Tag Archives: K2

Has France Solved the Media Transparency Issue?

24 Feb

dreamstime_xs_13261288Earlier this month the French government passed a new edict extending the coverage of Loi Sapin, their anti-corruption law passed in the early 90’s which made the process of buying media more transparent.

There are two key tenants of Loi Sapin, which afford French advertisers a level of protection related to certain non-transparent revenue sources which the Association of National Advertisers (ANA)/ K2 2016 media transparency study showed were prevalent in the U.S. (and elsewhere around the globe). Specifically, we are referring to the practice of media owners and publishers paying rebates to the agency and the use of media arbitrage, where agencies purchase inventory on their own to be resold to their clients at a higher rate.

Loi Sapin prohibits agencies from selling media to their clients that the agency had purchased in its name. In today’s parlance, it prohibits media arbitrage or “principal-based” media buys. Secondly, the law clearly stipulates that the ad agencies cannot derive revenue from a media owner, stating that agencies can only be paid by advertisers.

To France’s credit, the new decree, which will take effect in January of 2018, expands the coverage of the anti-corruption law to include digital advertising and digital advertising services. Of note, this includes agency trading desks, which sometimes buy and resell digital media to their clients. Yes, agencies will still be able to provide programmatic media buying services through their trading desk operations to advertisers, they will simply have to disclose to their clients, upfront, those affiliates or entities where they or the agency holding company have an ownership interest.

Interestingly, the decree will also require the media owner to direct bill the advertiser and compels them to provide detailed information about the services that they provided to the advertiser. This particular aspect of the law will further enhance advertiser transparency and virtually eliminates the ability of an ad agency to blindly mark-up said services.

As U.S. advertisers and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), continue to evaluate the most effective means of improving media transparency, France’s anti-corruption law and its new decree covering digital media services certainly provides some interesting food for thought.

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.”

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Key to Media ROI: Chief Media Officer or Compliance Auditing Support?

14 Aug

AccountabilityIn the wake of this spring’s Association of National Advertisers (ANA) “Media Transparency” study, conducted by K2, many in the industry have suggested that advertisers add a Chief Media Officer to staff to assist them in navigating what is clearly a complex, rapidly changing industry. For those advertisers that have the financial wherewithal to support such a position, the benefits could be significant when it comes to strategy development, planning and stewardship of their media agencies and extended supplier base.

That said, the dynamics which impact media return-on-investment require resources that go well beyond the reach, and sometimes knowledge, of a Chief Media Officer and create an entirely different set of challenges even for those organization’s that do have the luxury of adding a seasoned, media executive to their staff.

The findings of the ANA/K2 study dealt with non-transparent media agency practices effecting advertisers such as: rebates taken at the agency holding company level and not passed through to advertisers, media arbitrage, value banks, related party transactions and inappropriate mark-up on both media and non-media expenses. The economic and relationship impact of these practices, and the continued adverse effects of digital ad fraud and viewability challenges besetting the industry, all serve to greatly reduce the efficacy of an advertiser’s media investment.

Experience suggests that the key to resolving these issues is more likely rooted in the development of a sound, broad reaching media accountability program. One which focuses on improving client/agency contract language, client/ agency focused communications, financial and legal controls and enhancing advertiser transparency rights that allow clarity into the disposition of their funds at each stage of the media investment cycle.

This is not an easy task in an industry still largely reliant on an estimated billing model, with inordinately long campaign closing/reconciliation processes and multiple third-party vendors and middlemen, which all serve to negatively impact working media ratios.

Add to this the fact that the C-Suite within many advertiser organizations simply doesn’t pay much attention to media, in spite of the materiality of spend in this important area. Consider the results from a July ANA study, conducted by Advertiser Perceptions, following the release of the ANA/ K2 study:

Only one-quarter (25%) of advertisers surveyed were aware of the ANA’s media transparency study.

We believe that advertisers do care about how their media funds are being managed. However, we also know that very few organizations know what happens to their money, once an agency invoice has been paid.

It is for this reason that we believe strongly in the vast benefits that a structured, agency compliance and financial management auditing program. One that can also assist advertisers by providing a context for understanding the scope of the risks they face when it comes to building mitigating controls to optimize their media investment.

At present, few advertisers undertake such testing and even fewer have the requisite industry experience and specific media-based accounting, auditing and fraud examination experience represented in-house. Additionally, we have yet to evidence a client organization that has implemented the requisite software in their media function capable of processing and catching media billing discrepancies and performing other detailed financial analysis on their media investment.

We have learned over the years that the implementation of such controls yields tangible value far in excess of the cost to support such efforts.

The combination of financial loss related to approved but unspent media funds, earned but unprocessed credits and rebates, billing errors, unreconciled pass-through expenses and related party transparency issues can range between 2.0% and 5.0% of total agency billings. Once aware of the causes, savings are realized year-over-year by implementing improved process changes and treasury management.

With this as a backdrop, imagine an organization investing tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars on media. The resulting financial benefits, combined with improved controls, enhanced risk mitigation and transparency most assuredly will secure the attention of the C-Suite and their support for media agency compliance auditing.

Interested in learning how to start improving your media transparency today? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for your complimentary consultation.

“Our Agency Contract has Expired…”

22 Jul

ExpiredThis along with feedback such as; “We can’t find a copy of the agreement,” “We don’t have an executed copy of the contract” and “Hadn’t seen that version before” are common responses from advertisers when asked for copies of their Client/ Agency agreements when undertaking an inaugural agency contract compliance audit.

While alarming at a certain level, perhaps no more concerning than the dated, evergreen and largely inadequate agency-centric contractual instruments that represent a majority of the agreements that many advertisers have entered into.

Concerning? To be sure. Perhaps these organizations aren’t familiar with the words of legendary investor, Warren Buffett, who once said:

Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

In an industry grappling with issues such as fraud, transparency, relationship stability, trust and the fairness of agency compensation systems the risks posed by non-existent or inadequate contracts are significant and include, legal, financial and intellectual property exposure.

The reasons for this dilemma are many and common across many client organizations:

  1. No central contract repository within the organization
  2. Limited cross-functional agency relationship oversight
  3. No strategic supplier management system
  4. Contracts negotiated by one function, not shared with relationship owners
  5. No enterprise wide accountability initiative

By now, most are aware of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) study on “Media Transparency” that was prepared in conjunction with K2 and released in June of this year. If there is one takeaway from the findings of that study, which all advertisers should pay heed to its the fact that a solid Client/ Agency contract is an advertisers best defense when it comes to protecting their advertising investment.

One side benefit of the ANA/ K2 study is that C-Suite members within many advertiser organizations are asking the questions; “How susceptible is our firm?” and “What level of control and transparency do we currently have when it comes to our marketing investment?”

Addressing these questions is an excellent place to begin, because it necessarily involves securing and reviewing current copies of the contractual agreements that are in place with each of the organization’s marketing vendors. Perhaps the next best place to turn is to engage either outside counsel or an independent agency contract compliance specialists, with deep knowledge of the marketing/ advertising industry and some of the advancements and best practices which are in place to safeguard an advertisers investment.

Once an updated agreement is put in place, the easiest way to manage these contracts, amendments and ongoing statement’s of work is to schedule (and contractually mandate) annual reviews of the agreement and all legal documents governing your agencies staffing plans and compensation.

For those seeking an added layer of protection, engaging an agency contract compliance specialist to monitor each agencies adherence to the terms and conditions of the agreements that govern these important relationships is an excellent idea.

Interested in assessing your organization’s legal and financial risks? Contact us for a complimentary agency contract risk assessment by emailing Cliff Campeau, Principal, Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com today.

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.

 

Is the Ad Industry on the Verge of a Revolution?

25 May

White clock with words Time for Action on its face

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Charles Dickens evocative opening to his book; “A Tale of Two Cities” described the period leading up to the French revolution. It may also be an apt description of where the ad industry and advertisers stand on the topics of transparency, fraud and trust.

As an industry, all stakeholders, including advertisers, agencies, ad tech firms, media sellers and the various associations, which serve these constituencies have long been talking about the need to implement corrective measures. Joint task forces have been formed, initiatives launched and guidelines published, yet little progress has been made in addressing these issues. As evidence of the quagmire, one need look no further than the 2016 Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and White Ops report on digital ad fraud, which saw the estimated level of thievery increase by $1 billion in 2015 to an estimated $7 billion annually. This led Bob Liodice, CEO of the ANA to boldly and rightfully tell attendees at this year’s ANA “Agency Financial Management” conference that; “marketers are getting their money stolen.”

The ANA’s message has resonated with the C-Suite within advertiser organizations the world over as CEOs, CFOs CIAs and CPO’s are working with their chief marketing officers to both assess the risks to their organizations and in fashioning solutions to safeguard their advertising investments. From this pundit’s perspective, it was refreshing to see the ANA take such a strong stance and a welcomed leadership position on remedying these blights on our industry.

Some may view the ANA’s recent stance on fraud and transparency and the upcoming release of its study with K2 on the use of agency volume bonuses (AVBs) or rebates as incendiary. However, in light of the scope of the economic losses, financial and legal risks to advertisers and the havoc which transparency concerns have wreaked on advertiser/ agency relationships we view the ANA’s approach as a rational, measured and necessary stake in the ground.

Mr. Liodice was not casting blame when he suggested that the K2 survey would “be a black and white report that for us (ANA) will be unassailable documentation of what the truth is.” It is refreshing to see an industry association elevate dialog around the need for full-disclosure, moving from disparate opinions to establishing a fact-based perspective on the scope of this practice. To the ANA’s credit, this will be followed by a second report, authored by Ebiquity/ Firm Decisions, introducing guidelines for the industry to proactively address the issue.

To be clear, it is not a level playing field for advertisers. There are many forces at play as a variety of entities look to siphon off portions of an advertisers media investment for their own financial gain. Thus, we’re hopeful that the ANA’s message to marketers to “take responsibility” for their financial and contractual affairs when it comes to protecting their advertising investment takes hold.

In our experience, the path forward for advertisers is clear. It begins with re-evaluating their marketing service agency contracts to integrate “best practice” language that provides the requisite legal and financial safeguards. Additionally, this document should clearly establish performance expectations for each of their agency partners, introducing guidelines to minimize the impact of fraud, including mandating the use of fraud prevention and traffic validation technology, banning the use of publisher sites that employ traffic sourcing and establishing a full-disclosure, principal-agent relationship with their agency partners.

Experience suggests that another key element of a well-rounded accountability initiative should include the ongoing, systematic monitoring of agency contract compliance and financial management performance to evaluate progress. Of note, wherever possible, these controls and practices should extend to direct non-agency vendors and third-party vendors involved with the planning, creation and distribution of and advertisers messaging.

The advertising industry is on the verge of a revolution and for the sake of advertisers we hope so. One that can usher in positive change and allow all legitimate stakeholders to refocus their collective energies on building productive relationships predicated on trust. It is our belief that knowledge and transparency are critical cornerstones in this process:

“I believe in innovation – and that the way you get innovation is you learn the basic facts.”

                                                                                                                                                  ~ Bill Gates

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