Officer, has been very outspoken in summing up his company’s position quite succinctly; “The reality is that in 2017 the bloom came off the rose for digital media. We had substantial waste in a fraudulent media supply chain. As little as 25% of the money spent in digital media actually made it to consumers.”

Given Mr. Pritchard’s comments it has been quite intriguing to monitor the legal developments in two high profile lawsuits that have recently been filed.

In the first case, Uber is suing Fetch Media, its digital agency suggesting that it had “squandered” tens of millions of dollars to “purchase non-existent, non-viewable and/ or fraudulent advertising” on its behalf. Uber has further alleged that the agency “nurtured an environment of obfuscation and fraud for its own personal benefit” and that of its parent company, Dentsu Aegis Network. To be fair, Fetch Media has denied what it says are “unsubstantiated” claims by Uber which it claims is designed to draw attention away from their “failure to pay suppliers.”  Allegations include that the agency acted as agent for Uber in some markets and executed principal-based buys in others and that they earned and retained undisclosed rebates tied to Uber’s media spend.

The second case involves RhythmOne, a technology enabled media company and its partner dataxu, a programmatic buy-side platform/ applications provider. RhythmOne originally filed suit regarding $1.9 million worth of unpaid invoices. Dataxu filed a counterclaim alleging that RhythmOne “used a fake auction to consistently overcharge” them and suggested that RhythmOne also “procured inventory from other exchanges, and then marked it up,” both violations of their partnership agreement. As an aside, for the $1.9 million in payments that dataxu admittedly and intentionally withheld from RhythmOne, going back to January, 2017, it is likely that dataxu’s clients had been billed and remitted payment to them. Which raises questions as to how and when their clients will be made whole.

Of note, both of these lawsuits delve into a range of topical issues that pose risks to most programmatic digital advertisers:

  • Agencies executing principal-based buys, rather than acting as agent for the advertiser.
  • The retention of undisclosed rebates tied to an agency’s use of advertiser funds.
  • Non-transparent fees and mark-ups being tacked on to the actual cost of media inventory by multiple middlemen (i.e. agencies, DSPs, exchanges).

These are issues that advertisers should familiarize themselves with and address through the development of a comprehensive client/ agency contract. In addition, advertisers must vigilantly monitor supplier compliance with the terms of those agreements to insure full transparency and, importantly, accountability when it comes to the stewardship of their digital media investment.

As these two cases highlight it is dam difficult for an advertiser to accurately assess the value of digital inventory that is being proffered on their behalf by their agency and adtech partners. Beyond establishing what percentage of an advertiser’s digital dollar actually goes toward media inventory, these separate, but related legal actions demonstrate that it is not just a lack of transparency that advertisers must worry about, but a lack of ethics. When it comes to programmatic digital media the American artist, John Knoll, may have said it best;

“Any tool can be used for good or bad. It’s really the ethics of the artist using it.”

There are steps that advertisers can take to both safeguard and optimize their digital media investment. If you are interested in learning more, contact Cliff Campeau, Principal of AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation.

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