Tag Archives: media arbitrage

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.

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.

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.

 

Principal-Based Buying: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

29 Apr

dreamstime_xs_36536323Recently, Ad Age ran an article entitled: “Risky Business: Why Media Agencies are Betting on Principal-Based Buying.” To be honest, my first reaction was, what in the world is principal-based buying? It didn’t take long to figure out that it was simply a new descriptor for media arbitrage.

Clever, principal-based buying sounds so much more appealing and less subversive than media arbitrage. However, arbitrage is arbitrage, regardless of what moniker that is placed on the act of purchasing media and reselling said media to advertisers. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of arbitrage is clear:

The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of something in one place and selling it in another in order to profit from price discrepancies.”

We certainly understand the primary allure of media arbitrage to agencies; the potential for higher margins than what traditional remuneration models would allow for. Let’s face it agency holding companies are publicly traded entities with a fiduciary obligation to drive shareowner profitability.

Simply, “principal-based” buying is a practice that is in clear violation of the principal- agent relationship, which has long been the driving concept behind client/ agency relations.

Forget the opacity, which is a hallmark of this buying tactic and the potential risks to advertisers seeking to optimize media value and boost working media ratios. The main issue with agency ownership of media is the potential impact on the objectivity of the advice, which it offers its clients.

Media time and space is a perishable product. It is also speculative in nature when it comes to projecting future value from a relevancy and audience delivery perspective. So what happens in the event an agency, indulging in arbitrage, has a significant ownership position in distressed, dated inventory? Could such a position create internal pressure on the agency’s media staff to move that inventory? In turn, might such pressure result in agency media team’s pushing that inventory off on clients, whether it represents the best fit at the best price?

Assuming that an advertiser knowingly engages their agency partner’s trading desk and believes that this relationship will yield a price advantage over traditional buying practices there are a few questions to consider; “How will you know? What methodology will you apply to vet the quality of the inventory and the price paid? Who will conduct that analysis for you?” In short, is this a proposition whose economic benefit to the advertiser can ever be accurately evaluated?

Sadly, while the agency community may shrug off the notion of ever having committed to a principal-agent relationship with its clients too often we find that agencies, which have embraced media arbitrage, have not disclosed this fact to their clientele… in spite of the position often taken in the trade publications.

In our agency contract compliance practice we find that in most instances there is not a separate letter of agreement between the agency’s trading desk operation and the advertiser, that the language dealing with “related parties” within the contract is inadequate to cover such a scenario and that there are no limitations in place regarding the percentage of an advertiser’s media buy that can be run through the trading desk.

Hopefully, those agencies that intend to engage in and or extend their use of principal-based buying will also commit to fully disclosing this practice and its application to each of their clients, well in advance of implementing this buying approach on those clients’ behalf.

From an advertisers perspective, it is imperative to assess the type of relationship that you desire with your media agency. If a principal-agent relationship predicated on full-disclosure and the fiduciary obligations, which underlie such relationships, are important to your organization, the client/ agency agreement will need to reflect that position. On the other hand, if there is interest in exploring principal-based buying consider contracting directly with the agency trading desk and establishing caps on the percentage of the budget, which can be invested through that operation.

                                   

Programmatic: Promising, but is the Benefit to Advertisers Real?

19 Oct

cautionIn 1997 rock legend David Bowie told his fans at a Madison Square Garden concert; “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” While his comments were a reflection on life after his 50th birthday, they could just as easily be used to describe the future of programmatic media buying.

Put yourself in an advertiser’s position and consider your reaction when your media agency approaches you with this enticing proposition;

Through our proprietary programmatic buying platform we have the ability to deliver quality, targeted inventory to precise segments of your target audience at a time and in an environment when they’re most receptive to your message and at rates that are a fraction of market pricing.” 

For many advertisers, the response to this enticing offer has been “sign us up.”

The programmatic revolution began with digital media, evolved to print and OOH and is now being implemented in the television marketplace. Many industry pundits consider programmatic to be one of the advertising industry’s most prominent developments. This algorithmic based method of connecting media sellers and buyers to conduct inventory transactions in an automated, real-time manner clearly holds much promise.

Benefits to advertisers are said to include; rate efficiencies, advanced targeting, message personalization and enhanced access to premium content. For media sellers the benefits allegedly include the ability to move less desirable remnant inventory and optimize CPMs across their inventory portfolio. Ad tech firms, such as demand side platforms, sell side platforms and ad exchanges, which here-to-for never existed earn transactional fees on programmatic activity and or licensing fees from organizations that utilize their technology tools. Agencies are able to leverage their clients’ “Big Data,” do more with fewer people and when programmatic buys are executed through their trading desk operations, there is incremental revenue to be gained from media arbitrage (buying low, selling high).

Assuming that each stakeholder realized the aforementioned benefits ascribed to this approach, programmatic buying, irrespective of the issues experienced to date in the digital media market, certainly holds the potential to be a win, win scenario for all of the players.

Unfortunately, the underlying technology behind programmatic buying is not fully understood by many in the industry. To be fair, programmatic digital media buying is a highly nuanced and complex process. It greatly impacts digital display ad spending in general and mobile in particular. It can involve real-time-bidding (RTB) or programmatic direct, where advertisers can still secure inventory guarantees, it can be applied in an open exchange or private marketplace and can include traditional banners or non-standard rich media and video.

Given that programmatic buying is still in its infancy, one might logically assert that a greater level of refinement is required to support programmatic buying’s current share of digital media spending, prior to even considering expansion of programmatic buying to other media. Supporting this perspective are some of the challenges which the industry is grappling with to improve the programmatic experience for digital media:

  • Reducing the level of non-human traffic and fraud
  • Minimizing the % of ad spend accruing to “facilitators” or middle-men
  • Serving up environmentally relevant programmatic creative across devices
  • Improving advertiser transparency

We agree that programmatic media buying holds much potential. However, the industry’s experience to date suggests that advertisers have born the bulk of the risk involved with this emerging technology and its application in the digital market.

So when the talk turns to the expansion of programmatic to other media segments one has to wonder if advertisers are ready to embark upon another investment spend scenario in media segments with much steeper learning curves and higher degrees of risk.

Relative to the digital market sector, television, OOH and print are much more complex when it comes to the variety of non-digital assets, lack of uniform inventory management processes and disparate mainframe environments. Throw in the fact that there are multiple ad tech providers already offering a variety of non-standard platforms/ technologies in an attempt to solve for these considerations and the near-term prospects appear quite challenging.

In a recent article in MediaPost, Joe Mandese shared insights on some of the pioneering work being conducted in programmatic/ addressable TV by Mitch Oscar, Programmatic TV Strategist for US International Media (USIM) and his peers. During the interview, Mr. Oscar shared results from one client’s programmatic TV ad buys, which suggested they had generated “improved results and efficiencies” relative to conventional TV buys.

Compelling to be sure, however, one must pause to consider the observation that the data shared by Mr. Oscar indicated that the “mix of networks and dayparts were all over the place and it was difficult to find meaningful patterns from it.”  Further, when USIM asked the programmatic TV suppliers to document what actually ran, “it generated a report with 163,866 lines of code covering 3,563 pages, something most traditional TV buyers and advertisers might not consider practical to evaluate.”

Hopefully advertisers, agencies and media property owners take a more measured approach to expanding programmatic buying to other media segments to avoid some of the pitfalls currently being experienced in digital media. Perhaps we can all benefit from the words of St. Jerome, the Catholic priest, historian and theologian, who once intoned:

“The scars of others should teach us caution.”

 

Money Must Grow on Trees

21 May

digital mediaIronically, shortly on the heals of the Association of National Advertiser’s (ANA)  “Agency Financial Management” conference where the ANA presented survey results suggesting that for every dollar spent on digital advertising, only fifty-five cents made it through to the publisher comes the following announcement from PwC and the Internet Advertising Bureau; 

“Internet advertising revenues hit $42.8 billion in FY 2013, up 17% from $36.6 billion in 2012.  Internet ads brought in 7% more than broadcast TV ads.” 

Confused?  Wait.  Given the rise in programmatic buying within the digital marketplace (up 43.4% according to eMarketer), consider the following finding from another recent ANA survey conducted with Forrester; 

Of the client-side marketers surveyed for the study on the topic of programmatic buying, “29% said they’ve heard the term, but don’t have a clear understanding of it” and 12% said they were “completely unaware of programmatic buying.” 

In light of the lack of transparency, limited marketer understanding of this space and no uniform measurement standards, the continued double-digit growth of digital media certainly seems an oddity.  In fact, it is difficult to come up with a sound rationale to support the share of advertising spend represented by digital at this stage of the media’s development.  The term “potential” comes to mind, but the lofty spend levels for digital are more likely being driven by marketers’ fear of “being left at the station.”  Unchecked, this trend poses serious reputational and financial consequences for marketers.  In the words of M.W. Harrison; 

“The waste of money cures itself, for soon there is no more to waste.” 

That said if the desire to spend heavily on digital media is burning a hole in marketers’ proverbial pockets, perhaps it makes sense to focus on improving the transparency and controls surrounding the financial stewardship of an advertisers investment in digital.  

A good place to start from an accountability enhancement perspective is with a sound master services agreement between the client organization and its digital agency partners (which likely includes most of an advertiser’s agency network).  The integration of contract language and reporting requirements governing the agency’s use of affiliate organizations such as trading desks and offshore digital production hubs, agency staffing, media delivery verification and I.P. infringement indemnification should be viewed as integral controls in an age of patent trolls and media arbitrage.  Unfortunately, in our agency contract compliance practice, it is not atypical to find that legacy agreements or lapsed agreements are in place, creating an element of risk and uncertainty. 

Additionally, advertisers may want to consider the use of independent contract compliance and performance monitoring consultant that can work with their marketing teams to provide training and insights along while improving the transparency surrounding the organization’s digital media spend.  Without some layer of financial protection and performance vouching, it is difficult to categorize the money being allocated to digital advertising as anything more than discretionary spending.

 

 

 

Agencies as Media Owners

17 Mar

agencies as media owners

Over the course of the last several decades media owners and media agencies pursued aggressive growth strategies largely fueled by merger and acquisition activity to consolidate their power and achieve a “leg up” in their respective negotiating positions.  So it comes as no surprise to anyone in the industry when you step back and assess the size and leverage of today’s top three agency networks; Publicis/ Ominicom, WPP and Interpublic Group.   

What complicates matters for advertisers is the emergence of the agency as “media owner” model ushered in by the rapid growth of programmatic buying and digital media arbitrage.  The essential question is clear:

“Doesn’t a media agency have a conflict of interest when it has a fiduciary obligation to secure the best available inventory at the most advantageous rates for an advertiser if they also resell media (as part of their recommended inventory) which they have purchased directly from publishers to achieve a financial gain?”

This is a dilemma complicated by the lack of transparency inherent with programmatic buying, which already limits advertiser transparency into the caliber of the inventory secured on their behalf and or the CPMs paid for those exposures.  

There are a number of dimensions that need to be addressed in the context of a traditional client-agency relationship in the wake of this phenomenon:

  1. How will an advertiser shape its media agency network and assign roles and responsibilities to protect its self-interests of objectivity, competitive pricing and an optimal return on its media investment?
  2. What media components might an advertiser bring in-house?
  3. In the ongoing dialog regarding “Big Data,” can advertisers realistically view their media agencies that are also media owners, as impartial partners, to be entrusted with sensitive, highly confidential data?
  4. How should media agency remuneration systems evolve to reign in the percentage of their gross media investment which is currently ending up in an agency’s pocket (i.e. fees, commissions, rebates, margin spreads, etc…)?

There is no standard, there are no guidelines… this is a “new chapter” in client-agency relations which is unfolding before our very eyes. 

So it was with great interest that I read a recent article on the More About Advertising website entitled; “Five ways for clients to find out what’s really going on as media agencies become media owners.”  The author, Andy Pearch, Director of MediaSense suggests that “the old media audit to pitch model has been broken by these developments” and that advertisers “legacy supplier management techniques need to evolve.”  The primary reason for this, in the author’s eyes, is that media agencies have become “market makers” where they, not the traditional media owner, sets the price of the media. 

In light of the growing leverage which agencies are able to exert on the media process, Mr. Pearch suggests that advertisers will have to learn how to “negotiate with their own agencies for a better market position.”  On the topic of transparency Pearch feels that “it is naïve to hope that the most dominant agencies will cede competitive advantage and margin by becoming sufficiently transparent.”

Two of his more intriguing recommendations include the need for advertisers to “take a tougher line on cases of non-transparent practice” and failure to comply with contract terms.  Additionally, Pearch suggests that advertisers both re-think their dependency on a single-supplier media agency model and, for larger organizations with the appropriate depth of resources, “consider setting up their own trading desks.”

We live in an interesting and dynamic time for the advertising industry with technology ushering in an era of rapid change that will continue to impact both consumer media consumption patterns and an advertiser’s ability to deliver their message in an appropriate, targeted manner.  It is our belief that during this time of sea change, advertiser transparency and control should not be sacrificed in the ongoing pursuit of cheaper CPMs.  The challenges identified here are not likely to be limited to digital media as the trading desks potentially expand their media coverage and agencies seek to extend media arbitrage opportunities.  In the words of Hippocrates:

“Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases.”

 

 

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