Tag Archives: Non-Transparent Revenue

Will the Media Industry Find Its Way?

27 Apr

agencies as media ownersThere was a time when ad agencies represented an advertiser’s interest when interacting with media sellers to secure time and or space for the conveyance of the advertiser’s messaging. The media supply chain was uncluttered, machine-to-machine buying was not even a distant thought and the roles of the various players were understood by all parties.

As the media industry has evolved, the complexities of the supply chain and the clarity of “what” each intermediary does, what they are responsible for and what they earn have sown confusion, limited advertiser transparency and eroded stakeholder trust.

One of the key drivers of supply chain complexity, and all that comes with it, has been the rapid growth of digital media in general and specifically the expansion of programmatic buying. Thus, there may be no better barometer of this dynamic than the “Marketing Technology Landscape” prepared annually by Scott Brinker. Mr. Brinker’s landscape chart incorporates the logos of each available advertising, marketing and search solution. This year’s version contains logos for over 6,800 solutions, up from 150 in 2011. That is a staggering number of ad tech and mar tech solutions vying for a slice of an advertiser’s digital media dollar.

In spite of the dramatic increase in the number of marketing technology solutions and the exponential increase in the level of data available to inform practitioners media decisions, the industry is still grappling with issues that negatively impact media performance. Issues that include ongoing limitations in attribution modeling, difficulties with omnichannel measurement, a lack of standardization in assessing audience delivery and continued concerns regarding ad viewability, fraud, ad blocking and privacy.

Many would agree that the current state of affairs is not healthy for the global media industry which totaled $500 billion in 2017 (source: MAGNA Global Advertising Forecast, December, 2017).

Marketers, who are under increasing pressure to improve performance, are clearly not satisfied with the status quo within the media supply chain, which many describe as “murky” and “inefficient.” These marketers are committed to seeking out new partners, processes, tools and solutions that can improve working media and increase the chance that each dollar they invest in media has the opportunity to positively impact business outcomes.

Media agencies, for their part are increasingly being challenged to improve both transparency and the cost effectiveness of their clients’ media spend. Sadly, many agencies have taken the stance that there is a cost to be paid for improved transparency, enhanced viewability and brand safety and believe that these costs should be borne by the advertiser. Advertisers rightly disagree with this position.

Let’s be clear. When agencies strayed from a singular focus on their fiduciary responsibility to their clients, they did so at their own risk. Their pursuit of principal based media buys, non-disclosed relationships with other commercial entities in the media supply chain (including their own affiliates) and the myriad of unauthorized, non-transparent revenue generation practices employed by some agencies netted them significant profit gains… in the short-term.

However, as advertisers became aware of these practices and began to understand the negative impact on their business this created a crisis in confidence among advertisers and lessened the level trust that they had in their agency partners. In turn, this has created opportunities for management and technology consultants to make inroads with CMO’s as it relates to their media business and incented many advertisers to begin looking at taking control over portions of their media business, including bringing work in-house.

These trends coupled with the corresponding reduction in non-sanctioned revenue opportunities resulting from greater levels of advertiser transparency have constrained agency margins. How agencies positon themselves for the future in light of the evolving competitive set, while rethinking their service offerings and charging practices remains to be seen, but will be of critical importance.

As for the ad tech sector, there will surely be a shakeout that will result in a reduction in the number of vendors (over 6,200 in 2018) providing solutions. This will be driven in part by consolidation due to the convergence of ad tech and mar tech solutions and the dominance of large players, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. In addition, the emergence of consumer privacy protection regulatory actions and the eventual emergence of blockchain technology within the media market has the potential for significant disruption.

Clearly, there are uncertainties and challenges facing the media industry and the myriad of supply chain participants. That said, while continued change will be the norm and course corrections required, there will be winners that are able to navigate these turbulent times and position their organizations for future success.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” ~ Charles Darwin

 

Advertisers Beware: Agency Margin Optimization Efforts

19 Apr

Traffic LightIt was with great interest that I read an article on Digiday dealing with “key issues” facing ad agencies and, ostensibly, the “agency model” ranging from transparency to in-housing.

Masked behind the author’s perspective that transparency comes at a high cost was the reality that marketers remain at risk to the predatory non-transparent revenue practices applied by certain agencies.

Why? With marketers demanding more transparent ad buying practices and transitioning certain tasks and or ownership of elements of the tech stack in-house, agency gross margins are under pressure. In turn, this has created an environment where agencies attempt to make up for the margin shortfall from clients that don’t actively monitor agency contract compliance, financial management or media performance.

Of note, one anonymous agency executive went so far as to suggest that some agencies use a “traffic-light system to determine how knowledgeable the procurement teams at clients are.” This guidepost allows the agencies to assess how much margin they can make on a given account.

This certainly reinforces the reality of the old adage; “Where there is mystery, there is margin” and signals the importance for all marketers to get up to speed on both the potential benefits and the pitfalls related to their digital and other advertising investments. For client organizations, most of which do not have the bandwidth or subject matter expertise in-house, engaging an independent contract compliance or media performance auditor or consultant could greatly help to mitigate risks in this area.

In spite of the potential for efficiencies that fueled the rise of programmatic media buying, what we have all come to realize is that the costs related to algorithmic, machine-to-machine buying have far outweighed these efficiencies. One dynamic, which drives costs is the number of agent firms involved in a typical programmatic digital media buy and the fees that each charge for their role. Below is an overview of typical fees or mark-ups that are charged by those on the demand-side of a programmatic transaction.

Digital Dollar

Source: Industry Experts

As is readily apparent, the dollar dissipation that occurs between the advertiser’s initial investment and the money that actually ends up with the publisher is significant. Industry studies have consistently shown that less than forty cents of each digital dollar invested makes its way to the publisher.

To combat this trend, rightly or wrongly, marketers have focused on reducing the number of intermediaries and the fees charged by each, with the goal of improving working media ratios and ultimately the performance of their digital campaigns. Thus, the agency margin squeeze.

That said, the agency practice described in the aforementioned Digiday.com article of taking advantage of unsuspecting, less knowledgeable clients to make up for the margin lost on those that have moved to transparent buying models, is neither appropriate nor sustainable. Agencies conducting themselves in this manner may want to reflect on the words of the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking:

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

This is particularly true given the competitive inroads being made by the management consultant and tech consultancies that are focusing on the digital media segment of the market. The best path forward for agencies is to actively engage their clients in an open dialog about mutually beneficial remuneration methodologies.

In our opinion, it is right and just to eliminate the potential for media arbitrage, non-disclosed fees, no charge media weight and volume-based rebates that often accrue to agencies, and much of the time without the advertiser’s knowledge. Further, we also don’t believe that clients are obligated to make up the gap in lost agency revenue tied to transparency reforms. That said, we are fully supportive of an agency’s right to earn a fair and reasonable profit and to have the potential for incremental gains tied to extraordinary performance.

Near-term, the best way to balance an advertiser’s quest for transparency and an agency’s ability to generate a reasonable profit will likely be a compensation schema that incorporates a base fee using a direct-labor or cost-plus methodology with an outcome-based performance incentive. This approach is particularly apropos for advertisers that are leaning toward a managed-service model. With this approach, ownership of the tech stack and or tech platform licensing agreements transition from agency to advertiser; and the agency is then engaged to oversee the digital planning, buying and ad operations chores associated with programmatic media.

Advertisers: Contract Compliance is Easier to Secure Than You Think

19 Apr

EasyIf you’re an advertiser, we have three brief questions for you to consider:

  1. Does your organization have contracts with its ad agency partners?
  2. Do those contracts contain right to audit clauses?
  3. Has your company ever enacted its right to conduct contract compliance and or performance audits?

Chances are your answer to the first two questions is “Yes” and very likely “No” to the third question. Why is this? Why would the majority of advertisers negotiate audit rights into their marketing supplier agreements and not take advantage of such an important control mechanism? This is particularly perplexing given the materiality of marketing spend and the many publicized challenges confronting advertisers and their relationships with advertising agencies. Challenges such as waning levels of transparency into agency financial management practices, lack of a direct line-of-sight into the rates paid by its agency partners, agency resource constraints and personnel turnover.

After years of conducting advertising agency contract compliance audits, our experience shows the agency community wants to do the right thing in most instances. Are there bad actors? Sure, as there are in any business sector. Are there lapses in oversight or judgment? Certainly. This is a people business and people make honest mistakes. Do errors occur? Of course, as in every organization… no entity is perfect in that regard. Beyond common lapses in judgement, follow-through and or mistakes the primary compliance challenge is often a sub-standard or outdated client/ agency agreement which does not supply an advertiser with the requisite legal safeguards and financial controls.

It is for all of these reasons that “Right to Audit” clauses exist and why it is considered “Best Practice” to engage independent audit support to assess an agency’s contract compliance and financial performance. The benefits of auditing are meaningful and many, with the resulting financial true-ups, identification of process improvement opportunities and new learnings in general, providing substantial contributions to future efficiencies.

These outcomes can have significant financial impacts for both stakeholders. For agencies, who have made oversights, misinterpreted or misapplied certain contractual conditions there is the obvious impact of correcting those items and reconciling their fee and or third-party expense billings. Advertisers benefit from the collection of past due credits, trueing up financial matters, identifying and eliminating unauthorized, non-transparent agency revenue and realigning its scope of work and agency resources on a go forward basis.

It is true that the consequences of an audit can sometimes cause an agency some discomfort and even be outside an advertiser’s comfort zone. However, these important accountability programs are more than offset by the positive outcomes that ultimately drive compliance with the agreement and motivate more effective financial stewardship. To this end, it was with interest that I read a recent article entitled, “Mix Enforcement with Persuasion” by Lucia Del Carpio, Assistant Professor of Economics with INSEAD. Professor Carpio wrote about the topic of improving compliance with laws and regulations. One of his observations had particular relevance to our compliance auditing experience and crystalized what we often profess:

“Compliance sometimes requires nothing but enforcement.”

 The cost to conduct agency contract compliance auditing is nominal relative to the benefits yielded by these initiatives. In our experience, we have never seen an instance where the financial and operational benefits of an audit didn’t provide a return multiple times its attendant cost. Factor in the notion that compliance auditing actually incents agency contract adherence and it is easy to understand why “Right to Audit” clauses exists in client/agency contracts to begin with.

Interested in learning more about agency contract compliance auditing? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for your complimentary consultation on this topic.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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