Tag Archives: Principal-Agent Relationship

Building a Foundation for Trust in Client/ Agency Relationships

27 Feb

dreamstime_s_38659968Perhaps I was fortunate. Perhaps it was a sign of the times. When I began my career at J. Walter Thompson, we took great pride as an organization in the number of client relationships that we had, which were measured in decades. Clients such as Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, and others were celebrated, revered, and nurtured.

Not unlike today, there were challenges to be faced and pressures to be dealt with, whether market-driven or internal.  So, what allowed those relationships to flourish through good times and bad?

The answer was simple. Trust and a mutual commitment to the partnership combined with alignment on business objectives.

Today it is believed that the average length of client-agency relationships is around 3½ years. Is this reduction in longevity correlated with the fact that there has been a slow, but steady erosion in the level of trust between advertisers and their agencies? Consider that a couple of years back, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) conducted a survey and found that only 29% of its member marketers ranked the “current level of trust between client-side marketers and ad agencies as high.”

A waning level of trust can inhibit communication between stakeholders leading to difficulties that throttle the productivity of the partnership. Conversely, as Stephen Covey once said:

When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

Thus, if you believe that stable, long-term strategic partnerships are more conducive to achieving an organization’s business and marketing objectives, then the obvious question is “How can we establish client-agency relationships that endure the test of time?” The answer seems obvious… addressing the issue of trust.

In our experience, there are three fundamental steps that can be taken to build and maintain trust between advertisers and their agency partners.

  1. Contractual agreement predicated on a “Principal-Agent” model – Simply put, in this type of relationship the agency is charged with acting on the client’s behalf and in their best interest. This legally binds the agency to always put the client’s interests first and eliminates their ability to benefit from the relationship at the client’s expense. One of the beneficial outcomes of this type of model is that the client can take solace in knowing that the advice and recommendations of the “Agent” is more likely to be unbiased. In the event that an agency recommends the consideration of principal-based or inventory media buys or the use of or procurement of services/products from a related party of the agency, then the agreement language should require full-disclosure and prior written client approval.
  2. Periodic agency contract compliance and financial management reviews – Having a sound contract in place is a positive step in the right direction. However, if an agency’s compliance with contract terms and conditions is uncertain then achieving the desired level of trust may be elusive. Given industry concerns regarding transparency, all stakeholders will benefit from an independent evaluation of compliance and performance. Further, knowing that there will be an additional layer of oversight inspires stakeholders on both sides of the partnership to uphold the client organization’s desired levels of governance and transparency established within the agreement. This is not a sign of mistrust, but a signal of an advertiser’s commitment to the principle of “assurance.” As the saying goes: “In God we trust, all others we audit.”
  3. Establishing a fair and compelling agency remuneration program – Properly compensating agency partners is fundamental to securing the requisite level of support and bolstering an agency’s commitment to its fiduciary role. Additionally, a well-paid agency is less likely to engage in practices such as the pursuit of vendor kickbacks, the application of non-transparent mark-ups, profiting from the use of client funds, or the unauthorized use of sub-contractors and related parties. Contractual language capping agency revenue to that which is authorized within the agreement and subsequent statements of work will also protect the advertiser from these tactics and help curtail agency temptation to inappropriately supplement its income at the expense of its fiduciary obligations to its clients.

We have seen firsthand the benefits of this proven formula in promoting transparency and bolstering an organization’s trust in its agency partners. Thus, marketers and their agency counterparts should consider embracing this approach to strengthen and reinforce long-term agency-client relationships by ensuring a solid footing.

Advertisers: What is Your Line of Sight into Your Ad Agency’s Use of Affiliates?

23 Aug

Line of SightDo your client-agency agreements require your agency partners to disclose their use of related parties? To secure your permission prior to engaging affiliates? To document how those affiliates are compensated?

If so, then you are in a better position than many. At a minimum, testing for agency compliance to such contractual requirements is an option that you can pursue. If not, the level of work being channeled to related parties by your agency may surprise you.

In our contract compliance and financial management audit practice, it is not uncommon to see 5 to 7 different related parties engaged by an advertiser’s agency. Examples of services provided by affiliates include items such as barter, programmatic buying, direct response TV, event marketing, principal-based buying and ad serving. Yet, oftentimes these affiliates and the manner in which they are compensated are not known to the advertiser.

Why should an advertiser care? For one, if work is assigned to an agency affiliate without undergoing a competitive bid process, what assurance can the advertiser have they are not being charged above-market rates? Secondly, the added profitability by recommending certain affiliates, such as those engaging in the procurement and resale of media inventory through principal-based buys or barter, could adversely influence an agency’s recommendations to the advertiser. And to compound matters, if said affiliates are also applying non-disclosed mark-ups to the media inventory procured or services provided, how can an advertiser fairly assess whether the total fees the agency is generating from its business are commensurate to the services being delivered?

Thus, it is important to revisit contract language to ensure that the following controls are in place:

  • Principal-Agent language that requires the agency’s fiduciary responsibility is to the advertiser and that all decisions and actions are undertaken in a manner that maximizes benefits to the advertiser.
  • Require the agency to disclose any and all related parties that it intends to deploy on the advertiser’s behalf and to secure the client’s prior written approval. Requiring quarterly updates to this list would provide an added layer of protection.
  • For instances where principal-based buys, barter or other non-disclosed transactions are being considered, require a double opt-in process:
    • The first step would be a formal letter of notification from the agency to be signed by the advertiser granting permission.
    • Secondly, any purchase authorization form presented by the agency to the client for approval should reiterate the agency’s intent in this area.

With these agreement guardrails in place, advertisers can further protect their interests by periodically auditing the agency to validate compliance and verify the accuracy of charges made by and or for related party activities.

Ultimately, this approach will allow an advertiser to leverage the full breadth of its agency partner’s resource offerings in a very transparent manner, providing comfort that its agency’s practices are aligned with its expectations.

A Key to Rebuilding Client – Agency Relationships

28 Jul

Bias and ObjectivityThe state of client-agency relationships has been on the decline for several years. Whether measured in terms of longevity, the increase in project-based work versus retained relationship commitments or the waning level of advertiser trust in their agency partners, all of these important partnerships are under pressure.

Regardless of the reasons behind the current situation, this is not a healthy dynamic for either advertisers or agencies. The result has been shorter, more volatile relationships, higher levels of agency personnel turnover and some would argue less effective, less efficient advertising outputs. Reason enough for both sets of stakeholders to thoughtfully assess the current situation and seek corrective action.

There is, we believe, a clear starting point for improving client-agency relationships. It involves a return to the tried and true “principal-agent” business model that once formed the basis for relationships between advertisers and agencies. The woes currently besetting these partnerships and driving advertiser concerns over transparency and trust are direct outcomes of the industry’s deviation from this important principle and the resulting practices that are averse to this model.

A basic tenet of principal-agent relationships is that the agent is bound to make decisions and to take actions that are in the best interest of the principal…always. This, in turn, guides interactions between the parties in a manner that achieves the highest possible degree of accountability and ultimately trust.

It wasn’t long ago that all client-agency agreements contained language establishing the principal-agent relationship, the need for agencies to provide unbiased counsel and the resulting fiduciary obligations of both parties.

Sadly, agency compliance with and commitment to this framework began to wane within the agency community. Some may remember the controversial comments by Irwin Gotlieb, once CEO of WPP’s Group M who opined at the 2015 “Agency Financial Management” Conference hosted by the ANA: Those relationships, rightly or wrongly, don’t exist anymore” he said, adding that “You cease to be an agent the moment someone puts a gun to your head and says these are the CPMs you need to deliver.” Blaming advertisers for the bad practices adopted by some agencies was inappropriate at best.

Even with contractual safeguards in place, problems occur when “agents” have hidden agendas or substitute their interests over those of the principal. This is why the topic of “media rebates” secured and retained by media agencies, without client knowledge or approval proved to be such a lightning rod topic when it initially surfaced.

Fast forward to the present and certain revenue-generating practices that are pursued by many agencies such as principal or inventory buys (media arbitrage), acceptance of incentives from third parties (i.e. rebates, value pots, EPI’s, etc.), agencies awarding work to their holding company affiliates without a competitive review or client authorization, and the application of non-disclosed, unauthorized mark-ups.

Whose interests are being served by such practices…certainly not the advertisers. To paraphrase Shep Gordon, Hollywood producer and talent manager:

“I think a problem for most people in a fiduciary capacity is to eliminate self and greed and all those things so that they can actually be in a fiduciary capacity where the client comes first, whoever the client happens to be.”

Advertisers must protect their legal and financial interests by crafting contract language and implementing the appropriate controls, including performing periodic audits. How else can they ensure that they have the transparency they seek in the context of their agency partners’ financial stewardship of their advertising investment and the confidence that their agencies are acting in their best interest?

On the topic of principal-based buying specifically, we have a contrarian perspective and don’t believe that it is ever appropriate for an agency to purchase media inventory in its name, mark it up by some undisclosed amount and re-sell that to its clients. Yet, these non-disclosed buys have proliferated as programmatic digital media buying has exploded. While the 4A’s issued guidelines to address this practice including documentation including client opt-in, explanation of an advertiser’s audit rights (if any) and access to the underlying costs, oftentimes agreement language is silent on these recommendations or are simply not followed in actual practice.

Thus, if both parties want to establish trust and rebuild the client-agency relationship, begin by eliminating the risk of bias in an agency’s recommendations and or actions and reinforce the principal-agent framework in agreement language.

Why Are Media Agencies Forgoing Objectivity?

24 Jul

dreamstime_m_35343815Consumer media consumption behavior is ever evolving. And advertisers must select from an expansive array of content venue choices to communicate their messaging. Balancing these two dynamics is the key to optimizing media investment decisions.

Time was when agencies based their media resource allocation recommendations on insights gained from an exhaustive, objective review of media performance and audience delivery data. 

In traditional principal-agent relationships, agencies have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interest of their clients. This includes providing advertisers with informed recommendations, free of bias or conflicts of interest, that are advantageous to the advertiser. Most advertisers understand that in the twenty-first century, unless the principal-agent relationship is firmly established in the Client/ Agency agreement, all bets are off when it comes to their agency being bound to adhere to principal-agent guidelines.

Over the course of the last decade or so, practices such as “principal-based media buys” and ABVs (rebates) came into vogue. This is where an agency takes ownership of the media inventory and resells that inventory to the advertiser at a non-disclosed mark-up, making a profit on the spread and or receives an incentive based upon its total spend with a media seller. Good Client/ Agency agreements require the agency to secure the client’s written authorization before employing these type of practice and in the case of rebates to remit the advertisers pro-rata share of such rebates.  

Fair enough. Buyer beware. Trust but verify. Got it.

There is another practice that seems to be gathering steam between media sellers and media buyers that raises questions about the objectivity of an agency’s media planning and buying recommendations. Simply stated, media owners, seeking to lock-in a revenue stream from a given agency holding company, are offering to reserve inventory in bulk for that agency to allocate to its client base at some point in the future.

One recent example of this is Omnicom Media Group’s (OMG) commitment earlier this month to spend $20 million of its clients’ media funds to advertise in podcasts distributed by Spotify. Given the nature of the advertisers represented by OMG (McDonalds, AT&T, P&G, PepsiCo, etc.), their total media spend and the fact that 2020 media plans have been completed and buying commitments presumably made perhaps there is little risk of such a deal influencing whether or not an advertiser should commit dollars to Spotify podcasts.

Separately, it was recently reported by Digiday that TV networks and agencies, in an effort to jump-start the annual upfront marketplace, were considering share of spend deals to “address advertiser commitment issues.”  In this scenario, an agency holding company would commit to spend a percentage of its clients’ aggregate upfront budgets with select network groups. However, client budgets are in flux and there are multiple questions surrounding the traditional upfront marketplace. Thus, the commitments being made by agencies are being done in advance of any client media authorization process. It would be natural for one to ask; “What incentives are being offered by the network groups to facilitate such deals? And How are such benefits distributed to an agency’s clients?”

The primary concern with this type of approach is the potential for these buying commitments to bias an agencies recommendations to its client base. As the author of the Digiday article points out if aggregate spend projections come up short, the holding company may find itself in a position where it may “need to push clients to spend their money” with a given network group.

Practices such as these are fraught with risks. When an agency has already committed to a pool of inventory on a network group based upon hypothetical aggregate spend levels across its client base objectivity is lost.

We are simply not fans of this practice, believing that agencies have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients to make media recommendations, based upon an unbiased fact base, that are in the best interest of the advertiser.

 

 

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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