Tag Archives: ANA

AARM Formalizes Its Relationship with the ANA

1 Nov

thAARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management becomes a member of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), joining more that 1,000 leading suppliers, agencies, law firms, media companies and consultants as a Marketing Services Provider (MSP).

 

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

19 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.”

 

4 Questions That Can Impact Your Digital Buys

15 Nov

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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.

 

Increase Your Digital Coverage by 40% In One-Easy-Step

1 Aug

simpleisgoodConfucius once said that “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

Perhaps the same can be said of digital media buying. Too often it seems as though the onset and rapid growth of programmatic buying has created more problems than solutions. An expanded media supply chain with multiple layers of costs, increased levels of fraud, brand safety concerns, visibility challenges, a lack of transparency and perhaps most troubling, eroding levels of trust between advertisers and their agencies.

Growing pains? Perhaps. But something needs to change and this author would like to suggest one potential solution… abandon programmatic digital media buying altogether. Seriously? Why not?

Consider the following and the concept won’t seem so far-fetched:

  • In 2015, advertisers spent $60 billion on digital media, with close to two-thirds of that going to Google and Facebook (source: Pivotal Research).
  • According to the advertising trade group, Digital Content, today this duopoly is garnering 90% of every new dollar spent on digital media.
  • What happened to the magical pursuit of the long-tail and the notion of smaller bets being safer? Economics. The fact is that the notion of the long-tail simply didn’t work as researchers and economists found that having less of more is a better, more statistically sound pursuit. To wit, Google’s and Facebook’s market share.
  • Today, programmatic digital display advertising accounts for 80% of display ad spending, which will top $33 billion in 2017 (source: eMarketer).
  • Between 2012 – 2016 programmatic advertising grew 71% per year, on average (source: Zenith).
  • In 2018, programmatic will grow an additional 30%+ to $64 billion, with the U.S. representing 62% of global programmatic expenditures (source: Zenith).

Come again. Two publishers are getting $.90 of every incremental digital dollar spent and programmatic digital media buying accounts for 80%+ of digital media spend. What are we missing? Is there an algorithm that specializes in sending RFPs and insertion orders to Google and Facebook in such a manner that the outcome yields a 40% or better efficiency gain?

As we all know, there have been numerous industry studies, including those sponsored by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which have suggested that at least 40% of every digital media dollar spent goes to cover programmatic digital media buying’s transactional costs (third-party expenses and agency fees), with only $.48 – $.60 of that expenditure going to publishers.

So, for an advertiser spending $40 million on programmatic digital media, if the law of averages holds true, $16 million will go to cover transactional costs and agency fees. That means that of the advertiser’s original spend, they will actually get $24 million worth of media. While we know that programmatic media can yield efficiencies, can it overcome that type of transactional deficit?

If that same advertiser eschewed programmatic digital and decided to rely on a digital direct media investment strategy, what would it cost them?

Assume that they hired ten seasoned digital media planning and investment professionals for $150,000 each (salary, bonus, benefits), they would spend $1.5 million on direct labor costs. Further, in order to afford their team maximum flexibility, let’s say that the advertiser allocated an additional $1 million annually for access to ad tech tools and research subscriptions to facilitate their Team’s planning and placement efforts. This would bring their total outlay to $2.5 million per annum.

If they were spending $40 million in total, this means that the team would be able to purchase $37.5 million worth of digital media. Don’t forget that placing digital buys direct will greatly reduce fraud levels that can eat up another 8% – 12% of every digital ad dollar, while also greatly improving brand safety guideline adherence. Compare that to the $24 million in inventory purchased programmatically.

So how efficient is programmatic?

Sadly, most advertisers can’t even address this question, because their buys are structured on a non-disclosed, rather than a cost-disclosed basis. Even if they had line of sight into what the third-party costs (i.e. media, data, tech) and agency fees being charged were, they wouldn’t have a clue as to the fees/ charges that sell-side suppliers were levying, further eroding working media levels.

A simplistic solution? Perhaps. But the fact that the industry continues to drink the programmatic “Kool-Aid” without any significant progress toward resolving the dilutive effect that programmatic transactional costs, agency fees and fraud have on an advertiser’s investment seems a tad irresponsible.

Ask yourself. What would you do if it were your money?

 

 

Is Programmatic Advertising Worth the Risk?

26 Jul

dreamstime_xs_50082776Conceptually, it is easy to understand the potential of programmatic media buying. It is obvious to most that using technology to supplant what is a manual, labor intensive process to drive efficiencies and improve media investment decisions could be a plus for advertisers, agencies and publishers (not to mention ad tech vendors).

The only question to be addressed is “when” will the benefits of programmatic outweigh the costs and the risks to advertisers?

Proponents of programmatic will argue that this buying tactic has already generated economic benefit for advertisers when it comes to digital media buying. After all, streamlining the processes related to the issuance and completion of RFPs, buyer/ seller negotiations and preparation of insertion orders clearly saves time and reduces labor costs for all stakeholders.

No one would argue this premise. However, reducing labor costs associated with traditional buying is but one component of programmatic buying costs. Consider the broad array of programmatic buying related fees and expenses currently being born by advertisers:

  • Data Management Platform (DMP) fees
  • Demand Side Platform (DSP) fees
  • Data/ Targeting fees
  • Pre-Bid Decisioning/ Targeting fees
  • Ad Blocking (pre/ post) fees
  • Verification fees
  • Agency Campaign Management fees

It should be noted, that there are “other” non-transparent charges and fees linked to sell-side platforms (SSPs), bid processing, real-time bidding auction methodology and principal-based buys (media arbitrage) that are born by advertisers and limit the percentage of their digital media spend that actually goes toward inventory.

In a recent Ad News article by Arvind Hickman, the author referenced studies conducted by both the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) that demonstrate the magnitude of these programmatic fees and expenses. The WFA study determined that $.60 of every dollar spent on programmatic digital media buying goes to cover “programmatic transactions and fees.” The ANA study suggests that advertisers could be paying between $.54 – $.62 of every dollar on digital supply chain data, transaction fees and supply side charges.

Bear in mind that neither of these studies addressed the impact of media arbitrage or ad fraud. Industry studies, focused on assessing the level of digital ad fraud, fielded by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and WhiteOps found that fraudulent non-human traffic in the form of bots was “more prevalent in programmatic environments.” According to the research, display ads purchased programmatically were “55% more likely to be loaded by bots” than non-programmatic ads.

And yet, in-spite of the challenges still being faced with programmatic digital media buying, this media investment model is being rapidly rolled out to out-of-home, print and television.

Who do you think will bear the learning curve costs and risks associated with expanding programmatic to other media categories? The answer, is primarily advertisers and to a lesser extent, publishers.

We certainly understand that programmatic is the future of media buying. That said, rushing headlong into this arena, without satisfactory levels of transparency and or fraud prevention, combined with the upfront costs of the industry’s investment in technology, that are ultimately passed through to the advertiser, are both risky and costly to advertisers.

Is there a need to reach and take risks in order to secure positive progress? Yes. But, it might be best to follow the approach advocated by one of this country’s greatest military leaders, General George S. Patton:

“Take calculated risks, that is quite different than being rash.”

It’s Only Money…

5 Jun

digital mediaThere was one particularly startling revelation that came from the ANA’s recent Agency Financial Management conference in San Diego. During the presentation of this year’s “Agency Compensation Trends” survey results it was noted that the ANA found that almost half of the members it surveyed had not reviewed the findings of the ANA’s 2016 Transparency study.

Think about that. If an organization did not review the Transparency study’s findings, that means that there must not have been any resulting internal dialog with or among marketing’s C-Suite peers, no direct interaction with their agency network partners, no review of existing Client/Agency contracts, no improvements in reporting and controls in which to illuminate how an advertiser’s funds are being managed.

This, in spite of the level of trade media coverage regarding transparency issues ranging from rebates, discounts and media arbitrage, to the Department of Justice investigation into potential ad agency bid rigging practices or the level of ad fraud, traffic sourcing or non-disclosed programmatic fees on both the demand and sell side of the ledger.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this remarkable revelation…many marketers simply don’t care how their organization’s advertising investment is being allocated or safeguarded. Unfortunately, we regularly see the ramifications of this attitude of indifference in our contract compliance audit practice:

  • Client / Agency agreements that haven’t been reviewed or updated in years
  • Failure among clients to enact their contractual audit rights with key agency partners
  • Limited controls regarding an agency’s use and or disclosure of its use of affiliates
  • No requirement for agency partners to competitively bid third-party and affiliate vendors
  • Lack of communication to media sellers regarding ad viewability standards
  • Failure to assert an advertiser’s position on not paying for fraudulent and non-human traffic
  • No requirement for publishers to disclose the use of sourced-traffic
  • Incomplete instructions on buy authorizations to media vendors, minimizing or blocking restitution opportunities
  • Poorly constructed media post-buy reconciliation formats that lack comprehensive information and insights

Interestingly, there have been many positive developments from key industry associations such as the ANA, 4A’s, IAB and public assertions from leading marketers such as P&G and L’Oréal to further inform and motivate marketers on the topic of transparency accountability. Yet, given the materiality of an organization’s marketing spend and the publicized risks to the optimization of its advertising investment, many organizations have not yet taken action, tolerating the risks associated with the status quo. As the noted British playwright, W. Somerset Maugham once said:

Tolerance is another word for indifference.”

The failure to proactively embrace transparency accountability can pose perilous risks to an organization’s marketing budget which in turn directly impacts its company’s revenue. Many would rightly suggest needlessly.

In these instances, the fault for the increased level of attendant financial risk, fraud and working media inefficiencies lies squarely with those companies that have adopted an attitude of indifference toward these very real proven threats. One cannot blame an ad agency, production house, tech provider, publisher or media re-seller for taking advantage of the status quo and acting in manners that, while not in the best interest of the advertiser, are not expressly contractually prohibited.

The good news is that advertisers can address these issues head-on in a quick and efficient manner, mitigating the risks posed by transparency deficiencies. It all begins with a review of existing Client/Agency contracts and engaging one’s agency partners in dialog regarding the adoption of industry best practice contract language to facilitate an open, principal-agent relationship. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has a wealth of information on this topic and can also recommend external specialists to assist an advertiser with agency contract development and or compliance auditing.

Interested in safeguarding your marketing investment? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a no-obligation consultation on this topic.

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.”

May You Live in Interesting Times

23 Dec

confuciousOften referred to as the “Chinese Curse” this popular saying derives from the English Politician Sir Austen Chamberlain in the early twentieth century. Used ironically, the phrase has been used to suggest a set of outcomes that are a little more ominous, “May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life.”

As we reflect on what has been a tumultuous 2016, those working in the marketing and advertising industry most certainly would agree that we are living in interesting times. Recent news suggests that the industry’s troubles will not abate much in the coming year. The year began with evidence suggesting that the level of digital ad fraud would eclipse $8.0 billion in 2016, this was followed by the blockbuster findings from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) / K2 study on “Media Transparency” which rocked the global ad industry.  Sadly, the industry is winding down 2016 with a litany of additional actions and outcomes that pose serious threats to the level of trust, already shaken, between stakeholders in the $540 billion global advertising marketplace.

In the last two weeks, the industry heard once again from Facebook that it had made yet another audience reporting faux pas, its third of the year, which many in the ad agency community have been all too willing to forgive. Who could possibly be surprised with advertisers for being genuinely perplexed as to why the media agency community hasn’t more thoroughly scrutinized Facebook’s audience measurement reporting or pushed more aggressively for independent verification of those results.

Concurrently, halfway around the globe, Australia’s three largest magazine publishers (News Corp, Bauer Media and Pac Mags) decided to cease their participation in the Audited Media Association of Australia’s (AMAA) magazine circulation service leaving advertisers no other choice but to rely on these publishers’ self-reported “readership” numbers, rather than audited circulations figures.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice has subpoenaed agencies from four of the world’s largest holding companies; WPP, Omnicom, IPG and Publicis as part of its investigation into illegal bid-rigging for commercial production jobs. It is alleged that these agencies coerced and or rewarded independent production houses to submit inflated bids, ostensibly to manipulate the process in favor of agency in-house production resources. Many believe that the DOJ’s investigation will have a profound impact on both the estimated $5 billion production sector and potentially the rest of the business. Let’s not forget, the DOJ has not yet weighed in regarding agency practices identified in the ANA/ K2 study on media transparency.

Most recently, WhiteOps, a U.S. a cyber security firm providing ad viewability and fraud detection supporting the advertising industry, announced that it had uncovered a Russian led digital fraud effort that was literally stealing up to $5 million per day from advertisers. It was reported by the NY Times that the fraudsters impersonated more that “6,100 news and content publishers” while delivering up to 300 million fake ad views per day. How were they able to do this? By creating over one-half million bots that replicated the web surfing patterns of humans, starting and stopping videos and moving and clicking the cursor. 

If client organizations were experiencing a “crisis of trust” hangover following 2015, it certainly wasn’t remedied in 2016. Going into the New Year advertisers have every right to step back and ask, “Who can we trust?” Our agency partners? Ad tech vendors? Media Owners? Measurement Services? And who would blame advertisers for taking matters into their own hands and make a New Year Resolution to more directly deal with these issues. After all, it is their monetary inputs that fuel the entire industry and they certainly deserve better that what they’re getting right now. In the words of the iconic American actor, Clint Eastwood: Sometimes if you want to see a change for the better, you have to take things into your own hands.”

 

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