Tag Archives: 4A’s

4A’s Appoints New CEO/ President

26 Feb

4as_logofinalCongratulations to Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of MEC North America, who was recently selected as the Chief Executive Officer and President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s).

An advertising industry veteran with 29 years of media and communications experience, she is also a member of the 4A’s Media Leadership Council and She Runs It.  Commenting on her appointment, Ms. Kaplowitz stated that; “As a passionate member of this industry for nearly 30 years, I’m thrilled to join the 4A’s at this exciting and pivotal time for marketing and communications.”

We certainly wish Ms. Kaplowitz success in her new role and thank outgoing 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill for her nine plus years of service.

What if You Discovered That Your Digital Dollar Netted You a Dime’s Worth of Digital Media?

12 Feb

dreamstime_xs_2601647In 2014, the World Federation of Advertisers conducted a study which demonstrated that “only fifty-four cents of every media dollar in programmatic digital media buying” goes to the publisher, with the balance being divvied up by agency trading desks, DSPs and ad networks.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016 and a study by Technology Business Research (TBR) suggested that “only 40% of digital buys are going to working media.” TBR reported that 29% went to fund agency services and 31% to cover the cost of technology used to process those buys.

Where does the money go? For programmatic digital media, the advertiser’s dollar is spread across the following agents and platforms:

  • Agency campaign management fees
  • Technology fees (DMP, DSP, Adserving)
  • Data/Audience Targeting fees
  • Ad blocking pre/post
  • Verification (target delivery, ad fraud, brand safety)
  • Pre-bid & post-bid evaluation fees

It should be noted that the fees paid to the above providers are exclusive of fees and mark-ups added by SSPs, exchanges or publishers that are blind to both ad agencies and advertisers. What? That is correct. Given the complex nature of the digital ecosystem, impression level costs can be easily camouflaged by DSPs and SSPs. Thus, most advertisers (and their agencies) do not have a line-of-sight into true working media levels…even if they employ a cost-disclosed programmatic buying model (which is rare).

Take for example the fact that a large preponderance of programmatic digital media is placed on a real-time bidding or RTB basis, and a majority of that, is executed using a second-price auction methodology. With second-price auctions, the portion of the transaction that occurs between a buyer’s bid and when the clearing price is executed without advertiser or agency visibility, thus allowing exchanges to apply clearing or bid management fees and mark-ups as they see fit. So for example, if two advertisers place a bid for inventory, one at $20 per thousand and the other at $15 per thousand, the advertiser who placed the higher bid of $20 would win, but the “sale price” would be only one-cent more than the next highest bid, or $15.01. However, advertisers are charged the “cleared price,” (could be as high as $20 in this example) which is determined after the exchange applies clearing or bid management fees. How much you ask? Only the exchanges know and this is information not readily shared.

Earlier this month Digiday ran an article entitled, “We Go Straight to the Publisher: Advertisers Beware of SSPs Arbitraging Media” which profiled a practice used by supply-side platforms (SSPs) that “misrepresent themselves.” How? By “reselling inventory and misstating which publishers they represent.” The net effect of this practice allow the exchanges an opportunity to “repackage and resell inventory” that they don’t actually have access to for publishers that they don’t have a relationship with.

Let’s look beyond programmatic digital media. Consider the findings from a Morgan Stanley analyst, reported in a New York Times article in early 2016 that stated that, “In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook.” What is significant here is that until very recently, these two entities have self-reported their performance, failing to embrace independent, industry accredited resources to verify their audience delivery numbers.  

The pitfalls of publisher self-reporting came to light this past fall when Facebook was found to have vastly overstated video viewing metric to advertisers for a period of two years between 60% and 80%.  

By the time one factors in the impact of fraud and non-human viewing, and or inventory that doesn’t adhere to digital media buying guidelines and viewability standards, it’s easy to understand the real risk to advertisers and the further dilution of their digital working media investment.

Advertisers have every right to wonder what exactly is going on with their digital media spend, why the process is so opaque and why the pace of industry progress to remedy these concerns has seemingly been so slow. Sadly, in spite of the leadership efforts of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), The ISBA, The Association of Canadian Advertisers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) there is still much work to be done.

The question that we have continually raised is, “With advertisers continuing to allocate an ever increasing level of their media share-of-wallet to digital, where is the impetus for change?” After all, in spite of all of the known risks and the lack of transparency, the inflow of ad dollars has been nothing short of spectacular. According to eMarketer, digital media spend in the U.S. alone for 2016 eclipsed $72 billion and accounted for 37% of total media spending.

There are steps that advertisers can take to both safeguard and optimize their digital media investment. Interested in learn more? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal of AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation. After all, as Warren Buffett once said:

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”

How Well is Your Agency Compensated?

30 Jan

do advertisers get what they pay forThe answer to this oft discussed question is easy; “If you’re an agency CFO, not well enough. If you’re a client-side finance executive the answer is likely too well.” Thus it is no surprise that agency remuneration remains a hot topic as we enter 2017.

Make no mistake, both agencies and advertisers alike want to address this topic in a manner that works for both sides. So why is this such a difficult item to resolve? There are three reasons:

  1. There are no industry norms in this area and haven’t been since the days of a standard 15% commission. The net result of this is that there are few benchmarks for advertisers when establishing remuneration guidelines. No standard commission rate ranges by media type, no normative data on agency overhead rates and no clear standards for assessing agency direct labor rates by position and little insight into agency direct margins. This makes it difficult for advertisers to gain a comfort level into the relevance and competitiveness of the rates that they are paying their agency partners.
  2. While agencies want to be compensated fairly, they remain hesitant to fully disclose the financial dynamics that drive their businesses and impact account profitability. This may have something to do with the contribution of non-transparent revenue sources and or the fact that actual direct labor and overhead costs simply don’t allow agencies to optimize their fee income.
  3. Agencies generate revenue by selling time-of-staff. Assembling a team, calculating utilization rates and full-time equivalent standards and applying a multiplier to direct labor costs to cover overhead and a desired profit margin. Whether these variables are transparent to a client or not, this is the basic approach for the pricing of agency services. It is important to understand this dynamic, because very few, if any, client/ agency relationships are able to directly link remuneration to SOW outputs or deliverables.

As an aside, the one collaborated piece of information that we do have specific to compensation relates to acceptable profit margin ranges. The 4A’s and ANA’s compensation surveys have suggested that an acceptable profit margin range to both clients and agencies is between 14% – 17%.

So, without an industry guideline to follow, advertisers and agencies will likely continue to negotiate remuneration schema the same way that they have over the years. Both parties will look at the relevancy of the prior year’s billable rates and SOWs, fine tune those items and adjust the overall fee up or down accordingly.

If both parties are looking for a better balanced, more transparent approach to establishing a remuneration program, we would suggest the following steps:

  • Negotiate a tight, descriptive statement-of-work (SOW) which clearly identifies client expected agency deliverables. An obvious, but oft overlooked component to crafting a fair and balanced remuneration program.
  • Allow the agency to establish a staffing plan, reflecting the resources required to execute the SOW. Review, discuss resource levels in the context of hours by department/ function and the level of experience necessary (junior vs. senior level staffer) based upon the deliverables.
  • Independently review and validate the agency’s direct labor costs for the agreed upon staffing plan. This will give clients confidence in the accuracy of the agency’s labor expense, without divulging employee salaries.
  • Negotiate a definition of overhead and those items that should be included as part of these indirect costs/ charges.
  • On a periodic basis, have the agency’s financial accounting firm verify the overhead charges specifically attributable to the management of the client’s account.
  • Negotiate a profit margin to be applied to the sum of the agency’s direct labor costs plus overhead assessment.
  • Negotiate a bonus/ malus incentive compensation program if desired. The goal should be to maintain a simple, straight forward set of criteria that allows both parties to efficiently track progress against goal attainment.
  • Reconcile fees based upon actual agency direct labor costs at the end of each contract year.

In this context, we believe that advertisers should focus on operating agency account level costs and profitability and not focus on agency holding company financials.

Why? Because at a holding company level, profit represents the difference between agency client revenues (from media commissions, mark-ups, fees or other forms of client compensation) and holding company operating expenses. As we know, the level of centralized support provided to each operating agency will vary from one agency group to another, from one year to the next. Further, agency holding company expenses include items ranging from merger and acquisition expenses to re-branding costs, technology development and business development… categories that don’t directly benefit a client.

In so doing, while it may be difficult for advertisers to assess how “competitive” their agency compensation program is relative to the market, they will have the peace of mind in knowing that they have secured a fair and transparent remuneration program that works for their organization and for their agency partners. As American educator, Michael Pollan once said:

“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.”

Is It Too Late for the 4A’s on the Topic of Transparency?

26 Sep

toolateEarlier this month, the 4A’s announced that it was pulling out of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) “Transparency” panel scheduled during Advertising Week in New York City.

In light of the organization’s decision to break from ANA / 4A’s joint media transparency initiative earlier this spring, ostensibly to chart its own course, this move comes as no surprise. However, it is nonetheless disappointing. After all, why wouldn’t the 4A’s and it member agencies want to share the stage with the ANA to address the advertiser community on the topic of transparency?

The quest for improved standards and performance related to transparency would benefit mightily from the involvement of the 4A’s. The ANA, advertisers and many within the agency community have sought the 4A’s cooperation on this issue and would welcome a united effort to address this topic.

Clearly a full-court press is necessary if the industry is going to improve both transparency and ultimately the level of trust between advertisers, agencies and publishers. Aside from the eye opening findings from ANA / K2 study on media transparency, there have been two recent announcements that certainly seem to bolster the results of this study. First, just this past week Facebook indicated that it had misrepresented average viewing times for video ads played on its site. Secondly, the global agency holding company Dentsu came forward and cited multiple instances where there were “failures of placement,” “false reporting” and “inappropriate operations” which impacted over 100 of their clients. Dentsu’s CEO, Tadashi Ishii issued a statement saying that there were “instances where our invoices did not reflect actual results, resulting in unjust, overcharged billings.”

In fact, the impact of the 4A’s decision has resulted in two agencies, Empower and Mediasmith, pulling out of the 4A’s citing the associations failure to take a more progressive stance when it comes to working more closely with the ANA to resolve the issue of media transparency.

From the perspective of advertisers, they are rightly concerned about the issue of transparency and are taking matters into their own hands. Consider the September 23rd article in the Wall Street Journal; “Major Marketers Audit Agencies“ in which firms such as J.P. Morgan, General Electric Nationwide Mutual Insurance and Sears Holdings Corp. indicated that they “had hired outside counsel” to conduct audits, due in part to the ANA study. Additionally, the article identified more than a half-dozen other firms that are “trying to get more liberal auditing rights” to improve the protections afforded them under their Client/ Agency agreements.

Given the importance of transparency and full-disclosure in establishing productive, long-term relationships between advertisers and agencies it is unclear what the 4A’S hopes to gain with its current approach. While the 4A’s has issued transparency guidelines of their own, advertisers and many industry observers have indicated unequivocally that these guidelines are inherently biased in favor of the agency holding companies and that they simply don’t go far enough to address advertiser transparency concerns.

The very fact that many agencies are deriving non-transparent revenue from the budgetary dollars entrusted to them by advertisers is an affront to a principal-agent relationship. And even if, as some agency leaders have suggested, not all client / agency contracts espouse a principal-agent relationship, it is simply not a good practice (and promotes distrust) for an agency to leverage an advertiser’s funds for its financial benefit without its knowledge. This is particularly true when such gains undermine the notion of “objectivity” when it comes to the media investment counsel being provided by these agencies to their clients.

Noted novelist, Thomas Hardy once said that, “The resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.” One might argue that as an industry, when it comes to transparency, trust and their impact on client / agency relationships the point in time to frame a resolution is long past due. Sadly, for the 4A’s, change is afoot and the organization’s actions may render it as an observer rather than a co-author of a doctrine for positive change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Real Cost of Agency Employee Turnover

31 May

talentTalent. Whether viewed in the context of attracting, developing and or retaining ambitious, gifted employees, talent management is a major challenge for all professional service providers, perhaps none more so than for advertising agencies.

As the industry has evolved over time, the ability to attract entry-level talent has become more difficult. Agencies have reduced their on-campus recruiting presence, starting pay levels are not as competitive as other professional services firms, such as management consultants and agencies are viewed by many candidates as “sweat shops” with low pay, long hours and little loyalty.

Sadly, once a young graduate joins an agency, some of these perceptions too often mirror reality. This is often compounded by limited opportunities for training and development, in favor of a “baptism by fire” on-boarding process marked by immediate deployment onto client accounts with high expectations and demanding, results oriented environments.

The end result for advertising agencies has been an increased level of employee turnover. In turn, this lack of stability has led to higher operational costs ranging from increases in time-on-task to higher recruiting and training costs. The impact of increased agency employee turnover rates negatively impact clients. This often takes the form of higher re-work rates and the need for greater staff coverage to cover of employee inexperience and a lack of direct knowledge of the client’s business.

More significantly, many would argue that these talent issues have negatively impacted client/ agency partnerships, resulting in shorter tenures and more shallow relationships between personnel on both sides of the aisle.

For its part, the industry has acknowledged that “talent management” is a challenge that must be addressed. Given the rapidly changing marketing landscape, driven in part by a seemingly never ending stream of technology advancements, there is a clear need to expand not only the depth of the agency talent pool, but the breadth as well. The need for application developers, coders, data scientists, user-experience architects, social community managers and content curators and creators is now just as important as attracting account managers, copywriters, art directors, media planners and buyers.

By comparison, management consulting firms have been able to more successfully manage their talent pipelines, attracting the best and brightest of our university graduates, developing that talent, retaining their personnel and achieving billable rates that are much higher than their agency counterparts (or should we say competitors).

The irony is that management consulting firms have quickly morphed their business models, competing directly with traditional ad agencies. Firms like Accenture and Deloitte now provide a full suite of marketing and advertising services involving branding, attribution modeling, digital management, graphic design, social and experiential marketing to provide clients with end-to-end customer engagement support. Importantly, these firms also have the ability to readily deploy personnel within these functions on a global basis.

With an expanding set of competition including other professional services firms, technology firms, media sellers and advertisers migrating select functions ranging from their agencies to in-house solutions the challenges for agencies looking to address their talent needs will likely remain steep in the near-term. That said, given the importance professional staff play in establishing trust and credibility with clients, the growing pressure from advertisers for full-disclosure remuneration systems and the resulting need to build out agency teams and the pool of billable hours will be critical to driving top-line success.

If agency holding companies want to avoid becoming temporary staffing firms, one important element in the talent acquisition cycle is to build strong agency brands with compelling cultures that appeal to college graduates, young professionals and mid-level managers. With the multitude of agency’s within their networks, holding companies may ultimately have to consider consolidating and integrating some of their agency brands to create scale, introduce a broader range of services and to provide meaningful career development opportunities for their associates.

Beyond building compelling brands/ cultures, agencies will likely have to rethink their staff compensation programs, which over time have become very polarized, with top managers earning significant salaries and more junior personnel laboring at lower salary levels with few perks. Unfortunately, the easiest way for these folks to advance their economic status is to jump ship and go to another agency for a loftier title and a bigger paycheck. Too often this pattern is then repeated every two to three years.

This will require ad agencies to begin with rethinking entry level pay, which pales in comparison to what a college graduate can earn by going to work for another professional services or technology development firm. There is no sense in ratcheting up the on-campus recruitment effort, if an organization is not willing to back that up with a competitive compensation program.

According to a 2014 4A’s report, average ad agency starting salaries of $25,000 paled when compared to the $70,000 paid at management consulting and technology firms and $125,000 for 1st year law associates. Sir Martin Sorrell called it right in 2011 when he called the agency talent situation “criminal.” In the past, agencies were able to leverage the industry’s reputation as an energetic, forward thinking, collaborative, fun sector and the agencies themselves were thought to have engaging cultures that helped candidates look beyond compensation. Today, it is the technology companies that are viewed as having employee friendly cultures, while agencies are viewed as having more competitive, more cutthroat culture, which does not appeal to millennials.

Earlier this spring, Digiday published an article suggesting that as challenging as the competition for entry-level personnel might be, the real talent crisis was in middle management, individuals with 3 – 5 years of experience. These are the frontline troops, the doers and problem solvers. While compensation is a concern for this group, they are also looking for “more challenges” and “leadership experience.” Often times, they cannot satisfy their desires in this area at their agency and when they leave, many don’t stay within the industry.

In our experience, addressing the challenges of attracting top talent and reducing turnover in the ad business is an important component in reinvigorating client/ agency relationships, boosting the levels of trust and confidence… and the caliber of the work. We hope that agencies can make meaningful progress in this area and once again become desirable, highly coveted career alternatives for talented young people.

 

 

Is the 4A’s Action on “Transparency” a “Tipping Point” for Client/ Agency Relationships?

17 Feb

Tipping PointMuch has been written about the content of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) recently released “Transparency Guidelines,” less about the potential impact of the 4A’s decision to break rank from the cross-industry task force with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and to act unilaterally.

For the record, from both an advertiser and agency perspective, we believe that the guidelines proposed by the 4A’s have the potential to do irreparable harm to client/ agency relationships. The guidelines appear to driven by greed and a certain naiveté about the source of agency leverage… namely their clients’ advertising budgets. Let’s face it, in the context of a principal-agent relationship there is no logical way to rationalize a guideline which states:

The agency, (agency group and holding company) may enter into commercial relationships with media vendors and other suppliers on its own account, which are separate and unrelated to the purchase of media as agent for their clients.”

One, the notion that the potential for financial gain would not introduce a level of bias that could influence an agency’s recommendations to its clients is unrealistic. Two, pooling client dollars to use as collateral in cutting side deals with media vendors and suppliers for its own benefit is inappropriate.

From our perspective, we believe that the 4A’s and any of its members that support the association’s guidelines on transparency have made a serious error in judgment. Yet, it should be noted, that not one agency has spoken out against the 4A’s action or the composition of its “Transparency Guidelines” nor has one agency seceded from the association. Thus, one might assume that all of the 4A’s members support the position taken.

At a time when issues such as transparency, trust, talent and compensation are posing serious challenges to the length and efficacy of client/ agency relationships, the 4A’s action on the topic of transparency will not serve their members well in the long-term. Why? There are, we believe two reasons.

First of all without clients, agencies have no means for existence. On the other hand, as it stands today, some may view agencies as a luxury, not a necessity for advertisers. Without agencies, clients still have a number of options for marketing their firms, brands and products. These options range from dealing direct with suppliers that are today considered “third-party vendors” such as; production companies, photographers, content developers and curators and media owners. Additionally, one must consider an advertisers option to create in-house capabilities rather than outsource all or some elements of their advertising.

The second reason is that absent an underlying level of trust, agencies can never hope to recover the coveted position of “strategic partner” that they once enjoyed. In our opinion, the 4A’s action has relegated their member agencies to “vendor” status whose goods and services an advertiser might choose to avail themselves of, without being beholden to the agency in a meaningful way.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book; “The Tipping Point” he suggested to readers; “Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not, with the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.” Think about that statement in the context of some of the trends our industry is experiencing today:

  • Growing impact of social media in shaping consumer views and behaviors
  • Rapid expansion of programmatic media buying
  • Advances in ad technology, impacting many facets of the message creation & distribution cycle
  • Increasing prevalence of advertiser/ publisher direct relationships
  • Rise of non-traditional alternatives to ad agencies (i.e. IBM, Deloitte, Accenture)

Surely the 4A’s is aware of the aforementioned trends and the moves in recent months by advertisers such as P&G, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Expedia, L’Oreal and Wal-Mart to either move certain aspects of their advertising in-house ranging from creative to programmatic media buying; or are purported to be actively investigating “alternative models.”

Do the 4A’s and their members believe that they are impervious to such trends? What were they hoping to gain by breaking ranks from the ANA and the joint transparency task force? Perhaps more importantly, are 4A’s members prepared for the potential impact of the association’s actions? According to Mr. Gladwell:

“That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.”

For the sake of the advertising agency community, let’s hope that their recent action on the topic of transparency isn’t the “small movement” that fuels the “epidemic” which forever tips their once favored status as trusted confidants to alternative vendors of commodity like marketing services.

Hats Off to the ANA, Patent Trolls Beware

14 Aug

patent infringement defenseAdvertisers now have a viable tool to assist in protecting their organizations against some of the costs associated with defending themselves against frivolous patent troll law suits.

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) working in conjunction with Nationwide Insurance’s Scottsdale Insurance division recently unveiled a unique new product called the “ANA Patent Infringement Defense.” According to the ANA, their membership will have two insurance options to select from, “a $500,000 plan and a $1 million plan” which advertisers can access at a “cost between $10,000 and $20,000 per year.”

This innovative approach will allow advertisers to offset a portion of their legal expenses in defending themselves in federal court or in arguing their cases before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.

Over the course of the last few years, both advertisers and their agency partners have been targeted by patent trolls who have taken action on those entities’ utilization of technology applications ranging from location finders to QR codes. The cost to the industry has been steep, resulting in millions of dollars in claims and legal expenses for both advertisers and agencies.

In addition to the benefits derived from this new insurance coverage, it will also allow advertisers more comfort when negotiating client/ agency agreements containing contractual indemnification against patent infringement actions. This is sometimes a contentious point during negotiations since it is very difficult to assess and pre-assign responsibility for potential expenses and damages in battling such claims to any one party.

We believe that the leadership exhibited by the ANA on this important issue has been exceptional from the onset. This includes the education of its members, effective lobbying of federal regulators and now with the introduction of the ANA Patent Infringement Defense product being offered. As the noted American businessman, Harold Geneen once said:

Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.”

Hopefully, the 4As can leverage the good work that has been accomplished by the ANA in this area to introduce a similar approach, extending this same type of protection to its agency members.

What if Advertisers Suspended All Digital Media Spend?

23 Jul

committeeSound preposterous? Perhaps not when you consider how much of an advertiser’s investment is siphoned off by digital fraudsters and criminals. One has to wonder if the efficacy of a reallocated media mix would really hamper in-market performance.

Let’s face it, in spite of the incessant level of press coverage, advertiser, agency and publisher posturing and the formation of numerous industry task forces, digital ad fraud has continued unabated.

In March of 2014 the IAB estimated that approximately 36% of all web traffic was fake, the result of bots. In December of 2014 a joint study by the ANA and White Ops, an ad security firm, estimated that digital fraud accounted for $6.3 billion out of a total estimated spend of $48 billion.

Various other studies have suggested that up to 50% of publisher traffic is bot related and that somewhere between 3% and 31% of programmatically bought ad impressions were from bots. During December of 2014 there was a research study done on FT.com which revealed that “in a single month, 72% of the ad impressions offered on open ad exchanges as being on FT.com were fraudulent.” The impressions were from sites pretending to be the FT and the ads appeared only on sites viewed by bots.

Ironically, in spite of the financial impact of these crimes, advertisers continue to spend an increasing percentage of their marketing budgets on digital media. According to Strategy Analytics, digital media will reach $52.8 billion in U.S. ad spending in 2015, accounting for 28% of every dollar spent, second only to TV. Further, while every other medium is either losing revenue or seeing low single digit growth, digital is anticipated to grow at 10% to 13% per annum over the next three years.

There are a number of industry stakeholders benefiting from the meteoric growth in digital spending, publishers, ad tech providers and agencies to name a few. For example, the major ad agency holding companies have seen revenues from digital media grow to represent up to 50% of their annual revenue base.

Thus it was with a slightly cynical eye that I viewed the recent press release from the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) regarding their latest initiative to combat digital ad fraud. The focus of the release was straightforward enough, dealing with working to minimize “illegitimate and non-human ad traffic originating from data centers.” However, in the end it was about Google lending the group its blacklist of suspicious data center IP addresses for use in a pilot program.

As most industry participants know, TAG is the joint effort of the ANA, 4A’s and IAB launched in 2014 to work collaboratively with companies in the digital advertising space to combat ad fraud. While supportive of industry stakeholders teaming up to address key issues, one wonders how likely it is that TAG will be able to mitigate advertiser financial risks in the near-term.

Curiously, on July 23rd the 4A’s announced the formation of a committee that will focus on addressing “issues related to the digital supply chain.” Their press release pointed out that the newly formed committee will work closely with “other 4A’s committees and task forces, such as the Media Measurement, Data Management and Mobile committees, on policies and best practices.”

Have any of the existing task forces’ yet demonstrated tangible evidence of progress being made to combat digital fraud? It is difficult to imagine how the formation of yet another committee is going to make a difference. Do the organizations forming these ad hoc groups feel that the industry is so superficial and shallow that the news of a new committee will help advertisers feel better about the lack of measurable progress being made on this front?

If the industry doesn’t make concrete progress in the near-term, there is a strong likelihood that we will be welcoming a new “alliance partner” to the team… regulators. We know that historically business in general and the ad industry in particular have never been fans of government involvement. However, if the industry’s self-regulatory approach doesn’t begin to yield results, Washington will assert itself and they should, advertisers are literally being robbed. This is white collar crime at the highest level when you consider that in the U.S. alone, $6.3 billion is being siphoned off by bad actors on an annual basis, 13% of total spending in this specific area.

While the industry struggles to bring order to the chaos surrounding digital media advertisers might rightly ask the question; “Does it really make sense to continue to allocate hard earned dollars to a medium with the audience delivery and viewability issues that currently plague digital?”

What if advertisers were to place a moratorium on digital ad spending until more concrete actions are taken by the industry to protect their investment?

An extreme position? Yes. Unlikely? No doubt. However, this is the type of dramatic action required to force reform and provide advertisers with the transparency and controls required to yield satisfactory returns on their digital media investment. If nothing changes, every incremental dollar invested in digital media will continue to line the pockets of the tech-driven criminals which are preying on advertisers. In turn, this rapidly growing revenue stream allows fraudsters to expand their capabilities at an even quicker rate than those trying to police them creating a “no win” situation for the industry.

From this writer’s perspective, while industry task forces and committees can play a role in furthering the dialog, they will not suffice. Traditional outcomes from these groups include recommended best practices, guidelines, advisory white papers and the formation of new committees to continue the fight… hardly enough to strike fear in the hearts of digital criminals.

In the words of noted businessman Ross Perot:

“If you see a snake, just kill it – don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

 

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

29 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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