Over the course of the last several decades media owners and media agencies pursued aggressive growth strategies largely fueled by merger and acquisition activity to consolidate their power and achieve a “leg up” in their respective negotiating positions. So it comes as no surprise to anyone in the industry when you step back and assess the size and leverage of today’s top three agency networks; Publicis/ Ominicom, WPP and Interpublic Group.
What complicates matters for advertisers is the emergence of the agency as “media owner” model ushered in by the rapid growth of programmatic buying and digital media arbitrage. The essential question is clear:
“Doesn’t a media agency have a conflict of interest when it has a fiduciary obligation to secure the best available inventory at the most advantageous rates for an advertiser if they also resell media (as part of their recommended inventory) which they have purchased directly from publishers to achieve a financial gain?”
This is a dilemma complicated by the lack of transparency inherent with programmatic buying, which already limits advertiser transparency into the caliber of the inventory secured on their behalf and or the CPMs paid for those exposures.
There are a number of dimensions that need to be addressed in the context of a traditional client-agency relationship in the wake of this phenomenon:
- How will an advertiser shape its media agency network and assign roles and responsibilities to protect its self-interests of objectivity, competitive pricing and an optimal return on its media investment?
- What media components might an advertiser bring in-house?
- In the ongoing dialog regarding “Big Data,” can advertisers realistically view their media agencies that are also media owners, as impartial partners, to be entrusted with sensitive, highly confidential data?
- How should media agency remuneration systems evolve to reign in the percentage of their gross media investment which is currently ending up in an agency’s pocket (i.e. fees, commissions, rebates, margin spreads, etc…)?
There is no standard, there are no guidelines… this is a “new chapter” in client-agency relations which is unfolding before our very eyes.
So it was with great interest that I read a recent article on the More About Advertising website entitled; “Five ways for clients to find out what’s really going on as media agencies become media owners.” The author, Andy Pearch, Director of MediaSense suggests that “the old media audit to pitch model has been broken by these developments” and that advertisers “legacy supplier management techniques need to evolve.” The primary reason for this, in the author’s eyes, is that media agencies have become “market makers” where they, not the traditional media owner, sets the price of the media.
In light of the growing leverage which agencies are able to exert on the media process, Mr. Pearch suggests that advertisers will have to learn how to “negotiate with their own agencies for a better market position.” On the topic of transparency Pearch feels that “it is naïve to hope that the most dominant agencies will cede competitive advantage and margin by becoming sufficiently transparent.”
Two of his more intriguing recommendations include the need for advertisers to “take a tougher line on cases of non-transparent practice” and failure to comply with contract terms. Additionally, Pearch suggests that advertisers both re-think their dependency on a single-supplier media agency model and, for larger organizations with the appropriate depth of resources, “consider setting up their own trading desks.”
We live in an interesting and dynamic time for the advertising industry with technology ushering in an era of rapid change that will continue to impact both consumer media consumption patterns and an advertiser’s ability to deliver their message in an appropriate, targeted manner. It is our belief that during this time of sea change, advertiser transparency and control should not be sacrificed in the ongoing pursuit of cheaper CPMs. The challenges identified here are not likely to be limited to digital media as the trading desks potentially expand their media coverage and agencies seek to extend media arbitrage opportunities. In the words of Hippocrates:
“Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases.”