Tag Archives: marketing services network

Estimated Billing: Time for Reform?

3 Sep

estimated billing processAccording to ZenithOptimedia global ad spending will exceed $520.0 billion in 2013.  Based on common industry practices, the majority of this money will be prepaid by the advertiser based on its agency’s “estimated billing” invoicing process.  Simply put, estimated billing occurs when an advertising agency bills their client upfront, based upon planned expenditures, in advance of performance and in advance of the agency being billed by the advertisers 3rd party vendors. 

With such a material level of expenditure at stake, the question to be asked is quite simply; “Is estimated billing the best approach?”  In our advertising agency contract compliance practice, we are engaged by global advertisers to conduct financial management reviews and provide consulting support for effectively stewarding an advertisers marketing investment. In two decades, we have seen many repetitive inefficient practices tied to estimated billing. 

By in large, advertisers trust their agency partners to act in a proper fiduciary manner when managing the marketing funds entrusted to them.  As well intended as agencies may be, errors happen, delays occur and yes there can be  non-desirable manipulation of funds limiting an advertiser’s ability to optimize the return on their advertising investment.  Further, limited transparency into the unused portions of prepaid monies compounds the risk to an advertiser.  

It is understood that the premise of estimated billing was that advertisers did not want their agencies to function as their bankers, fronting money to 3rd party vendors to cover commitments made on the advertisers behalf by the agency.  By billing upfront, once funds have been approved, agencies assure themselves that they will have the advertisers’ funds in hand once 3rd party vendors begin to invoice the agency for the products, time and services purchased on an advertiser’s behalf.  Conceptually this makes perfect sense.  No one in the marketing services supply chain wants the agency community to be at risk or to front funds to compensate 3rd party vendors for their clients’ purchases. 

However, throughout this process, it is the client’s expectation and incumbent upon the agency community to treat client money as client money, not its own.  Aside from routine billing errors, certain observed financial practices would suggest this expectation is not always upheld: 

  • Estimated invoicing not being accurately reconciled to actual expenditures
  • Inordinately long delays for reconciling actual expenditures
  • Securing and retaining prompt pay discounts and volume rebates offered by vendors
  • Delays in processing payments to 3rd party vendors 

Some agency practitioners operate as though possession is nine-tenths of the law, deploying advertiser fronted funds to their, rather than their clients’ advantage.  When client controls are lax in this area, abuses of the fiduciary relationship frequently go unnoticed.   

One aspect of an agency’s fiduciary responsibilities is to transact client business in an open and timely manner, fully disclosing all commitments, incentives, balances and risks. Further, the agency must be willing to open their books at the client’s request, allowing the advertiser to review the accuracy of the agency’s financial management practices along with their compliance to the terms of the client/ agency letter of agreement. Instances where an agency provides push back on a client’s request for open-book accounting should be dealt with directly and immediately to mitigate any further financial risk to the advertiser. 

Given the amount of an advertiser’s budget directed toward media, this is one area which requires a keen level of oversight on the advertiser’s part. The combination of the consolidation of ownership among media companies and the growth through mergers and acquisitions in the size of agency holding groups creates a concentration of power which may not always be applied in the advertiser’s best interest.  Clearly, “Big Media” and the agency holding groups have forged their own relationships and specialized deals involving data sharing, content development, inventory and financial incentives which are designed to benefit those entities, yet are reliant on the investment of funds by advertisers.  

Even when an advertiser successfully structures an agreement with their agency in which the advertiser believes that their business goals and the agency’s remuneration are aligned and clearly articulated, there is often more wiggle room than an advertiser would deem acceptable.  That is “if” they had a complete understanding of the agency’s use of funds in an estimated billing framework.  Net, net… it can be argued that agencies often make a higher level of profit than what the letter of agreement describes.  One source of this “incremental” profit being directly tied to the use of advertiser funds.  A week here, a week there when it comes to paying 3rd party vendors, one or two percentage points when it comes to treasury management, AVBs, intra-company purchases of services… it all adds up.  As Aristotle once intoned; 

“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold. 

Advertisers provide financial inputs which allow the marketing communications industry to exist, to grow, to innovate and to prosper.  Therefore, it is the advertiser who should benefit from the financial gains tied to the use of their funds.

Perhaps it is time for advertisers to consider rethinking the estimated billing process, particularly with regard to media purchases.  Linking payment to the timely and complete reconciliation of media purchases would greatly reduce the likelihood of others profiting from the advertisers investment.  Additional benefits would include the likely improvement in the time required to reconcile invoices, account for performance and to pay 3rd party vendors.  This is in addition to the improved controls, reduction in A/P processing costs and treasury management benefits afforded advertisers in a move away from estimated billing.


The Value of Consistency in Building Brands

11 Mar

brandingMarketing pundits the world over have long championed the role of consistency when it comes to building great brands.  When citing examples, we frequently here about creative expressions of that consistency ranging from Budweiser and the Clydesdales to Nike and their “Just Do It” slogan to McDonald’s and their “Golden Arches” or Coca Cola’s iconic red can. 

Rarely do we tout the generation’s long relationships between advertiser and agency which have contributed mightily to building so many of today’s top brands.  Chevrolet and Campbell-Ewald, Ford and J. Walter Thompson, Exxon Oil and McCann, Kellogg’s and Leo Burnett, Met Life and Young & Rubicam or Unilever and Lowe + Partners are but some of the examples of long-term collaborations.  And yet, sadly, even some of these unions are no more.

Great advertising is the result of proven methodologies and sound processes, which guide talented professionals steeped in brand knowledge and keenly aware of the needs and desires of the brand’s target audience to produce compelling work.  This doesn’t happen overnight.  Great advertising requires a commitment between an advertiser and their agency partners, a culture which values brand building and the vision to be able to balance that with the need to generate sales and build share today.  Importantly, it requires a resource investment on the part of both client and agency and a deep level of respect between those organizations which allows for a robust, long-term relationship in which both parties can challenge and feed off of one another.

So why then has the length of Client/ Agency relationships shrunk so dramatically over the course of the last thirty-years?  Why does it seem that when an advertiser changes CMO’s that an agency review is but a few short months behind?  Why do so few corporate CEO’s take the time to get to know their organization’s advertising agency partners? 

An advertiser’s agency network, which can number dozens of agencies across disciplines, geographies and brands, is a corporate asset which is at the heart of the organization’s ability to create near-term demand generation and long-term brand value.  Thus, the agencies which comprise this network should be afforded the requisite level of respect and attention which a valued strategic partner would warrant. 

Advertising agencies are not the property of, nor the sole purview of a CMO.  This is not to diminish the importance of a CMO’s agency stewardship responsibilities or their contribution to deftly managing the outputs of an organization’s agency network.  It is the realization that enduring, effective collaborations must be anchored in a culture that values long-term relationships.

At its low in 2006, the average time-in-position of a CMO was 23.2 months according to research conducted by executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart.  The good news is that CMO tenure has climbed to 43.0 months in 2011.  However, 3 ½ years is but a blink of an eye in the context of some of the Client/ Agency relationships referenced earlier.

It is a truism that “great clients, get great work” when it comes to advertising.  So what makes a “great” client?  It begins with an organization that respects their ad agency and the agency personnel which work on their business and values the work that is done on behalf of their brands.  This is augmented by the willingness to integrate the agency into the broader marketing team and to work seamlessly as one unit, while understanding the division of roles and responsibilities.  Importantly, it involves a commitment to the relationship.  Agency CEO’s are much more willing to invest in adding resources, developing personnel and building infrastructure to elevate the caliber of work on a client business when they can do so with a long-term perspective and the opportunity for a return.

David Ogilvy once shared his perspective on the role of his agency and the investment required to implement his vision in a memo to his board of directors in 1978:

“I have a new metaphor. Great hospitals do two things: they look after patients, and they teach young doctors.  Ogilvy & Mather does two things: we look after clients, and we teach young advertising people.  Ogilvy & Mather is the teaching hospital of the advertising world.  And, as such, to be respected above all other agencies.”

Needless to say there are a myriad of processes, controls and performance monitoring tools which come in to play to maintain focus and to incent all parties to engage in the proper behavior and motivate each member of the team to achieving in-market success.  These include everything from a properly structured letter-of-agreement, a fair remuneration system which rewards superior performance, annual 360° relationship reviews, proper client briefing processes, independent performance assessments and access to key decision makers within both the Client and Agency organizations.

It is safe to say that with the passage of time and repetition, the ability to improve these processes and tools… and their outputs, becomes infinitely more doable than when changing agencies every few years.  Perhaps Leo Burnett had it right when he intoned:

 “I have learned that you can’t have good advertising without a good client, that you can’t keep a good client without good advertising, and no client will ever buy better advertising than he understands or has an appetite for.”

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