Tag Archives: days payable outstanding

The Problem with Focusing on Payment Terms

24 Jun

agency floatNever one to forgo an opportunity to harangue client-side Procurement and Finance professionals, Sir Martin Sorrell couldn’t help but single out those two groups during a session at the Cannes Lions International Festival.  While the topic was client payment terms, Mr. Sorrell suggested that their influence on marketing decisions is putting pressure on the system and the supply chain.

For the record, I am not an advocate of marketers extending payment terms.  The reason is simple, the savings are illusory as those costs simply get factored into the “cost of doing business,” it incents bad behavior and the trickle-down effect of such policies negatively impacts a range of marketing suppliers in the creative, production and media sectors. 

However, for the agency community in general, and Mr. Sorrell in particular, to rail on the client-side procurement and finance teams for the actions of a handful of advertisers who have extended payment terms to their agencies seems disingenuous.  Why?  For years agency holding companies, such as WPP have exerted their influence which is a bi-product of their increased size and clout to arbitrarily extend their payment terms to 3rd party vendors.  The difference between advertisers such as P&G, Mondelez, AB-InBev and Johnson & Johnson and their counterparts in the agency community is that they at least went public with their policies. 

Agency income from float, the interest earned on the agency’s  between the time a vendor invoice is due and when funds are actually dispersed by the agency to pay that vendor, can be significant.  As part of our contract compliance auditing practice, AARM conducts billing reconciliation and days-payable-outstanding analysis pertaining to agency payments to 3rd party vendors.  It is not uncommon to see average day’s payable levels in excess of 75 to 90 days.  When one considers that most agencies bill their clients upfront, on an estimated basis, the interest income that can be 

earned by agency holding companies on their use of client funds is rarely, if ever, openly discussed or factored into agency remuneration.  Unfortunately, save for a small number of large multi-media conglomerates, suppliers downstream simply have no recourse when agencies extend their days-payable-outstanding.  

Thus when the chairman of one of the world’s largest agency holding companies intones that client-agency relationships are  “in danger of being eroded” due to a handful of advertisers extending payment terms it rings shallow.

Regardless of whether an advertiser views their ad agency suppliers as “partners” or “vendors” is immaterial in the context of this discussion.  One thing everyone should agree on is that the ad agency should never be put in the role of “banker.”  Clients should structure payment terms so that their funds are on hand for the agency to pay 3rd party vendors when those invoices come due.  To extend this concept further, client-agency agreements should contain language requiring agencies to promptly reconcile all 3rd party vendor activity and to process payment to that community within a pre-determined timeframe.

There are numerous opportunities for advertisers to improve treasury management practices when it comes to the handling of their marketing investments.  However, issuing edicts to extend agency payment terms is short-sighted and belies the ripple effect that this practice can have on inflating the cost of doing business for those advertisers.  It is time for advertisers and their agencies to deal with the issue of payment terms; client to agency and agency to 3rd party vendors, in a constructive and transparent manner.  The fact that either side would look to achieve a financial edge at the other’s expense when it comes to the disbursement of funds is not where the focus should be.  As Voltaire, the noted French philosopher once said;

“When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.” 

The focus, lest we forget should be on leveraging that marketing investment to build brands and drive consumer demand for the client’s product and service offering.

Interested in learning more about improved treasury management practices when it comes to agency stewardship and 3rd party vendor payment processing?  Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation.

What is the #1 Advertising Agency Control Oversight?

24 Jan

spreadsheetIn our experience as contract compliance auditors, the answer to this question is unequivocally an advertiser’s failure to reconcile agency billing activity.  Whether we’re talking creative services, digital production or media, advertisers are simply not vouching for the accuracy or completeness of either the agency’s or the 3rd party vendors billing efforts.

Given that “Estimated” billing remains the predominant form of agency billing to advertisers this lack of oversight creates tangible risks and the potential for financial loss that could be eliminated with the implementation of some fairly simple controls.  These risks include the potential for billing errors to go undetected and aged credits, earned discounts and rebates not being returned to the advertiser and lost interest income opportunities tied to agency float.

The principal stop-gap measure that could allay this problem is frequently overlooked by too many advertisers.  What is that measure you ask?  Simply requiring agencies to provide copies of all 3rd party vendor billing with their bill-to-client invoices. 

In two recent examples, one in North America for a multi-channel direct marketer and one in the middle east for a pan-Arabian conglomerate, the client had put significant funds at risk, which had it not been for an independent audit, would surely have been lost.  Each client was billed on an estimated basis by their agency, and each agency routinely failed to reconcile billing to actual expense.  In both instances there were incremental agency remuneration activities identified that were not supported by the client/ agency agreements.  These came chiefly in the form of AVBs, or volume-rebates, provided by media properties based on large expenditures made by each of the respective advertisers.

Had the requisite bill-to-client “back-up” data been available, client-side Accounts Payable personnel would have had the opportunity to review and challenge the billing and to secure financial true-ups along the way.  Ironically, both advertisers had incorporate “Right to Audit” and “Document Retention” clauses into their agency agreements.  However, as is typical across the industry, neither had previously enacted those clauses to engage an independent auditor to review the accuracy and timeliness of the agencies billing and 3rd party vendor payment processing efforts.

When advertisers take a lax posture on billing reconciliation and vouching, invariably two other areas are frequently impacted.  The first represents a risk to the advertiser in the form of approved purchase order (P.O.) balances and earned, but not yet processed, credits being managed “off-book.”  While these practices seem innocent enough on the surface and often involve client-side marketing personnel, the risks are very real.  The notion is a simple one, the agency and client teams identify credits or unspent budgets and accrue these funds for future use on unexpected new initiatives or for planned projects that exceed budget.  Harmless, right?   Perhaps, until the client-side marketing representative is transferred out of their position or leaves the company altogether.  This usually creates a knowledge gap that allows these “off-book” funds to remain undetected by the advertiser.  Thus, in this scenario the agency is the only entity with knowledge that these funds even exist.

The second area impacted is an advertisers treasury management practices.  With estimated billing, clients are often invoiced by their agency at the time of project approval, with payment due in 15 to 30 days.  However, the agency may not be billed by 3rd party vendors until costs are actually incurred (i.e. calendar month following the month of service) and remittance may not be due for another 30 to 45 days.  Finally, the agency may take an excessive amount of time to reconcile the vendor billing and hold off on processing payment until the charges are fully reconciled.  While that all makes sense, the advertisers funds have been in the agency’s possession and not in an interest bearing account generating interest income for the advertiser. 

Billing reconciliation is too important a task not to have a rigid oversight process and controls in place.  Agencies handle anywhere from several dozen to thousands of 3rd party vendor invoices on the advertisers behalf.  The sheer volume of billing activity can in and of itself create an environment that is ripe for mistakes.  As noted twentieth-century American author Paul Eldridge once said;

“In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled.”

Having a process that provides billing analysis redundancy makes good sense and will likely be welcomed by the agency.   If you’re interested in learning more about independent billing reconciliation audit support, please contact Jim Bean, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management at jbean@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this important topic. 


It’s Your Money and Your Reputation

26 Jun

advertiser's reputationDo you know what happens to your organization’s money, once it has paid the advertising agency?  If you’re like most advertisers you probably don’t know and may not even care.  Perhaps you should. 

Advertising agencies, regardless of the contractual definition of their role (agent vs. independent contractor), act on an advertiser’s behalf to procure and pay for services, space, time, etc… purchased from third-party vendor organizations that are related to producing and distributing the client’s advertising and communications messaging.  In turn, the advertiser is billed by the agency, typically upfront on an “estimated” basis for those goods and services with payment due to the agency in 15 to 30 days from receipt of invoice.  Terms between agency and client are usually set to insure that the agency has the client’s funds prior to the time third-party vendor invoices are presented for payment. 

For most advertisers, there is little transparency into the financial transactions between their advertising agencies and their third-party vendors, which number in the hundreds, if not thousands.  This lack of transparency results in diminished advertiser control and increased risks associated with third-party vendor reconciliation and accounts payable management.  Risks typically fall into four areas: 

  1. Clear and unambiguous title to any and all intellectual property/ work product
  2. The advertiser’s reputation among 3rd party vendors
  3. Treasury management “opportunity” costs
  4. Exposure in the case an agency became unable to pay its creditors 

AARM conducts agency contract compliance and financial audits of advertising and marketing agencies on behalf of advertisers.  In our experience it is rare to see a client-agency contract that identifies clear terms and conditions for the agency’s handling of third-party vendors or in establishing processes and controls to allow the advertiser to monitor performance in this area.   Don’t advertisers want to know if and when third-party vendors have been paid?  If vendors were paid at the agreed upon rate or something less?  If the reconciliation process resulted in credits, discounts or rebates that are due back to the advertiser?  Who are the vendors being utilized? 

Based on our financial audit experience, there has been a clear trend in recent years of agencies stretching out disbursements to third-party vendors well beyond their payment terms, as measured by “Days Payable Outstanding” or the time lag from vendor invoicing to agency payment to the vendor.  There can only be two reasons for this performance and neither is particularly sound.  Firstly, the agency may have flawed vendor reconciliation processes and or they are putting inadequate resources against this “non-revenue generating” area of their business.  Secondly, the agency is seeking to maximize interest income from float.  Simply defined, “float” is the amount of money that the agency has collected from the advertiser but has not yet disbursed to a vendor.  In almost all instances, agencies both earn and retain the interest income on this float. 

Within the agency community it is often joked that interest income (from float) is an agency’s best client; “It pays on time and never complains.”  However, when it comes to the advertiser’s reputation the risk of being labeled a “slow pay” is no laughing matter.  Whether deserved or not, such a reputation can carry both opportunity costs and economic costs in the form of vendors charging higher rates to compensate for their “carrying costs” or not offering preferential treatment.  Nor do many client-side CFO’s find much humor in lost interest income opportunities, aged vendor credits or delayed earned but unprocessed discounts and rebates.   

When the size of an advertiser’s budget is considered and the fact that this investment is being managed through a small group of agencies, who in turn handle purchases and payments on behalf of the advertiser with hundreds of diverse third-party vendors ranging from media property owners to production studios to third-party ad-servers, it may be time to perform an independent assessment of performance in this important area. 

After all, we’re all familiar with the adage: “What is inspected is respected.” 

Interested in learning more about the financial portion of an agency contract compliance audit?  Please contact Don Parsons, Principal at AARM at dparsons@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation.


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