Tag Archives: contract compliance auditing

3 Keys to Strengthening Client-Agency Relationships

25 Jan

Keys to SuccessMost would agree that strong client-agency relationships are more conducive to achieving positive results that drive in-market performance levels which meet or exceed expectations.

Similarly, both client-side and agency executives agree that “trust” is imperative in building and maintaining a solid partnership. Thus, one could logically conclude that establishing a relationship predicated on trustworthiness would be beneficial to advertisers and agencies alike.

However, as the ad industry has evolved and grown over the last decade or so, it seems as though the ability to establish trust between stakeholders has been greatly compromised. Whether this is between advertisers and agencies or agencies and ad tech providers or between ad tech providers and publishers. While the reasons for this are many, pundits will point to the myriad of documented transparency related issues that have plagued the industry, while cynics might suggest that Agatha Christie had it right when she said: “Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody.”

As consultants specializing in marketing supply chain accountability, working with advertisers and their agency network partners, we take a more pragmatic view. We believe that trust is not elusive, that it can be earned and nourished if clients and agencies are willing to commit to the following three steps:

  1. Establish a Principal-Agent Relationship – In short, an advertiser should never have to doubt the allegiance of their agency partners or the objectivity of their recommendations. A principal-agent relationship establishes the expectation that the agency has a fiduciary responsibility to always act on behalf of and in the best interest of its client. Memorialized within the client-agency agreement, this principle is the single best means for fostering trust.
  2. Perform Independent Transparency Accountability Reviews – Actions that advertisers should consider and that agencies should welcome include contract compliance reviews, financial management audits and media performance assessments. Independent reviews of agency performance relative to client expectations and contractual performance requirements instills a certain level of discipline when it comes to governance, and provides both parties with the assurance each is acting within the guidelines of agreement and a platform in which to discuss improvement opportunities.
  3. Conduct QBRs and 360° Performance Evaluations – We are all in the communications business, yet too often client-agency communications are inadequate when it comes to strengthening the relationship. Not talking about day-to-day interactions, but dialog regarding key business strategies and challenges, performance expectations and opportunities that occurs at even the most senior level within each organization. The use of quarterly business reviews (QBRs), that involve cross functional team members and executives from both the advertiser and client organizations are a great way to ensure that both sides are focused on the business and relationship priorities established at the beginning of the year. Complementing the QBRs should be an annual performance evaluation where representatives from the client and agency are invited to provide feedback on the relationship and identify opportunities to improve processes and performance. This should then be followed by a brief meeting to discuss the results of the evaluation and come to an agreement on actions to be taken in the coming year.

Business relationships can be complex and at times difficult. In our experience, implementing the aforementioned steps greatly enhances effective levels of communication, which fosters trust and confidence, which leads to solid relationships that drive superior performance.  As George Bernard Shaw intoned: “The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Interested in learning more about how to improve your marketing supply chain accountability for your organization? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on the topic.

 

Compliance Auditing: The Path to Building Client Trust

26 Oct

Accountability Final“Trust is the one thing that changes everything” ~ Stephen Covey

In the context of client / agency relationships, transparency simply means removing any element of doubt. Whether in the context of an agency’s earned revenue, billing accuracy, net payments to third-party vendors or the agency’s resource investment on behalf of a client.

The best means of achieving transparency is through an agency contract compliance and financial management audit and or the implementation of a continuous performance monitoring program focused on these aspects of the relationship.

After all, the marketing investment made by most advertisers is material and often ranks as one of, if not the largest SG&A expenditures. Which is precisely why marketing budgets are currently drawing more C-Suite attention from finance, procurement and internal audit personnel, working in conjunction with their peers in marketing.

This type of cross-functional oversight is a good thing. Particularly when striving to build a unified team by earning each other’s trust across the organization. Additionally, experience has shown that sound enterprise accountability and assurance programs can create value for all parties:

  1. Client financial team members benefit from the specific knowledge as to how their marketing dollars are being managed at each phase of the marketing investment cycle.
  2. Procurement gains insights related to the organization’s return on agency fee investment, optimization of contract language and opportunities for potential future cost avoidance initiatives (not related to agency fees).
  3. The internal audit group gains confidence in knowing that contract terms and organizational controls are being adhered to and if not, that actions are being recommended to shore up potential gaps and risks.
  4. Marketing gains feedback on the agency’s financial management performance, while identifying opportunities for process improvements that can boost the efficiency and effectiveness of their marketing investment.
  5. The agency benefits from direct feedback on their performance in this important area, the opportunity for interaction with and exposure to a broad cross-section of senior client management and the trust and associated confidence that comes with receiving a solid “report card.”

Over time, agency contract compliance and financial management performance audits have evolved in a manner which has yielded in-depth institutional knowledge and feedback that greatly assists advertisers in stewarding their marketing organizations and agency network partners. This is occurring during a period of time where the complexities of the advertising and media marketplace have expanded significantly, increasing an advertiser’s risk / reward considerations. 

Of late, there has been significant industry concerns relating to the questionable transparency relative to the disposition of an advertiser’s investment. How much money flows through to third-party vendors versus what is retained by the agency? What percentage of activity is directed to the agency’s affiliates or holding company, without client insight or approval rights? Is the agency earning excessive float income on the client’s marketing spend?

Rightly or wrongly, in the wake of these concerns, advertising agencies have found themselves all painted with the same broad brush of operating under an opaque modus operandi. This in turn has raised the specter of mistrust among many on the client-side, which has had negative implications on the strength (and length) of client-agency relationships. Needless to say, this is not a healthy dynamic for generating above average in-market results, solid returns on marketing investment, fair and fully disclosed agency remuneration levels or in building strong relationships.

Time and time again, we have seen clients and agencies alike benefit from the investment in compliance audits and the sustained comfort levels that come with ongoing performance monitoring programs. The chief benefit to both parties is the assurance of knowing that the advertiser’s investment is being well managed by their agency partners and the insight to fuel future process improvements.

In the end, these programs represent the quickest and most economical path to restoring trust between clients and their agencies, allowing both to focus on building strong brands and increasing demand generation. In the words of author Joel Peterson:

“Trust doesn’t just happen. It takes initiation, nurture, evaluation and repair.”

Did You Trust the Banker When You Played Monopoly?

26 Jan

Monopoly

If you were a “gamer” (in the days when board games were the norm) that implicitly trusted both the banker and the individual who controlled the distribution of the real estate properties when playing Monopoly, than this article isn’t for you.

On the other hand, if you are one who turns a wary eye toward those in control of assets, particularly your assets, then we would like to pose one question: “Do you know what happens to your company’s marketing funds once checks have been distributed to your agency partners?

In our experience, few if any individuals within an advertiser organization have a clear perspective on the disposition of approved funds once an agency invoice has been paid. The primary reason for this is that the industry still operates largely on the concept of “estimated” billing and the pre-payment of funds from the advertiser to the agency. Over the years the resulting transparency gap has been compounded by the fact that few if any advertisers require their agencies to provide copies of all third-party vendor invoices with their final project or campaign billing. Most advertisers have document retention and audit rights clauses in their agreements, but few act upon these contractual rights.

As contract compliance auditors, we review thousands of agency bill-to-client invoices as part of our hard copy vouching and testing process. In general, the lack of specificity contained on these invoices, particularly when one recognizes that there is often little accompanying back-up can be startling. For example, imagine coming across an invoice for the production of television commercials for a major seasonal advertising campaign that simply stated; “Holiday Campaign TV Production – $785,000.” Was that for one commercial or six? Were these :15 second spots or :60’s? Is this for a U.S. campaign or a global effort? Apparently, answers to those types of questions aren’t always required to process payment for that invoice… as long as the invoice amount doesn’t exceed the approved purchase order, if there is an approved purchase order.

Do you know if your agencies are abiding by the contractual guidelines for competitively bidding jobs? Do you know whether or not the agreements with the agencies in your network even requires three bids or at what spending threshold? More broadly, do you know which of your third-party vendors are actually related to your ad agency partners (i.e. shared financial interests, investors or corporate lineage)? If so, was this disclosed in advance of work being awarded to those related parties?

If you’re like most advertisers, you are billed in advance of production or media commitments being made on your behalf, or at least prior to the activity occurring. Likely, your company pays that invoice within 45 days of receipt. Any idea how much time elapses prior to your third-party vendors being paid or whether their billing to the agencies is scrutinized for accuracy? Let’s assume there are credits issued by third-party vendors or approved funds that are not spent by the agencies, how long does it take for the agencies to identify and return those funds to you? Who is involved in determining the disposition of those funds? Marketing? Or are checks cut and sent to finance?

Do you compensate one of more of your agency partners based upon a direct labor model, with estimated monthly fees tied to a contractual staffing plan predicated on the hourly time investment of specific individuals? How often to you see time-of-staff reporting from the agencies? Monthly, quarterly, annually, ever? Have those fees ever been reconciled to each agencies actual time investment? Have you ever tested your agencies time-keeping systems to assess the accuracy of the reports that may be shared with your team?

We have good news for you, news that can provide answers to each and every one of these questions. There is a proven means of closing this transparency gap and providing your organization with the processes and controls necessary to assess the disposition of marketing funds at each step of the advertising investment cycle.

It is called agency contract compliance auditing, it is an industry best practice and it will provide insights, answers and recommendations that will benefit an advertiser’s agency stewardship efforts and their agency partners’ financial management performance.

If you still have some apprehension about this complex ecosystem called marketing, consider the words of former Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes when weighing the pros and cons of a contract compliance audit; “When in doubt, do it.”

Interested in learning more about safeguarding your firm’s marketing investment? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal with AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on how to implement or enhance your organization’s marketing accountability initiative.

 

 

 

Are Advertising Agency Performance Assessments Disruptive?

4 Mar

disruptionThe answer to this question will be as diverse as the background and experience readers have with corporate accountability initiatives in general and marketing services agency audits in particular.  However, the question shouldn’t be whether or not these assessments of contract compliance or performance are disruptive but; “are they beneficial?” 

As a former agency account director and client side marketing executive, I have had the benefit of seeing the marketing accountability process from both perspectives.   As such, in my humble opinion, performance assessments and contract compliance audits are neither disruptive to the advertiser’s or the agency’s workflow, nor do they place any undue strain on the relationship.  Quite the contrary, in my experience performance monitoring and compliance testing serve to better align advertisers and agencies and more often than not lead to process improvements which are beneficial to both parties.

What is puzzling is that there are individuals on both the client and agency side that continue to rebel against the prospect of a comprehensive, independent assessment of their collective performance and adherence to the terms of the relationship.  After all, both parties were actively involved in negotiating their letter-of-agreement (LOA), which most likely contains a statement of work, an agency staffing plan, a schedule of charging practices, 3rd party vendor management parameters and a clause detailing the advertisers “Right to Audit.”   It occurs to me that accepting independent assessments is much akin to accepting the truth.  In the words of the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer :

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first, it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.”

More importantly, there isn’t a member of the C-Suite in any client organization who is not wholly on board with the notion of accountability.  While not initially the case in the context of marketing, those days are clearly in the rearview mirror.  It is not uncommon for corporations to spend between 1.5% and 5.0% of their revenue on marketing.  Whether the goal is to build brands, create short-term demand and or to grow market share, marketing is an important component in the success of an organization.  Thus, it is imperative that executives have confidence that their staff, their partners and their 3rd party vendors are making good resource allocation decisions with the company’s marketing investment. 

Performance reviews and compliance audits provide a measure of control to an advertiser to ensure that there is transparency into the decisions being made with regard to their marketing investment.  These initiatives have the added benefit of providing a mechanism to review personnel, processes and resource investment on the part of the agencies so that adjustments can be made along the way to improving their return on marketing investment (ROMI).   Independent audits also yield an excellent opportunity for client and agency to engage in a candid, comprehensive dialog regarding the audit findings and recommendations which frequently contain normative benchmarks or industry “Best Practice” insights.  This type of approach fosters partnership and strengthens relationships.  Everything is on the table, no surprises, with the simple goal of identifying various means of improving performance.

From a workflow perspective, audits should not disrupt an agency’s critical role in the demand generation process.  Is there a modicum of time required of the account team and or the subject matter experts on the agency side?  Most definitely, but not at an onerous level.  Further, this can be an incredibly worthwhile investment of time if the agency is willing to provide feedback and share insights into the relationship and thoughts that they might have on changes that can be made to strengthen that relationship and in turn boost performance.  Other than those qualitative interviews, it is the agency financial team that is typically “on point” for providing the requisite data and or reports required to support the audit.  The nature of the information request is straightforward is typically detailed within the LOA and can be readily accessed from the agency’s financial system, thus requiring little administrative time… unless of course the agency has neglected their “housekeeping” duties along the way (i.e. lax time-of-staff controls, failure to reconcile fees, delays in reconciling 3rd party vendor fees, etc…). 

In our opinion, it makes sense for both parties to view the accountability process as a sound “preventative” care practice that can preserve the health of the client / agency relationship… not to disrupt it.  Marketers who invite an independent assessment of their performance and that of their agency network are embracing an excellent opportunity to showcase their commitment to corporate accountability and a desire to maximize ROMI.   

Interested in learning more about marketing accountability and how to implement the appropriate controls and transparency?  Please contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this topic.

Marketing Accountability. Who Owns It?

3 Nov

marketing accountabilitySeems like a straight forward question.  And the answer is vital to the success of an organization’s marketing accountability initiative. 

From a functional perspective, should it be Marketing, Finance, Procurement or Internal Audit?  Should the CMO, CFO, CPO and or their lieutenants take the lead?  And of course the real zinger; “Whose budget will cover the cost of the initiative?”

Simple questions?  Yes, but with answers that have organizational implications that frequently pose significant impediments to fielding a marketing accountability program.  The reasons cited range from “We’re short-staffed” to “We want to do it, but budgetary constraints won’t allow for it this FY.”  Thus, for most advertisers, their marketing accountability initiatives are DOA.  It’s a shame when you consider the hundreds of $millions in marketing spend committed annually with little in the way of contract compliance auditing, financial reconciliation, performance monitoring or independent oversight. 

The obvious question for stakeholders is: “Would you play it so loose if it were your own money?”  Probably not.  Truth be told, accountability is everyone’s responsibility and is a pillar of good corporate governance.  The tone is typically set by the CEO and over time, becomes part and parcel of an organization’s culture. 

From a marketing perspective perhaps the best model to consider is a multi-functional team of internal stakeholders from Procurement, Marketing and Finance with the source of funding being the marketing budget and the CMO serving as the leader of the initiative.  Why Marketing?  Because Marketing will be the primary beneficiary of the resulting process improvements, efficiency gains and financial true-ups that are typically realized as part of an accountability effort.  Further, while business results, brand building, strategy development, analysis and leadership are skills required of the CMO position, accountability and responsible stewardship of the organization’s marketing investment are vitally important elements as well.

In the end, the organization realizes a number of benefits that will improve the efficacy of its marketing spend, boost ROMI and improve the performance of their marketing services agency network:

  • Enhanced agency stewardship systems (i.e. contracts, compensation and evaluation systems)
  • Improved controls, transparency and reporting
  • Efficiency gains
  • Improved financial stewardship practices

So what are the critical components of a marketing accountability program?  At its root, it begins with the clear articulation of the organization’s business objectives, marketing goals and expectations of each stakeholder group involved in the marketing process.  One of the most critical stakeholder groups is the organization’s marketing services agency network.  A well-conceived marketing accountability program will help both advertiser and agency align resources with the organization’s goals.  In turn, these decisions will ultimately drive decisions regarding roles and responsibilities, deliverables, agency staffing, remuneration and the criteria that will be utilized to assess performance. 

Successful accountability management programs are not one-and-done propositions.  They involve implementing and executing a system which has an ongoing monitoring component.  Often times, this may include utilizing independent auditors to help instill the requisite feedback and control processes into the culture of the advertiser and each member of their marketing services agency network. 

Marketing accountability and the attendant activities associated with these initiatives (i.e. performance monitoring, compliance testing, independent auditing) form the basis for organizations to ensure that the millions of dollars spent on marketing are tracked appropriately.  More importantly, these actions will afford an advertiser the opportunity to drive each of the stakeholders that comprise their marketing supply chain to extraordinary performance.

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