Tag Archives: trading desks

Is Legacy Thinking Impeding Your Progress?

7 May

ana agency financial management conferenceEmerging media, rapidly expanding technologies, a changing tax and regulatory environment, talent shortages and a global paradigm shift where marketing is being “outsourced” to the end user. These were just some of the topics addressed by Marketers and Agencies alike at the ANA’s annual “Agency Financial Management” conference in Naples, Florida in early May.

While there may be significant issues to be faced in the near future, the marketing industry remains a significant component of the global economy whose rate of growth outstrips that of most developed countries GDP growth.  That said there are changes required of the industry’s stakeholders to better prepare their organizations’ to successfully navigate a complex landscape fraught with both risks and opportunity.

This dynamic will require a fresh approach by clients and agencies alike along with a willingness to shed the bonds of legacy thinking, which has retarded industry progress on a number of key fronts in recent years.

One of the themes to emerge from the conference is that marketing is difficult, expensive and challenging.  When combined with talent, resource and education restraints being faced by many marketing organizations there is a belief that marketers are leaving dollars on the table.  Contributing factors range from digital media value erosion to a lack of transparency into certain aspects of the supply chain such as trading desks to the absence of industry governance on the issue of cross platform audience delivery measurement.

Underlying these challenges is the fact that client-side marketers, procurement professionals and marketing service agencies are still working on evolving their relationships and gaining better alignment on how best to optimize the advertisers’ return on marketing investment (ROMI).  Central to the success of this collaborative effort is the need to build trust and mutual respect among these stakeholders.

Interestingly, marketers expressed a strong, almost universal need for the introduction of uniform controls, competitive fee structures, tighter statements of work and the use of agency performance incentives to assist in positively driving change.  One aspect of boosting ROMI is the elimination of “waste.”  Based upon our experience in the area of agency financial management consulting, we have found that an excellent starting point for marketers in this area is to clarify the roles and responsibilities of their agency partners, minimizing redundancies and identifying those agencies that are considered strategic partners versus those that provide project-based support.  This provides a solid starting point for determining  “where” to begin in terms of initiating change and inviting those select partners to be part of the process.

On the “good news” front it was clear from the results of a recent survey conducted by the ANA and presented at the conference, that the trend toward an increased level of collaboration between marketing, finance and procurement is taking seed.  Further, as evidenced by findings from a separate survey conducted by the 4A’s, the agency community has clearly begun to accept procurement’s role in the agency sourcing and contract negotiation process.

There is one area however, which has the potential to seriously disrupt marketers’ efforts to optimize their ROMI… transparency, or more specifically, the lack of transparency that permeates the industry.  This was reflected in the results of survey data from the ANA, WFA, ISBA and ACA where “transparency” was identified by advertisers as one of, if not their top concern.  The lack of clarity and in some instances, honesty surrounding issues such as data integrity, audience delivery, trading desks, reporting and financial reconciliations creates financial risks for advertisers and undermines attempts to improve trust levels between clients, agencies and media sellers.  As Mike Thyen, Director of Global Procurement for emerging markets at Eli Lilly and Company so aptly stated:

“Where there is mystery, there’s margin.”

Examples of the potential for financial leakage related to a lack of transparency included the results from the aforementioned WFA study, cited by ANA President and CEO Bob Liodice, which found that for every dollar invested by advertisers in digital media, only fifty-five cents on the dollar flowed through to the publisher.  Inherent in this single example is the lack of transparency surrounding programmatic media buying, agency trading desks and the lack of auditable outcomes in terms of audience delivery, media rates paid and trading desk margins.

Changing times require firms to evolve and innovate in order to remain relevant with their customers and to improve their operations.  When it comes to marketing, the rate and rapidity of technology driven change is such that viewing today’s opportunities through an “old school” prism is certain to create risks and limit marketers’ ability to fully leverage their investment.   Keeping an open mind, forging strong relationships between marketing and procurement, implementing controls and reporting to enhance transparency and investing in one’s agency partnerships represent key actions to be considered to successfully face the changes which are underway.

Technology Companies Are the New Media Owners

1 Apr

technology firms as media ownersBy Oliver Orchard, Senior Client Director – EMM International 

This week I was fortunate to attend a debate in the British Parliament, The House of Commons.  The debate was hosted by the International Advertising Association (IAA) and organised by The Debating Group.   The IAA was formed in the 1930’s to help advertisers who were moving more and more towards export trade to understand the complexities of the different global ad markets. EMM’s staff are encouraged to take an interest in the work of the IAA, and we put many people through the residential training courses, with some of our senior staff holding committee positions.  The remit today is very much about helping to develop the client and agency heavyweights of the future, through networking, training and support.  The Debating Group has been holding debates in the House of Commons since 1975, and they regularly bring politicians, journalists and marketers together to discuss the political issues that surround marketing; and together they host a number of debates annually for the industry to participate in. 

The motion “Technology Companies are the new media owners” was supported by Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director and Vice Chairman of O&M and seconded by Anjali Ramachandran, Head of Innovation at PHD.  It was opposed by Hugo Rifkind of the Times and Chad Wollen, Group Head of Innovation and Commercial Futures at Vodafone. 

Rory and Anjali focused on the idea that ever since the Caxton Press printed the first secular work technology has always been the new media owner; whilst Hugo and Chad focused on the idea that media owners display some sort of moral conscience, or in some way better the world, through editorial.  Naturally, with Hugo’s work as a journalist this focused on print media and the role of Twitter and Google in events such as the Arab spring; though what sort of conscience media owners such CBS Outdoor, Exterion or Decaux demonstrate was conveniently overlooked.  Chad explored the idea that the message is separate to the medium; which as any junior planner will tell you is exactly why they have a job. 

The panel spoke eloquently for 40 minutes, and ultimately the motion was defeated. I voted against it myself, though with a different line of argument I feel the result would have been very different. 

The proposers missed a trick by ignoring media agency trading desks, DSPs, SSPs, RTB and inventory wholesaling.  Media agencies are the new technology companies, they are also the new media owners.  This situation is becoming more and more apparent to advertisers.  Many are scrambling to change their contracts in order to maximise their returns on the ‘good’ output of these technologies (the fantastic targeting and pricing), whilst seeking to limit the ‘negatives’  (unaccountable placements, lack of evidence of genuine exposures and the opaque margins anecdotally between 20% and 80% depending on quality of placement as one rather inebriated global head of a big five DSP network let slip to me recently). 

These technologies are increasingly supplanting the traditional agency/vendor relationship and are replacing transparency with opaqueness in an unprecedented way.  The share of digital on the schedule grows every year, the number of clients with a DSP clause in their contract grows weekly and every day traditional media channels become more and more digitalised.

Clients are often under-informed about these developments and contractually deficient when it comes to agency scopes. So what can you do? 

  1. Make sure that your contract with the agency is updated every year to cover all new technologies that might emerge – mobile advertising, RTB and interactive TV were all unthinkable until quite recently.
  2. Employ a specialist with a broad helicopter view of the market to ensure you are giving and receiving best practise in your process and relationships with the agencies for traditional and new media.
  3. Ensure you understand fully what the benefits and limitations are of new technologies.  With a recent study showing that just 8% to 15% of impressions online are actually “real” does that CPM deal really offer the best value?
  4. Understand which data is relevant and which is not.  Don Peppers, the social media guru, once said “trying to extract relevant data from digital is like putting a fire hose in your mouth when you’re thirsty” – it’s easy to be blinded by numbers, but in reality very few of them are important.
  5. Don’t go it alone, a market specialist can save you time and money by getting to the point, training your staff, and sitting on your shoulder during important future strategic discussion with the agency. Once you understand the game, ask the right questions, and make informed decisions, increased effectiveness will follow.

Some technology companies are the new media owners, they also happen to be your media agency.

To learn more about EMM International and how media accountability can drive advertiser value, contact guest blogger Oliver Orchard at Oli.Orchard@emminternational.comMr. Orchard is a Senior Client Director for EMM International and a key contributor to the company’s digital media accountability practice.  EMM is a provider of international media auditing and media optimization consulting services.  The company is based in London, England.   

 

 

What is the Future of Agency Trading Desks?

17 Apr

crystal ballIt was recently reported in Adweek that IPG was re-organizing its trading desk operation, Cadreon.  Representatives from IPG cited the costs and conflicts across its agency brands and offices stemming from having a centralized, autonomous trading desk with its own P&L.

This is a timely issue as publishers, agencies and advertisers brace for a pronounced increase in the role of programmatic buying.  Internal squabbles aside, the reason why some agencies aren’t totally on board with holding company trading desks comes down to one item… their own bottom line.  While agency holding companies could easily address this dilemma via a revenue sharing model between their entities that is not the seminal issue with trading desks.

The primary consideration in our opinion should be focused on an agency’s role in serving the advertiser and whether or not that obligation can be fulfilled when they’re acting as a re-seller of media where the original inventory cost is not disclosed.  Secondly, while the agencies and the ad networks have figured out how to make money moving digital inventory, publishers and advertisers are now evaluating the financial impact of programmatic buying and assessing alternatives which drive both efficiencies and performance for their respective organizations.

What are the financial implications?  The aforementioned Adweek article cited “agency insiders” who indicated that trading desks generated “high profit margins” in the “40% to 50% range” (hence the internal conflict).  Easy to see why advertisers would forgo the arbitrage model and opt for having their media AOR handle the digital media buying, on a fully-disclosed basis, within the context of their letter of agreement and the remuneration program that has been established.  Throw in the desire for advertisers to understand more about the quality of their digital ad placements and the environment is ripe for change.

Does this spell the end for trading desks?  Not at all.  Change and refinement are to be expected for a business model that only came into being within the last several years.  The technological capabilities that trading desks possess to manage reams of client data to effectively match advertisers with relevant inventory/audiences on a real-time basis is incredibly valuable.  This is particularly compelling as a higher percentage of an advertiser’s budget is shifted to digital media and programmatic buying.  Having said that, most advertisers are simply not willing to accept the level of opacity and the resultant hidden learning’s, which reside within their agency’s trading desk operation.

While media has evolved through the decades, the formula that has governed the media marketplace should remain constant; publishers sell inventory and advertisers buy inventory through their ad agency partners… not from them.  In the words of the noted American author Wendell Berry:

“The past is our definition.  We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

What’s Fueling Agency Holding Company Profit Growth?

27 Aug

agency holding company profitsAccording to a new report from Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, agency holding company profits for 2011 were up almost 30% on an 8% revenue increase.  The firm tracks publicly traded holding companies such as WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic, Havas, Publicis and Aegis along with some smaller organizations.  Of note, it was reported profit margins also rose for the group, “averaging 15%.”

Clearly, in spite of what has been a tough global economic climate, the agency holding companies continue to perform well from a financial perspective.  In addition, they have continued to expand their footprint via a robust level of merger and acquisition activity as well.

So what can we make of the stellar results?  Certainly, life is good for the holding companies.  Perhaps more intriguing is to ponder how a collective of holding companies managed to achieve a 4X multiple on profit growth vis-à-vis topline revenue.  On the surface it’s easy to understand, control expenses and boost the margin yield on incremental revenue.  However, the agency business falls into the “professional services” category.  Their primary expense is direct labor.  So as revenue increases, so do direct labor costs.  Right?  If not, how do you add business without expanding staffing coverage at the same rate?  Wouldn’t this negatively impact client service levels or the caliber of the work?

So if agency staffs are growing commensurate with revenues, what is the source of the extraordinary profit?  While the answer may be complex and varied there are certainly aspects of the agency holding company model that likely have contributed to this growth:

  • Increased utilization of agency owned resources/affiliates on existing client business ranging from in-house studios to trading desks, barter firms and production companies.
  • Improved employee utilization rates, whether in the form of associates working longer or devoting a higher percentage of their time to billable activity.
  • Non-transparent revenue growth on existing client business including but not limited to interest income associated with float, growth in agency volume bonification (AVB) revenues along with other vendor discounts and credits.

Let’s be clear.  There is nothing wrong with an agency holding company making money.  Further, there is nothing wrong with the aforementioned practices as a means of driving profitability.  The issue that advertisers should more clearly understand relates setting transparency standards and clear financial rules between themselves and the agency.

As a first step, to understand the current state of affairs and use it as a basis for improvement going forward, it is a best industry practice for the any advertiser to implement a detailed contract compliance audit.  This initial review boosts the advertiser’s understanding of the agency’s billing practices, and their basis, to assess time value of money treatment, fees vs. agency time-of-staff investments, AVB calculation methodology, adequacy of financial terms, manual vs. system treatment and the like.  The advertiser can then answer the questions – “where are my financial risks?” and “how do we mitigate them?”

Once accomplished, then perhaps the advertiser won’t have to “ponder” agency holding company profit growth rates and can join their agency partners in celebrating their hard earned financial success.

If you would like to gain the benefit of what we’ve learned first-hand through our agency contract compliance auditing practice and would like to schedule a complimentary consultation on “Transparency in Action,” please contact Don Parsons, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management at dparsons@aarmusa.com.

Agency Trading Desks and the Issue of Transparency

9 May

With the rise in digital advertising budgets and the dramatic expansion in the level of inventory available from publishers, advertising agency holding companies have developed a viable alternative to ad exchanges for securing a portion of their clients’ digital media inventory needs.  This is being done through the use of agency trading desks.

Simply put, a trading desk is a separate holding company service entity that integrates a demand-side platform with other technology and a wealth of consumer data to deliver targeted audiences at scale.  While primarily focused on display advertising, this dynamic method for purchasing media on a real-time basis is expanding to the buying of online video, search, mobile and social media.   This approach leverages an auction based model to buy unsold publisher inventory at efficient rates relative to pre-procured media.

The benefits to the advertiser can be significant when it comes to audience buying and ad impression optimization relative to content/ context based digital media buys or purchasing packaged buys through an ad network.   Given the relative newness of this approach combined with the complexity of the service offering and the limited understanding of trading desks among advertisers there remain concerns about the approach tied primarily to what is perceived as a lack of transparency.  This in turn has resulted in questions ranging from how agencies are compensated for this service (“Are advertisers  double paying their agency partners?”) to the potential for an agency’s objectivity to be compromised as they become both a buyer and seller of inventory (buy from publisher at one price, resell to clients often at a premium).

There are a number of ways for advertisers to enhance transparency into the trading desk operations of their agency partners.  The first is to check your agency letter-of-agreement to determine if there is language related to the agency’s trading desk operation.  If not, check to determine if a separate agreement with the trading desk operation was executed and read through the agreement carefully.  Secondly, engage your agency in dialogue about whether or not they are currently using buying digital media on your behalf through their trading desks and if so, what percentage of your overall digital buy is being channeled through the trading desk.  If the agency is not utilizing their trading desk for your digital media buying, ask whether or not it would be appropriate for your business model and what percent of your digital media buy would be a candidate for this approach.

With the answers to these questions in hand, it is time to discuss how the agency expects to be compensated for this service.  Compensation could include any or all of the following; commission on executed media buys, fee for service, incentive compensation tied to performance (i.e. cost per action, cost per lead, cost per acquisition) and mark-up on the media purchased by the trading desk and sold to the advertiser.  Further, inquire whether or not the trading desks earns rebates or discounts from publishers or technology partners tied to volume and if so, how is your pro-rata share calculated and passed through to you.

It is important to note that the trading desk model employed and the approach taken will vary by agency, so asking questions and establishing guidelines on how to evaluate both the efficacy and efficiency of this approach is critical before allocating a portion of your digital media budget to this channel.   While questions remain with regard to this emerging agency service, the level of risk represented is no more than that represented by ad networks.  Having direct conversations with your agency about the approach, costs, reporting and performance metrics will go a long way to ensuring that you have a sound understanding of how your investment is being handled.

Finally, incorporate a “Right to Audit” clause into the agreement which you execute with the trading desk operation to contractually insure your organization access to the date required to support your desire for full transparency. If you would like to learn more about this area and or how AARM can assist you in assessing the relevance of this approach or analyzing the performance of your agency’s trading desk, contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on the topic.

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