Tag Archives: transparency

It’s Only Money…

5 Jun

digital mediaThere was one particularly startling revelation that came from the ANA’s recent Agency Financial Management conference in San Diego. During the presentation of this year’s “Agency Compensation Trends” survey results it was noted that the ANA found that almost half of the members it surveyed had not reviewed the findings of the ANA’s 2016 Transparency study.

Think about that. If an organization did not review the Transparency study’s findings, that means that there must not have been any resulting internal dialog with or among marketing’s C-Suite peers, no direct interaction with their agency network partners, no review of existing Client/Agency contracts, no improvements in reporting and controls in which to illuminate how an advertiser’s funds are being managed.

This, in spite of the level of trade media coverage regarding transparency issues ranging from rebates, discounts and media arbitrage, to the Department of Justice investigation into potential ad agency bid rigging practices or the level of ad fraud, traffic sourcing or non-disclosed programmatic fees on both the demand and sell side of the ledger.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this remarkable revelation…many marketers simply don’t care how their organization’s advertising investment is being allocated or safeguarded. Unfortunately, we regularly see the ramifications of this attitude of indifference in our contract compliance audit practice:

  • Client / Agency agreements that haven’t been reviewed or updated in years
  • Failure among clients to enact their contractual audit rights with key agency partners
  • Limited controls regarding an agency’s use and or disclosure of its use of affiliates
  • No requirement for agency partners to competitively bid third-party and affiliate vendors
  • Lack of communication to media sellers regarding ad viewability standards
  • Failure to assert an advertiser’s position on not paying for fraudulent and non-human traffic
  • No requirement for publishers to disclose the use of sourced-traffic
  • Incomplete instructions on buy authorizations to media vendors, minimizing or blocking restitution opportunities
  • Poorly constructed media post-buy reconciliation formats that lack comprehensive information and insights

Interestingly, there have been many positive developments from key industry associations such as the ANA, 4A’s, IAB and public assertions from leading marketers such as P&G and L’Oréal to further inform and motivate marketers on the topic of transparency accountability. Yet, given the materiality of an organization’s marketing spend and the publicized risks to the optimization of its advertising investment, many organizations have not yet taken action, tolerating the risks associated with the status quo. As the noted British playwright, W. Somerset Maugham once said:

Tolerance is another word for indifference.”

The failure to proactively embrace transparency accountability can pose perilous risks to an organization’s marketing budget which in turn directly impacts its company’s revenue. Many would rightly suggest needlessly.

In these instances, the fault for the increased level of attendant financial risk, fraud and working media inefficiencies lies squarely with those companies that have adopted an attitude of indifference toward these very real proven threats. One cannot blame an ad agency, production house, tech provider, publisher or media re-seller for taking advantage of the status quo and acting in manners that, while not in the best interest of the advertiser, are not expressly contractually prohibited.

The good news is that advertisers can address these issues head-on in a quick and efficient manner, mitigating the risks posed by transparency deficiencies. It all begins with a review of existing Client/Agency contracts and engaging one’s agency partners in dialog regarding the adoption of industry best practice contract language to facilitate an open, principal-agent relationship. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has a wealth of information on this topic and can also recommend external specialists to assist an advertiser with agency contract development and or compliance auditing.

Interested in safeguarding your marketing investment? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a no-obligation consultation on this topic.

Compliance Auditing: The Path to Building Client Trust

26 Oct

Accountability Final“Trust is the one thing that changes everything” ~ Stephen Covey

In the context of client / agency relationships, transparency simply means removing any element of doubt. Whether in the context of an agency’s earned revenue, billing accuracy, net payments to third-party vendors or the agency’s resource investment on behalf of a client.

The best means of achieving transparency is through an agency contract compliance and financial management audit and or the implementation of a continuous performance monitoring program focused on these aspects of the relationship.

After all, the marketing investment made by most advertisers is material and often ranks as one of, if not the largest SG&A expenditures. Which is precisely why marketing budgets are currently drawing more C-Suite attention from finance, procurement and internal audit personnel, working in conjunction with their peers in marketing.

This type of cross-functional oversight is a good thing. Particularly when striving to build a unified team by earning each other’s trust across the organization. Additionally, experience has shown that sound enterprise accountability and assurance programs can create value for all parties:

  1. Client financial team members benefit from the specific knowledge as to how their marketing dollars are being managed at each phase of the marketing investment cycle.
  2. Procurement gains insights related to the organization’s return on agency fee investment, optimization of contract language and opportunities for potential future cost avoidance initiatives (not related to agency fees).
  3. The internal audit group gains confidence in knowing that contract terms and organizational controls are being adhered to and if not, that actions are being recommended to shore up potential gaps and risks.
  4. Marketing gains feedback on the agency’s financial management performance, while identifying opportunities for process improvements that can boost the efficiency and effectiveness of their marketing investment.
  5. The agency benefits from direct feedback on their performance in this important area, the opportunity for interaction with and exposure to a broad cross-section of senior client management and the trust and associated confidence that comes with receiving a solid “report card.”

Over time, agency contract compliance and financial management performance audits have evolved in a manner which has yielded in-depth institutional knowledge and feedback that greatly assists advertisers in stewarding their marketing organizations and agency network partners. This is occurring during a period of time where the complexities of the advertising and media marketplace have expanded significantly, increasing an advertiser’s risk / reward considerations. 

Of late, there has been significant industry concerns relating to the questionable transparency relative to the disposition of an advertiser’s investment. How much money flows through to third-party vendors versus what is retained by the agency? What percentage of activity is directed to the agency’s affiliates or holding company, without client insight or approval rights? Is the agency earning excessive float income on the client’s marketing spend?

Rightly or wrongly, in the wake of these concerns, advertising agencies have found themselves all painted with the same broad brush of operating under an opaque modus operandi. This in turn has raised the specter of mistrust among many on the client-side, which has had negative implications on the strength (and length) of client-agency relationships. Needless to say, this is not a healthy dynamic for generating above average in-market results, solid returns on marketing investment, fair and fully disclosed agency remuneration levels or in building strong relationships.

Time and time again, we have seen clients and agencies alike benefit from the investment in compliance audits and the sustained comfort levels that come with ongoing performance monitoring programs. The chief benefit to both parties is the assurance of knowing that the advertiser’s investment is being well managed by their agency partners and the insight to fuel future process improvements.

In the end, these programs represent the quickest and most economical path to restoring trust between clients and their agencies, allowing both to focus on building strong brands and increasing demand generation. In the words of author Joel Peterson:

“Trust doesn’t just happen. It takes initiation, nurture, evaluation and repair.”

Advertiser Audit Rights: Define & Exercise Them

2 Aug

dreamstime_xs_7828625There is a new trend developing within the marketing agency community when it comes to negotiating client contract language – and that is a fairly aggressive attempt to limit the advertiser (client) audit rights and scope. In other words, limiting what the agency is required to have available as “proof” and support for agency billings to the client and agency use of client funds.

At a time when there is much talk about the need for transparency and its role in helping to bolster trust and strengthen client-agency relationships, this trend is highly antithetical.

The most common examples of agencies trying to dictate and limit the client’s “Audit Rights” are:

  1. Limiting the window of time in which an advertiser can conduct the audit. For example, 12 months from date of service or invoice, as opposed to a 3 year window.
  2. Limiting access to agency financial data and or records, as opposed to full access to information that support agency billings, financial management and performance. This can include denying access to data such as employee time keeping records, agency overhead or holding company allocations to client, freelance records, prices paid for certain media and agency affiliate company costs.
  3. Limiting the amount of time the agency is required to retain data and records.
  4. Limiting the type of audit firm that an advertiser can engage to perform the testing – and or including language that seeks to secure agency approval of advertiser’s auditor selection.

In order to ensure full-transparency into the financial stewardship of funds by the agency and third-party vendors, experience suggests that advertisers must secure client-centric contractual audit terms and conditions. It is our belief that this is an advertiser’s unassailable right. After all, it is the advertiser who bears the risk of non-compliance and sub-standard performance when it comes to the investment and management of their marketing funds. And it is the advertiser who is providing the funding to the agent.

Contract language dealing with Audit Rights should grant advertisers the ability to establish the scope of the audit, deploy an audit team of its choice and to have unfettered access to information necessary to validate agency compliance and or performance (i.e. contract compliance, media performance, etc.). To ensure full transparency, advertiser Audit Rights should extend to the agency holding company and affiliates in any full-disclosure relationship.

As important as securing solid Audit Rights language, within a Client-Agency agreement, is the need for advertisers to exercise those rights on a regular basis. Whether through the deployment of internal audit personnel, engaging independent contract compliance or financial auditors or the use of a media performance audit firm, it is imperative that advertisers monitor and vet agency performance in these areas.

The frequency of such oversight actions can range from annual reviews to quarterly reconciliations to the implementation of continuous monitoring programs to assess the disposition and performance of advertiser funds, while under the control of their agency partners.

Sharing audit findings with both advertiser and agency is highly recommended so that both parties, if necessary, can adjust practices going forward. After all, the goal of an accountability program is to provide improved transparency, assurance, improved process, and stronger client-agency relationships. In the words of Thomas Huxley, the noted 19th century scientist:

“Learn what is true, in order to do what is right.”

If you would like to receive a complimentary review of your organization’s “Audit Rights” contract language please contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com.

 

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.

 

Is the Ad Industry on the Verge of a Revolution?

25 May

White clock with words Time for Action on its face

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Charles Dickens evocative opening to his book; “A Tale of Two Cities” described the period leading up to the French revolution. It may also be an apt description of where the ad industry and advertisers stand on the topics of transparency, fraud and trust.

As an industry, all stakeholders, including advertisers, agencies, ad tech firms, media sellers and the various associations, which serve these constituencies have long been talking about the need to implement corrective measures. Joint task forces have been formed, initiatives launched and guidelines published, yet little progress has been made in addressing these issues. As evidence of the quagmire, one need look no further than the 2016 Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and White Ops report on digital ad fraud, which saw the estimated level of thievery increase by $1 billion in 2015 to an estimated $7 billion annually. This led Bob Liodice, CEO of the ANA to boldly and rightfully tell attendees at this year’s ANA “Agency Financial Management” conference that; “marketers are getting their money stolen.”

The ANA’s message has resonated with the C-Suite within advertiser organizations the world over as CEOs, CFOs CIAs and CPO’s are working with their chief marketing officers to both assess the risks to their organizations and in fashioning solutions to safeguard their advertising investments. From this pundit’s perspective, it was refreshing to see the ANA take such a strong stance and a welcomed leadership position on remedying these blights on our industry.

Some may view the ANA’s recent stance on fraud and transparency and the upcoming release of its study with K2 on the use of agency volume bonuses (AVBs) or rebates as incendiary. However, in light of the scope of the economic losses, financial and legal risks to advertisers and the havoc which transparency concerns have wreaked on advertiser/ agency relationships we view the ANA’s approach as a rational, measured and necessary stake in the ground.

Mr. Liodice was not casting blame when he suggested that the K2 survey would “be a black and white report that for us (ANA) will be unassailable documentation of what the truth is.” It is refreshing to see an industry association elevate dialog around the need for full-disclosure, moving from disparate opinions to establishing a fact-based perspective on the scope of this practice. To the ANA’s credit, this will be followed by a second report, authored by Ebiquity/ Firm Decisions, introducing guidelines for the industry to proactively address the issue.

To be clear, it is not a level playing field for advertisers. There are many forces at play as a variety of entities look to siphon off portions of an advertisers media investment for their own financial gain. Thus, we’re hopeful that the ANA’s message to marketers to “take responsibility” for their financial and contractual affairs when it comes to protecting their advertising investment takes hold.

In our experience, the path forward for advertisers is clear. It begins with re-evaluating their marketing service agency contracts to integrate “best practice” language that provides the requisite legal and financial safeguards. Additionally, this document should clearly establish performance expectations for each of their agency partners, introducing guidelines to minimize the impact of fraud, including mandating the use of fraud prevention and traffic validation technology, banning the use of publisher sites that employ traffic sourcing and establishing a full-disclosure, principal-agent relationship with their agency partners.

Experience suggests that another key element of a well-rounded accountability initiative should include the ongoing, systematic monitoring of agency contract compliance and financial management performance to evaluate progress. Of note, wherever possible, these controls and practices should extend to direct non-agency vendors and third-party vendors involved with the planning, creation and distribution of and advertisers messaging.

The advertising industry is on the verge of a revolution and for the sake of advertisers we hope so. One that can usher in positive change and allow all legitimate stakeholders to refocus their collective energies on building productive relationships predicated on trust. It is our belief that knowledge and transparency are critical cornerstones in this process:

“I believe in innovation – and that the way you get innovation is you learn the basic facts.”

                                                                                                                                                  ~ Bill Gates

Seeing Their Way to Digital Media Growth

21 Mar

Vision MissionDigital advertising spend will surpass television in 2017. This according to eMarketer, which is forecasting that digital ad expenditures will grow to $77.3 billion, while spending for television will increase to $72.0 billion.

This growth comes in spite of continued advertiser concern regarding transparency and the fact that 40% to 60% of their working digital media dollars are being absorbed into inventory margin.

With this as a backdrop, we have noted a couple of interesting trends in the digital media space, that directly and positively addresses these concerns.

First and foremost, there have been a number of agencies that have embraced a more transparent model when it comes to digital media planning and placement. They are looking to directly appeal to advertisers’ opacity-busting inclinations and their desire to improve working media ratios.

What are they offering? In short, they are structuring their service and financial management models to eliminate the hidden fees, double charging, rebates, kickbacks and media arbitrage practices employed by a host of traditional media agencies operating in the digital space.

The common link among these progressive agencies is to take more of a consultative approach to working with their clients to solve for the best method to drive brand engagement and to improve consumer experiences. These shops fundamentally understand the importance of integrating customer relationship management (CRM) and online media to create personalized customer interactions across each stage of the marketing lifecycle.

Recognizing the rapid advances occurring on the data analytics and ad tech fronts, they are agnostic when it comes to their role as a full-service or managed service provider. These agencies have come to realize the importance of integrating first, second and third party data and that from a privacy and data governance perspective advertiser ownership of such data may be a more appropriate path forward.

Additionally, they are open to working with their clients to help facilitate direct relationships between advertisers and technology providers to eliminate duplicate costs and boost transparency. They have a comfort level with direct-bill third-party media payment processing models which afford advertisers the opportunity to see exactly what the net media cost is.

For advertisers’ who are comfortable using the agency’s technology stack, no problem. For those that are interested in migrating that ownership in-house, they will consult and work to design and implement an approach that will work best for their clients. This could include everything from identifying DMP, DSP and ad server options to suggesting viewability optimization, fraud prevention and modeling tools. This new breed of agency recognizes that cutting out the middlemen from these areas can greatly enhance an advertiser’s working media ratios.

The benefit of this approach is profound when one considers that according to a recent survey by Technology Business Research (TBR) among 240 ad technology users in North America and Western Europe, they found that “only about 40% of digital advertising budgets are currently going toward working media” and that “the second biggest allocation – 31% of budgets – was going to pay for technology” with the balance being applied to “pay for agency services.”

The second trend that is having a meaningful impact in the digital advertising space is the continued expansion of services offered by technology consultants including IBM, Deloitte, Accenture and McKinsey. These firms have made strategic acquisitions and or built resource bases in the creative design area which allow them to complement their technology integration offerings and provide comprehensive end-to-end solutions. These firms’ gains will likely be to the detriment of traditional advertising agencies as the roles of data management and digital media continue to grow in the coming years.

As Jon Suarez-Davis, Chief Marketing and Strategy officer for Krux recently stated: “Marketers want absolute transparency across the value chain.” Mr. Suarez-Davis’ opinion, based upon his experience on both the ad technology and client-side, where he managed digital media for the Kellogg Company, is that advertisers “would like to have the technology and other non-working costs (that aren’t related to impression delivery) separated.”

 As the comedian Bill Hicks, so accurately opined:

We are the facilitators of our own creative evolution.”

The agencies and consultants that understand this dynamic and have a willingness to morph their service delivery and compensation models to address advertiser desires in these areas will be well positioned to boost their relevancy and revenue growth potential in the coming years. Those that don’t may struggle to keep pace as advertisers take a more proactive approach to optimizing their digital media investment.

Is the 4A’s Action on “Transparency” a “Tipping Point” for Client/ Agency Relationships?

17 Feb

Tipping PointMuch has been written about the content of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) recently released “Transparency Guidelines,” less about the potential impact of the 4A’s decision to break rank from the cross-industry task force with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and to act unilaterally.

For the record, from both an advertiser and agency perspective, we believe that the guidelines proposed by the 4A’s have the potential to do irreparable harm to client/ agency relationships. The guidelines appear to driven by greed and a certain naiveté about the source of agency leverage… namely their clients’ advertising budgets. Let’s face it, in the context of a principal-agent relationship there is no logical way to rationalize a guideline which states:

The agency, (agency group and holding company) may enter into commercial relationships with media vendors and other suppliers on its own account, which are separate and unrelated to the purchase of media as agent for their clients.”

One, the notion that the potential for financial gain would not introduce a level of bias that could influence an agency’s recommendations to its clients is unrealistic. Two, pooling client dollars to use as collateral in cutting side deals with media vendors and suppliers for its own benefit is inappropriate.

From our perspective, we believe that the 4A’s and any of its members that support the association’s guidelines on transparency have made a serious error in judgment. Yet, it should be noted, that not one agency has spoken out against the 4A’s action or the composition of its “Transparency Guidelines” nor has one agency seceded from the association. Thus, one might assume that all of the 4A’s members support the position taken.

At a time when issues such as transparency, trust, talent and compensation are posing serious challenges to the length and efficacy of client/ agency relationships, the 4A’s action on the topic of transparency will not serve their members well in the long-term. Why? There are, we believe two reasons.

First of all without clients, agencies have no means for existence. On the other hand, as it stands today, some may view agencies as a luxury, not a necessity for advertisers. Without agencies, clients still have a number of options for marketing their firms, brands and products. These options range from dealing direct with suppliers that are today considered “third-party vendors” such as; production companies, photographers, content developers and curators and media owners. Additionally, one must consider an advertisers option to create in-house capabilities rather than outsource all or some elements of their advertising.

The second reason is that absent an underlying level of trust, agencies can never hope to recover the coveted position of “strategic partner” that they once enjoyed. In our opinion, the 4A’s action has relegated their member agencies to “vendor” status whose goods and services an advertiser might choose to avail themselves of, without being beholden to the agency in a meaningful way.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book; “The Tipping Point” he suggested to readers; “Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not, with the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.” Think about that statement in the context of some of the trends our industry is experiencing today:

  • Growing impact of social media in shaping consumer views and behaviors
  • Rapid expansion of programmatic media buying
  • Advances in ad technology, impacting many facets of the message creation & distribution cycle
  • Increasing prevalence of advertiser/ publisher direct relationships
  • Rise of non-traditional alternatives to ad agencies (i.e. IBM, Deloitte, Accenture)

Surely the 4A’s is aware of the aforementioned trends and the moves in recent months by advertisers such as P&G, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Expedia, L’Oreal and Wal-Mart to either move certain aspects of their advertising in-house ranging from creative to programmatic media buying; or are purported to be actively investigating “alternative models.”

Do the 4A’s and their members believe that they are impervious to such trends? What were they hoping to gain by breaking ranks from the ANA and the joint transparency task force? Perhaps more importantly, are 4A’s members prepared for the potential impact of the association’s actions? According to Mr. Gladwell:

“That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.”

For the sake of the advertising agency community, let’s hope that their recent action on the topic of transparency isn’t the “small movement” that fuels the “epidemic” which forever tips their once favored status as trusted confidants to alternative vendors of commodity like marketing services.

For Advertisers Concerned About Transparency, There is an Immediate Solution

4 Nov

transparency concernsLet’s face it the advertising industry is a complex, fast-moving and ever evolving marketing eco-system which at times can mystify even its most experienced participants.  The expansion in both the number and types of media channels combined with the technology revolution that has ushered in tools such as digital asset management systems and programmatic buying platforms have only served to fuel advertiser concerns about their advertising investment.

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has twice this year issued statements regarding their membership’s concerns about the “transparency crisis” enveloping certain industry practices.  In May they announced that they were stepping up their “scrutiny of media practices” with the goal of shedding some light on the “dealings” between agencies and publishers.  Based upon a study which the organization had completed in February, 2014 forty-six percent of the ANA members’ surveyed expressed concern over the “transparency of media buys.” This was followed by a blog post in October in which the ANA acknowledged concern over a position paper issued by the trade group AICE dealing with agency in-house production practices entitled; “A Push for Greater Transparency, Ethics, and Fairness.

The good news is that advertisers need not wait for the various industry associations and their members to form task forces or appoint committees to assess the risk and propose potential solutions to the “transparency crisis.”  While these are important steps to be taken, they are time consuming, the potential outcomes are uncertain and the proposed solutions will not be tailored to a specific advertiser’s needs.  So what can an advertiser do today to thoroughly vet these issues and reassure their stakeholders that any attendant risks have been mitigated and to validate that they are receiving fair value for the advertising investment being made?

The answer is as close as a copy of the executed contract which is in place between the advertiser and the agency.  Specifically, the solution can be found in the “Right to Audit” clause, which is a staple in an overwhelming majority of client-agency agreements.  In short, this important clause affords advertisers the opportunity to examine the agency’s records of expenditures pertaining to the agency’s billing to the client for the purpose of validating media bills, production bills, studio costs and reconciling agency fees.

Audit clauses are inserted into contracts because they are an important financial control.  Yet, too often advertisers treat their right to audit as a fall back option, which all too frequently is never acted upon.  When this clause is not acted upon, the advertiser forgoes the opportunity to implement standard compliance testing, which in turn limits their opportunity to validate agency billings and gain a certain level of comfort that comes with transparency into the agency’s financial stewardship of their advertising budget.

Once audit rights have been established, industry “Best Practice” would suggest that implementing periodic and routine testing is a must for introducing and maintaining ongoing preventative control measures.  The resulting testing which occurs as part of the audit process can help to deter wasteful practices, identify errant billing transactions and to monitor key financial metrics. All told, a well defined contract compliance audit program can help an individual advertiser address the “transparency crisis” while providing the organization the necessary legal and financial safeguards.

Of note, the agency community has come to accept independent audits as a normal part of an advertiser’s broader corporate or marketing accountability initiative.  Any pushback on this front should be viewed as a “red flag.”  For those agencies which have implemented sound financial stewardship practices there is nothing to fear from an advertiser’s review of their performance in this important area.  Quite the contrary, a well conceived, balanced independent audit process can yield insights and recommendations which also benefit the agency.  Lailah Gifty, a Ghaniaian and founder of the Smart Youth Volunteers Foundation, rightfully said:

“Never believe all that you hear. Always verify the original source of information.”

Those advertisers conducting business without a comprehensive “Right to Audit” clause are simply at risk, forgoing the most important control mechanism available to them to protect their interests.  For those advertisers, which have secured audit rights, but have failed to act upon this right, you are unnecessarily exposing your organization to legal and financial risks.

The “transparency crisis” cited by the ANA is a legitimate issue, which the industry will successfully address in due course.  The question to be asked of advertisers is; “Are you prepared to wait for a broad-based industry solution? Or do you leverage the contractual rights which you have already secured to address these concerns now?”

If you’re interested in learning more about how you might improve your agency contracts or the benefits of advertising agency contract compliance audits contact Cliff Campeau, Principal with Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for your complimentary consultation.

Agency Charging Practices Questioned

9 Sep

ad agency charging practicesEarlier this week Digiday, a media company serving digital media, marketing and advertising professionals ran an interesting article regarding agency compensation and the “tricks” played by agencies to boost their bottom lines. 

In short, the article asserts that; “For ad agencies, it’s harder than ever to get paid. Their services are becoming increasingly commoditized, and their margins are getting squeezed as a result.”  According to the author, Jack Marshall, this in turn is “driving some to get creative with the ways they bill clients, as they exploit loopholes and tricks in an attempt to maximize their rewards.”  Examples of the bad practices employed by some agencies in this particular area include:

  • Artificially inflating the salaries of their employees when developing compensation programs
  • Double-charging clients by including items such as medical expenses in both salary costs and overhead calculations
  • Slow rolling projects and or throwing more people at a project than is required to boost billable hours

Andrew Teman, one of the agency executives interviewed by Digiday for the article suggested that;

“The problem with big agencies is they don’t make money being efficient; they make money billing more hours.”

For practitioners within advertising industry, the aforementioned revelations are not newsworthy.  Attempts to game the system have been ever present and serve as a reminder of the decades long struggle clients and agencies have had in structuring mutually beneficial agency remuneration programs in a post “15% commission” world. 

Ironically, advertisers and agencies want the same thing… a fair and efficient compensation program which incents extraordinary performance, good behavior among the stakeholders and which leads to a solid client-agency relationship.  To that end, neither party’s needs are being effectively served by the games and subterfuge described in the Digiday article.  The solution to the issue, which seems elusive, is actually rather straightforward: 

  1. Development of detailed scope(s) of work (SOW) to serve as the basis for agency resource investment modeling.  This is an important first step, since it is the SOW which will drive agency staffing and the resulting schedule of charging practices.
  2. Completion of a comprehensive agency staffing plan, with personnel names, titles, functions, utilization percentages and billing rates.
  3. Implementation of an agency remuneration program which aligns the client’s goals with the agency’s resource investment.  Of note, there should be full transparency into the various cost elements used to calculate agency fees, overhead and profit levels.
  4. Reporting and control mechanisms to monitor agency time-of-staff investment, performance and outputs to protect the financial interests of both clients and agencies. 

Unfortunately, as straightforward as the solution may appear, few clients and or agencies have effectively implemented the four steps suggested above at a sufficient level of detail as part of their continuous relationship management processes. 

Some would suggest that the real challenge has been in effectively scoping the work required on behalf of an agency.  According to Michael Farmer, Principal of Farmer & Company which specializes in assisting advertisers and agencies in developing and implementing accurate, effective Scope of Work practices and tools, “New metrics are required to track and measure workloads, prices and resource productivity. That’s the only way agencies can evaluate and negotiate changes in the fees they are paid in today’s marketplace — and halt the erosion in agency operational health.” 

We would suggest that putting in place an effective monitoring program in this area is long overdue at most advertisers.  If not addressed, the institutionalization of the bad behavior referenced in the Digiday article sets a dangerous precedent for treating relationship ailments with trickery rather than frank dialog between clients and agencies.  

 

 

Performance Integrity

18 Jun

In the world of athletics, independent performance assessments are the rule.  In baseball, umps call balls and strikes, in tennis linesmen determine whether a ball is in or out, in football referees call out players for rule infractions.  Given the competitive nature of athletic competition at all levels and the economic impact performance integrity can have in collegiate and professional sports, it is unfathomable to think that the governing bodies overseeing these entities such as the MLB, USTA, NFL or NCAA would allow athletes to self police their contests. 

Is business any less competitive?  When companies consider the value of a point of market share, the impact of positive sales on earnings-per-share or the investment level being made in marketing as a percentage of their selling-and-general-administrative expense the answer would most certainly be “No.”  So why is it that when it comes to marketing performance integrity, self-assessment is the rule rather than the exception? 

In business, as in sports, there are winners and losers.  There are several characteristics that impact whether an organization can be categorized as a “winner.”  These characteristics include, but are not limited to, a company’s market position, year-over-year sale’s increases, customer loyalty/satisfaction and return on shareholder equity.  An organization’s marketing investment and the resulting performance of that investment largely determines an organization’s in-market success.  Given the potential impact marketing has on company performance, don’t you believe that stakeholders (i.e. Share Owners, Board of Directors, Senior Management) would want to insure the integrity of that “performance?” 

Perhaps it makes sense for business to take a lead from their sporting organization counterparts and commit to the independent performance assessment of their marketing partners as a mechanism for optimizing this important investment.  This is certainly not a foreign concept in business – just as public corporations are required to utilize independent auditors to vet the accuracy of their financial statements it would be reasonable, and make good sense, to apply this concept by engaging 3rd party agency contract compliance and performance auditing firms to assist in assessing the efficacy of one’s marketing spend.  The learning and any resulting financial reconciliation related to the audit process would yield dividends on multiple fronts well into the future.  In the words of one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Paine: 

“Character is much easier kept than recovered.” 

The practice of engaging agency compliance auditors to provide a fair and balanced look into the performance of an organization’s marketing agency network is relatively commonplace in Europe.  This movement has also been gathering momentum within the world’s largest advertising marketplace… the United States of America.  Employing independent auditors is not done to impugn the character of the agencies whose compliance and performance is being evaluated.  Rather, it is performed to validate that the advertiser has, in fact, the appropriate legal, financial and governance controls, fraud detection and performance monitoring processes in place and that the reporting and subsequent level of transparency which it affords the company are satisfactory.  

Given that we started this article with a sports reference, it is only appropriate that we end with a pearl of wisdom from one of major league baseball’s most accomplished players, Hall of Famer Yogi Berra: 

 “You can observe a lot by just watching.” 

Interested in learning more about the benefits of agency contract compliance and performance audits?  Contact Don Parsons, Principal at dparsons@aarmusa.com to schedule a complimentary consultation today.

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