U.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 “principal-based media 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 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? Caveat emptor…agreements are simply lacking the requisite control language to protect advertisers which in turn allows agencies to interpret “gray areas” in their favor. This, coupled with the fact that agencies are well aware that only a small percentage of advertisers audit their agency partners, 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 clients driving fees down somehow makes it acceptable for agencies to pursue non-transparent revenue to counter weak 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 realized increases in revenue ranging between 0.9% – 10.5%. WPP achieved a 10.5% increase on an 8.5% increase in billings, Omnicom Group 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 the consumer price and producer price indices 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 one must wonder how hard companies like WPP have to drive growth to fund expenses like its chairman’s 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:
- Revisit client/ agency Master Services Agreements to tighten terms and conditions, which deal with disclosure, financial stewardship and audit rights.
- 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.
- 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 fairly aligning remuneration, resources and expectations.
- 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.