Tag Archives: media transparency

Can AI Bots Solve the Agency Remuneration Issue?

21 Mar

Commodorergb1-243x300It was a simpler time in 1864, or so it seems, when the “Commodore,” James Walter Thompson, founded his namesake agency.

As the ad industry grew over the next several decades, a commission based compensation system was the predominant means of remuneration. Simply put, full-service agencies kept 15% of the gross media rate charged by media owners from whom agencies purchased advertising for their clients. At some point in the 1960’s commission based remuneration began to give way to labor-based fees that were predicated on an agency’s direct labor and overhead costs and a reasonable level of profit.

It wasn’t long afterward that the agency “holding company” was born and full-service agencies gave way to agencies that specialized in a particular area such as creative development, media planning and placement and sales promotion. Both of these trends directly impacted “how” and “what” agencies charged clients for their services. As importantly, advertisers became more acutely interested in understanding more finitely the details behind the composition of their agency partners’ fees. This in turn created anxiety and concerns on the part of ad agencies and clients alike. Advertisers sought to reduce the level of fees that they were paying and the agency community sought to protect their profit margins and maintain some level of privacy surrounding their financial operations.

Fast forward to 2017 and the topic of “non-transparent” agency revenue sources such as rebates, kick-backs, float income and media arbitrage has been at the forefront of contract and compensation discussions since the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) completed their landmark “Media Transparency” study in 2016. Rightly or wrongly, many in the industry feel that client procurement tactics, focused on squeezing agency compensation led to the rise in non-transparent revenue. Agencies for their part, feel as though they are overworked and underpaid, while clients continue to sense that they are paying too much for the resources being proffered by their agency partners.

Challenging times to be sure. Add in the shift from traditional media to digital, the attendant impact on workflow and resources, the rise of new competitors to ad agencies that include consultancies, publishers and ad tech providers and the rapidly increasing impact of technology on operational efficiencies and the topic of agency compensation becomes even more vexing.

And while agencies wrestle with their organizational, talent and cultural issues, the industry is poised for a giant leap forward in operational efficiency. Algorithms that can place media and inform resource allocation planning and artificial intelligence bots that can actually create advertiser content and oversee the production of creative materials have the potential to displace agency personnel across multiple functions. The question is: “What is the impact of these technology trends on agency remuneration systems?”

For an industry that has relied on labor-based fees linked to marking-up employee salaries and selling their time to advertisers, the notion of automation and doing more with less can certainly be daunting. As IBM Watson Chief, David Kenny, once said:

“If you are using people to do the work of machines, you are already irrelevant.”

Thus it is time for the ad agency community to rethink both how they organize themselves to deliver client services and how to evolve from labor-based compensation models to outcome based remuneration systems.

Wonder if there is an AI bot that can assist with this transition?

If you’re an advertiser and interested in learning more about how to compensate your ad agency. Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal, AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this important topic.

 

 

 

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.”

 

Dentsu Aegis: Poster Child for Ad Industry Transparency Concerns?

30 Nov

transparencyEarlier this month Dentsu issued a statement that it had cancelled its annual New Year party, typically celebrated in each of its five offices in Japan, citing a need for “deep reflection.”

When one considers the issues being faced by the agency, albeit of their own doing, it is easy to understand their desire for a more contemplative holiday.

Two short months ago the agency rocked the ad world with the acknowledgement that it had overbilled one of its oldest and largest advertisers, Toyota Motor Corp. for digital media placements. Ultimately, the agency confirmed that the overbilling and falsification of invoices impacted 111 clients, totaling JPY ¥230 million ($2.28 million USD).

This is on the heels of a Japanese Labor Agency ruling that the suicide of a young employee in December, 2015 was due to karoshi, or death by overwork. Prior to her death, the employee had logged 130 hours of overtime in November and 90 hours in October. In the wake of this ruling, the third such case of karoshi at Dentsu, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki threatened harsh action against the company. Regrettably, according to Mediapost, reports have surfaced in Japan suggesting that the agency “may have encouraged workers to underreport overtime hours” to deceive authorities that it had been complying with regulatory limits (70 hours per month).

Thus, many in the industry were intrigued when it was reported earlier this month by MediaTel that Dentsu-Aegis was looking to launch a programmatic trading desk in the U.S. called “agyle.” The irony, for an agency dealing publicly with fraud and transparency issues, is that the model apparently being pursued for agyle is that of a principal-buy (media arbitrage) operation, where advertisers will have zero line of sight into the price paid for media inventory purchased by the trading desk.

Really? This move certainly seems to be counter intuitive for an organization trying to mend its brand image within the advertising community, while it deals with the fall-out from the overbilling and labor investigations. Particularly in light of Aegis’ own track record related to media transparency over the last ten plus years (prior to Dentsu’s 2012 acquisition of Aegis).

Some will remember that Aegis and its Posterscope division had their own problems of accounting fraud, involving the use of volume rebates it earned on its clients’ out-of-home media investments that were improperly retained by the agency to record higher revenues, rather than returning them to their respective clients. In the end, its President and Finance Director pled guilty to accounting fraud. This fraud occurred on the heels of a highly publicized scandal in which Aegis’ client, Danone successfully sued the agency, requiring it to disclose the disposition of all volume based discounts it had received for a two year period, estimated to be  $22.0 million. Notably, during the lawsuit it was alleged that Aegis’ president and five other executives had been “siphoning credits for free media airtime to a private company” and then selling that same airtime for their own profit.

With all due respect to Dentsu’s CEO, Tadashi Ishii, for his efforts to aggressively and forthrightly address the agency’s recent issues, one has to wonder how deeply seeded these issues are in the organization’s culture.

For advertisers who have followed the lawsuits, regulatory investigations, allegations and company acknowledged issues into overbilling, fraudulent reporting, timekeeping system manipulation, volume rebate programs and the like… this is why the industry must inwardly reflect and take the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) study on media transparency seriously.

Clearly opacity issues related to misleading practices employed by some within the agency community related to the pursuit of non-transparent revenue sources using client funds, for their self-gain negatively impact advertiser trust in their agency partners and ultimately erode the client/ agency relationship.

For Mr. Ishii and his team at Dentsu, we wish them luck in righting the proverbial ship and hope that their decision to use the holiday season as a time for deep reflection bears fruit.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

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.”

 

 

%d bloggers like this: