Tag Archives: Billing & Fee Reconciliations

3 Reasons Advertisers Should Audit Their Advertising Spend

29 Jun

auditsketch.102447

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Time to Address the Biggest Risk to Your Ad Budget

26 Oct

iceberg risk

As year-end draws near, many organizations are hard at work on 2022 planning

Significant effort will be invested in preparing next year’s internal audit plans, financial plans, operational plans, and marketing plans / budgets. The question is “Will any of these initiatives address the biggest risk to an organization’s advertising spend?”

When annual planning commences, representatives from internal audit, finance, procurement, and marketing are all proactively evaluating different mechanisms for driving performance and profitability, while mitigating risks to the organization.

Yet we know from experience that one of the best tools for doing just that, on behalf of a significant P&L line item, is likely not being considered.

Which P&L line item are we referring to? Advertising Expense. And the tool that simply is highly effective at mitigating risks and returning significant financial value is advertising/ media agency financial contract compliance audits.

The “Right to Audit” clause is a cornerstone control & financial protection in all client/ agency agreements. Further, organizations such as the Association of National Advertisers, World Federation of Advertisers and the ISBA strongly recommend that advertisers routinely perform compliance reviews to maintain transparency and safeguard their marketing investment. 

When a company’s control environment does not include detailed testing of advertising agency billings and costs – there are real risks that come into play for a few reasons. For one, client marketing teams are forward looking, focused on building brands and driving demand. Testing past financial activity is not necessarily on their radar. Secondly, agency finance teams are hyper-focused on their own profitability. And finally, the estimated billing process employed by ad agencies, takes client money upfront based upon projected expenses. In turn, these expenses are to be reconciled to actual costs once a job is closed. The long lag times for when this final accounting takes place and the lack of detailed billing support that is typically shared with the client creates risks for the advertiser.

The good news is that advertisers can proactively address these concerns and establish a compliance testing audit program that is cost effective, respectful of the agency’s time, and yields material near and long-term benefits, including: 

  • Identification of past overbillings and financial non-compliance for remedy.
  • New contract language including industry best practice & agency reporting guidelines.
  • Financial efficiencies and cost savings tied to process improvements.  
  • Comfort in knowing that the organization has a full understanding and strong controls in place to manage one of its largest expenses.

Most importantly, the work helps to build an organization’s level of trust in each of its agency partners and an appreciation for the role that the agency plays.

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