Marketing Math Blog

What Role Will Media Agencies Carve Out for Themselves?

By Advertising Agencies, Media, Supply Chain Optimization No Comments

Role QuestionPoint of fact: The media marketplace is evolving at a pace never previously experienced.

While consumers have a dizzying array of choices for accessing content, ad sales are dominated by a handful of media ownership groups. According to a recent GroupM report, the “Top 10” firms accounted for 55% of global ad revenues in 2020. Of note, the “Top 5” firms (Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Amazon and TikTok owner ByteDance) represented 46% of global ad sales during this same period.

In the U.S., the world’s largest ad market, digital media represented 62.9% of U.S. media spend with 88.1% of digital display spend being placed programmatically in 2020 (source: eMarketer). Not surprisingly, Google, Facebook and Amazon increased their share of the U.S. digital market to almost 90% in 2020 (source: GroupM).

Top media ownership groups such as Comcast, Disney, ViacomCBS and AT&T have expanded their offerings to advertisers on a direct basis to include media space/time, content, product integration, experiential support, audience research and production services… somewhat reminiscent of the days of full-service advertising agencies.

And finally, media planning and buying decisions are becoming more highly automated as AI-powered algorithms and machine learning continues to expand their role in the advertising and media sector. This in turn has spurred advertiser investments in AI marketing, totaling over $6 billion in 2019 (source: Statista).

The question to be asked is, “How will media agencies distinguish themselves and their client offerings to protect their share of the media services market?”

This is an important topic, one which is surely being discussed within the major ad agency holding companies. Why? Media agency contributions to agency holding company financial performance are significant. This has been particularly so with the growth of digital media over the last decade-plus. According to Ad Age Datacenter, digital work in 2020 accounted for 58% of 2020 U.S. revenue for agencies from all disciplines. Yet, overall revenues for U.S. ad agencies have been lackluster at best, with low single-digit growth in 2017, 2018, 2019 and a 6.8% drop-off in 2020.

For advertisers seeking to boost campaign performance, improve media ROI and reduce time-to-campaign launch times, they will inevitably evaluate a range of approaches to planning and placing their media budgets. These may include adding consolidating their media agency networks to achieve better integration and improved leverage, in-housing certain aspects of the media strategy and or placement processes to improve efficiencies, working directly with media ownership groups and a host of other alternatives.

In a dynamic, evolving marketplace marked by uncertainty, the onus is clearly on media agency management to defend their role as gatekeepers and stewards of client media spend. Perhaps agency leadership can draw some inspiration from the words of American educator and the founder of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan: “Wisdom is knowing what to do next; skill is knowing how to do it and virtue is doing it.”

 

What Is the Basis for Variable Commission Rates?

By Agency Compensation No Comments

questionUntil the late 1980s, agency remuneration models that were based upon commissions charged on ad spend were typically universally applied across media types. As alternative media channels began to expand, agencies began to charge variable commission rates, based upon media type.

The question to be asked is “Why?” and, is this approach still appropriate?

Presumably, planning, buying, and monitoring certain types of media required more time on the part of agency personnel and or certain experience levels, thus the higher rates. It is fair to question whether or not that premise still holds true. The most obvious area to question is the higher commission rates charged for programmatic advertising, which utilizes automated technology to execute and monitor media buys as opposed to traditional, manual buying methods.

Unfortunately, advertisers that employ a commission-based agency pay-model typically don’t see agency staffing plans or time-of-staff reporting. Thus, the ability for an advertiser to assess the resource level required to plan and place its media mix is limited at best.

Another concern regarding the variable commission rate pay-model is the potential for the higher rates charged for certain media types to bias an agency’s media mix recommendations. The possibility that an agency would approach the allocation process with the goal of optimizing its revenue, rather than the advertiser’s media investment certainly exists.

So, what should advertisers do? The answer is straightforward. Require their media agency partners to submit formal staffing plans, with an estimate of hours and utilization rates by employee/ position along with their annual commission rate schedule… just as they would with a retainer or labor-based fee compensation method. Further, advertisers should require agencies to provide monthly time-of-staff reporting, so that both parties can assess the resource levels, staff seniority and experience required to execute the scope of work.

With clear insights into an agency’s staff investment, advertisers can now knowledgeably adjust their remuneration programs, if needed. The goal, as always, is to equitably compensate media agency partners to effectively plan and execute an advertiser’s media program, while eliminating bias and optimizing working media levels.

Advertisers would be wise to heed the words of Oliver Markus Malloy, the German American novelist and to analyze the impact and efficiency of their variable commission rate compensation programs more closely:

“We live in this bubble of ignorance. Most people know nothing about history, or the historical context of the traditions they still follow today. People do things without knowing why they’re doing them.” 

Ad Industry Launches Programmatic Media Probe

By Ad Fraud, Digital Media, Programmatic Buying No Comments

ANAThe Association of National Advertisers (ANA) recently announced that it will commission a study to identify ways to address the myriad of issues plaguing the programmatic marketplace. Both the ISBA and World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) are supporting the effort.

Citing ongoing concerns regarding “thin transparency, fractured accountability, and mind-numbing complexity” the ANA believes that these issues, combined with the percentage of digital spend going to cover fees charged by ad tech intermediaries, are costing advertisers billions of dollars per year. By their estimate “only 40% to 60% of digital dollars invested by advertisers find their way to publishers.” Of the funds that do reach publishers, a recent study by the ISBA found that “15% of budgets simply disappear without a trace” supporting thin transparency claims.

 

For perspective, according to Zenith Media, 65% of U.S. digital media is placed programmatically. For perspective, advertisers spent approximately $139 billion on digital media in the U.S., representing 54% of total media spend.

Unfortunately, the promise of improved efficiency and effectiveness related to programmatic has yet to be realized. With evolving privacy regulation and a higher incidence of fraud (fake traffic) to add to the lack of clear insight into the fees charged, true inventory costs and placement quality, it is difficult to explain the rapid growth of this form of buying. Yet it seems there is no turning back as programmatic buying has become dominant in digital and expanded to other media types as well.

Despite these challenges, many media pundits suggest that traditional metrics for evaluating media success (i.e., impressions, clicks, views, completed views, etc.) are not apropos for assessing the efficacy of programmatic. They argue that in the end, it is all about actions and outcomes. However, a Google Ad Manager study found that an increase in video ad viewability, for instance, from “50% to 90% can result in a revenue uplift of over 80% (averaged across desktop and mobile).” No one would argue that views and outcomes cannot occur without exposure to real people and legitimate human traffic.

Thus, with advertisers continuing to fuel the growth of programmatic buying across media types, the timing could not be better for the ANA’s initiative to investigate this sector of the media marketplace.  As the 1st century BC writer and philosopher, Publilius Syrius once said: “It is better to learn late than never.”

Fraud & Privacy Regulation Create Digital Media Challenges

By Ad Fraud, Digital Media, Privacy Protection No Comments

ChallengesDigital media’s value proposition is the ability to more finitely target audience segments, moving beyond traditional demographics, leveraging deterministic user data to paint rich, behavioral-based customer profiles, delivering a marketer’s message to those customers inexpensively, at scale.

This dynamic resulted in the rise of U.S. digital media spend from $26 billion in 2010 to $139 billion in 2020 (source: IAB/ PwC).

Yet recent developments, including increased regulatory activity surrounding consumer data privacy protection (GDPR, CCPA) and the resulting moves away from the use of third-party cookies to track website visits and collect consumer data to help marketers target their messages, have exposed some challenges related to digital media and customer targeting that the industry must now contend with.

The primary issue going forward is the fact that the major browsers have stated that they “will not use alternate identifiers” to track consumer web browsing activity. Further, consumers remain distrustful of sharing personal information, which has significantly thwarted marketers’ opt-in efforts, limiting their personalization and targeting strategies.

Secondly, data brokers and data management platform (DMP) providers may offer little credible support in this area. In a recent Forbes article entitled, “How Accurate is Programmatic Ad Targeting” Dr. Augustine Fou suggested that few AdTech providers “have users that voluntarily provide” demographic information. This means that the targeting “characteristics or parameters that a data broker or DMP has on users are derived.”

Thirdly, digital media fraud continues to limit marketing optimization efforts. In their 2021 “Marketing Fraud Benchmarking Report” Renegade and WhiteOps profiled some of the outcomes experienced by marketers whose databases have been corrupted by fraud. These include:

  • Website traffic spikes, not connected to new content
  • Steep increases in traffic associated with marketing campaigns
  • Wide variances in time-on-site metrics, depending on traffic source
  • Lower than expected conversion rates
  • Diminishing quality of in-bound leads

The primary cause behind these occurrences is fraudulent bot activity. In addition to skewing digital media audience delivery and campaign performance indicators, this fraudulent activity has also corrupted consumer databases. Thus, marketers may experience difficulty in determining what percentage of their target profiles and contacts are real or fraudulent, leading to ineffective and expensive retargeting and profiling efforts.

The alternative being suggested by many is to fall back on contextual marketing. In short, placing a marketer’s advertisement in the most appropriate context (e.g. adjacent to the most relevant content). This means either working with publishers and websites directly accessing their first-party data to target advertising based upon user activity and content preferences to shape ad targeting decisions or, in the case of ad networks, serving up ads based upon page content, keywords and metadata.

Unfortunately, some browsers such as Google will not allow advertisers to access contextual content categories and or identifiers to inform their ad targeting efforts. Additionally, one important trade-off of contextual targeting is that data is not collected on the user for use in creating buyer profiles or in predicting future behavior and thus has little value in establishing targeting parameters or in remarketing.

With 54% of U.S. media spend being allocated to digital and 65% of that being programmatic (source: Zenith Media), marketers and their advisers have their work cut out for them as they navigate the new digital playing field.

 

We Know We Should Audit, But…

By Advertising Agency Audits, Contract Compliance Auditing, Marketing Accountability No Comments

HesitationWe’ve all seen the look on the face of an anxious toddler as they prepare to jump into the waiting arms of a parent in a pool.

The child wants to leap, knows there is little risk, trusts their parent and knows that the feeling of satisfaction related to their action will far outweigh their apprehension, yet they hesitate to take the plunge. This scenario can be analogous to organization’s considering an independent contract compliance audit of an advertising agency partner.

Managers’ go through a series of considerations when weighing whether or not to conduct an agency compliance and financial management review, including:

  • It’s not that we don’t trust our ad agency partners
  • It’s not that we don’t believe our agencies are putting forth their “best efforts” to safeguard our marketing investment
  • It’s not that we don’t have confidence that our marketing team is effectively safeguarding our marketing budget

But…

  • We have never audited this aspect of our SG&A
  • Marketing spend is a material expense
  • Our C-suite executives are asking questions regarding risks and controls
  • Over time, our agency roster has grown and spending has increased
  • We read the trade press and are concerned about fraud, brand safety, adherence to fiduciary standards and the like

In the end, Finance, Procurement and or Internal Audit leadership know they should undertake this important risk reducing work. They also realize that an outside specialists provides valuable industry expertise. Yet, they often cannot get to “yes.”

Why the hesitation? The reasons are many; Marketing indicates that the timing is not right, we don’t have the budget, we’ve conducted internal reviews ourselves, our agency is a trusted partner, we’re considering transitioning agencies… and the list goes on.

The good news is that all rationale cited for not moving forward with comprehensive testing of  ad agency partner billings, costs and contract compliance can be readily addressed. The audit process is not time consuming, poses no relationship risk, is allowed for in the client-agency agreement, and most importantly the benefits far outweigh the cost / risk of the audit not proceeding.

Audit results yield a combination of historical financial recoveries tied to billing errors, unauthorized mark-up, unreconciled jobs, and outstanding credits.  Financial true-ups and learning far outpace the initial audit investment. And most importantly, the work yields forward looking process improvement, contract language improvement, financial refinement, and risk mitigation opportunities to generate cost savings and peace of mind.

With proper oversight, we have seen concerns regarding agency accountability replaced with a sense of trust and confidence. Key benefits in a market sector noted for its lack of transparency, murky supply-chains and lack of trust.

Where does your organization stand on this important accountability practice? Perhaps the words of Daniel Wagner, a widely published author on current affairs and risk management, can embolden organizations to take the prudent action:

“Some risks that are thought to be unknown, are not unknown. With some foresight and critical thought, some risks that at first glance may seem unforeseen, can in fact be foreseen. Armed with the right set of tools, procedures, knowledge and insight, light can be shed on variables that lead to risk, allowing us to manage them.”

 

 

 

 

Freelancers Are Not Employees – How Are You Being Billed?

By Billing Practices, Talent No Comments

contract signingWhy state the obvious? Because many agencies bill freelance and temporary labor to their clients at fully-loaded contract rates, rather than on a pass-through basis, net of any mark-up.

This is simply not an appropriate practice, unless the client is fully aware and understands the cost differential between a full-time employee and an independent resource.

There are no issues with using freelancers and temps to flex agency staffing to meet fluctuating work levels, backfill for an employee on an extended absence or to access someone with a specific skill set. This is a common and acceptable practice which makes good sense. However, it is also an area often marked by a lack of transparency and, dependent upon agency/client agreement language, the application of unauthorized mark-ups by agency financial teams.

In many, if not most instances, agencies do not inform their clients as to which service team members are freelancers or temps. Our experiences show rather than being identified as freelancers, they are often assigned agency job titles and classified as full-time employees in time tracking reports and fee reconciliations.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen, particularly with direct-labor-based remuneration agreements, is that these individuals are routinely billed out at negotiated contract rates, just the same as the agency’s full-time employees would be.

Without performing comprehensive contract compliance and financial management audits or diligently validating adherence to agreement language already in place, this practice is typically left unabated. Our viewpoint is that unless specifically authorized by a client, billings for freelance and temporary employees should reflect the actual net cost invoiced to the agency. Even if costs are billed at net, agencies are still being compensated for the additional time incurred by full-time employees to procure, educate and supervise these non-employees.

Further support for this position is that agencies simply do not incur the same costs for freelancers and temps as they do for full-time employees. For example,

  • Freelancers do not participate in agency benefit plans such as health insurance, profit sharing or 401K matching. Nor are they paid for holidays, personal comp or vacation time.
  • Agencies seldomly provide onsite workspace at their offices.
  • Agencies bear no cost in training and or career development.

Net, net, freelancers and temps are third-party suppliers. Inferences that charging freelance at full contract rates is an “Industry Standard” or should be considered “fair” is simply not supportable. 

This is a profitable endeavor for agencies, one that can yield extraordinary margins. Consider a scenario where an agency pays a freelancer $100 per hour for their services, then charges that time at a contract rate of $150 per hour. This practice would net the agency a 50% mark-up!

Over the years, we have not had a single client who knowingly allowed subcontractors, of any type, to be charged in this manner. Contract language often dictates and or clients usually expect that these charges are being billed on a pass-through basis. At times, we have seen instances where an allowance has been granted for a modest mark-up on freelance cost (e.g. 10% to 15%) to offset the administrative cost of engaging such individuals or for processing them through their payroll system to cover costs such as FICA. Beyond this, agencies really don’t have a basis for applying fully-loaded rates.

For advertisers, this is a worthwhile conversation to have with their agency partners to determine current practices and to reinforce expectations on a go-forward basis.

 

If Your Media Buy Dictates the Media Plan, Do You Have a Plan?

By Media, Media Planning No Comments

Flying BlindA recent “Global Media Trading Report” released by ID Comms found that 38% of those surveyed believe “the media buy dictates the plan.” Further, many respondents suggested that “channel and or vendor biases” dictate buying decisions, rather than strategic planning.

Regardless of the context of the survey questions and or media type (i.e. traditional, digital, programmatic, connected, etc.) these findings are startling to say the least.

Call us traditionalists, but we cannot think of a sound rationale for investing one’s media dollars, absent a plan that is linked directly to the organization’s marketing goals and business objectives.

However, given the number of folks that believe media buys drive planning decisions mindset, one must assume that this practice is occurring on an all too frequent basis. A reality that is difficult to fathom in light of the complex, highly fragmented nature of the media marketplace.

The notion that resource-allocation decisions would be made on the basis of channel bias rather than sound analysis such as holistic media mix review, target audience media consumption patterns, coverage/reach/frequency modeling, competitive activity and editorial environment is concerning.

In our advertising assurance practice, we sometimes come across examples of inadequate media planning processes or insufficient resources being deployed in the execution of a plan. The tip-off almost always being when the “Plan” more closely represents an Excel worksheet recapping a proposed media schedule, rather than a formal media plan document with the requisite components. But never have we encountered an advertiser that would accept the premise of media buys or channel biases driving planning decisions.

Far be it for us to challenge such widely held beliefs.

The question to be posed to advertisers is simply, “Which approach do you espouse?” For our money, when it comes to media resource allocation decisions channel biases be damned, we would follow the guidance of 19th century scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell: “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Risks Related to Ad Agency Staff Reductions

By Advertisers, Advertising Agencies No Comments

LayoffsAdvertisers cut budgets; ad agencies reduce headcount. This is a causal relationship and always has been.

No one can fault an ad agency for making prudent fiscal decisions when revenues decrease.

That said, advertisers need to take precautions in this situation to mitigate their risks, particularly when there are significant downsizings as there were in 2020.

It was recently announced that Omnicom and Interpublic had eliminated “10,000 roles” between the two organizations in 2020, citing the pandemic as the primary reason. This represented an 8.4% reduction in staff for Omnicom and 7.6% for Interpublic. Significant by any measure… and they will not be alone, the other holding companies simply haven’t yet disclosed annual headcount data.

Like with most professional fee-for-service providers, involuntary staff reductions tend to have a disproportionate impact on longer-term, more highly compensated individuals and personnel working in shared services functions such as finance, human resources, legal, procurement, traffic, etc.

Advertisers that have reduced their budgets obviously need to collaborate with their agency partners on revised scopes of work and remuneration programs that reflect new spend levels. Clients that have maintained or increased spending will need to implement safeguards to ensure that their accounts are adequately staffed and supported.

This includes making sure that the mix of agency personnel working on their business is reflective of the need for strategic insights, breakthrough creative and executional excellence in all facets of the business.

Items such as tightening up creative and media briefing and approval processes, specifying media planning procedures and desired outputs, identifying media management guidelines for in-flight stewardship and post-campaign performance reporting and being overt about financial management expectations and reporting (i.e. project tracking, job closure and reconciliation, third-party vendor payments, etc.) are necessary steps for advertisers to take.

In our experience, as long as both client and agency are aligned, working through these situations to mitigate the risks associated with involuntary staff reductions can be effectively addressed.

As Josh Billings, the 19th century writer and humorist advised: “Caution, though very often wasted is a good risk to take.”

How and When Will the Remote Work Model Impact Agency Fees

By Agency Compensation, Right to Audit Clauses, Supply Chain Optimization No Comments

costIt has been one year since the onset of the coronavirus and the rapid shift to remote work as stay-at-home orders were implemented on a global basis.

Companies in multiple industries, including advertising and media, moved quickly to adapt to this new reality. According to a 2020 study of knowledge workers sponsored by Slack and fielded by GlobalWebIndex, 44% of U.S. workers were “primarily working from home” by the end of the summer.

In the months that have followed, many organizations have announced plans to implement the remote work model for employees on a go-forward basis. Part of this transformation includes reconfiguring operations, consolidating locations, renegotiating office leases and embracing flexible employee schedules and distanced living arrangements.

An obvious bi-product of these moves is the potential for organizations to lower their expense base, whether in the context of reduced direct labor costs related to distanced living policies or the reduction in overhead costs related to items such as:

  • Indirect labor
  • Space and facilities management
  • Property taxes
  • Office equipment
  • Office supplies
  • Corporate insurance
  • Non-billable travel
  • Non-billable new business expenses
  • Professional fees

Given that direct and overhead costs are components of calculating marketing service agency fees, one would reasonably expect that as agencies reduce their cost base, the fees charged to their clients would also be reduced.

The operative question for a client to ask of their agencies is, “How and when will our rates be adjusted to reflect the savings related to your remote work model?” To be fair, even though a large percentage of agency personnel may be working remotely, the timing as to when and how much rates will be reduced will partially depend upon how quickly the renegotiation of certain financial commitments (e.g. office lease obligations) can occur.

Whether any reductions have been fairly calculated will be difficult to assess. The vast majority of client-agency agreements limit a client’s ability to audit agency payroll and overhead costs. True cost-plus remuneration plans, while quite rare, sometimes allow for an advertiser’s independent accounting and or financial audit firm to verify an agency’s actual overhead or require the agency to provide a letter of attestation from its CFO or audit firm.

Either way, establishing guidelines and maintaining an open dialog about the impact of a remote work model are an excellent way to shape expectations and maintain the requisite level of transparency.

Agency Audits: An Advertiser “Right” Not Yet a Standard Practice

By Advertising Agency Audits, Contract Compliance Auditing, Letter of Agreement Best Practices, Marketing Accountability, Right to Audit Clauses No Comments

auditFor most organizations, the “Right-to-Audit” is a staple in their advertising agency agreements. Worded properly, this important contract language provides the company an opportunity to periodically check ad agency compliance with contract terms, review financial support that should agree to agency billings and to otherwise evaluate various performance metrics.

Yet despite the inclusion of this vital risk management clause and the rights that it confers, far too few organizations actually follow through to perform the testing which would otherwise provide stakeholders with comfort that agency billings are accurate and true.

So, why don’t advertisers audit their agency partners?

One might logically deduce that all clients would periodically review agency compliance, financial management and performance given:

  • The materiality of spend levels.
  • Limited insight to whether agencies are accurately reconciling estimated invoices to actual costs.
  • The complex, multi-layered supply chains, especially in digital media.
  • The well-publicized news of the ad industry’s ongoing challenges with transparency and fraud.

Aside from mitigating financial risk that could be eroding marketing expense effectiveness, another benefit of agency compliance testing is that it can help allay client-side stakeholder (marketing, finance, internal audit, procurement) concern and further build trust. Trust is crucial, particularly clients are relying on agency partners to fulfill their fiduciary and legal responsibilities in stewarding their advertising funds.

In addition, the level of trust between advertisers and their agency partners has been under siege. Consider ID Comms 2018 Global Media Transparency Survey where only one in ten respondents indicated that their “relationship with their agency or advertising client was trusting.” Further, 40% of respondents believed that trust levels were “average” compared to 52% in ID Comms 2016 survey.

We see first-hand where contract compliance and financial management audits identify and address gaps in understanding, controls and reporting that negatively affect client spend effectiveness and erode agency margins. Whether financial definitions, billing basis, fee calculations, project briefing, the approval process, rework levels, custom reporting requests, and or payment timing issues, audits can provide a prescriptive for positive change to benefit all stakeholders.

In our practice we see three principal reasons why the right-to-audit is not employed often enough – and therefore has become much less effective as a control than necessary:

  1. No clear ownership who is responsible for the Audit function in the context of marketing.
  2. Lack of a formal budget allocation process for assurance and risk mitigation for marketing and advertising spend.
  3. Limited organizational understanding of risks related to the advertising category.

As a result, clients continue to invest billions of dollars annually through their agency partners in spite of never verifying whether there are proper controls and regulations to safeguard those funds and optimize the efficacy of their investment. The need is real. Building effective verification and monitoring tools into client-agency relationships cannot be viewed as an option, but rather a prerequisite.

Fortunately, if the will is there on the part of client organizations, the solution is relatively straight-forward.

  • Responsibility for the checking agency financial compliance cannot rest solely with the marketing team. Finance, internal audit and procurement each have a role to play in the process.
  • Setting up a rotational audit program for each of the organization’s audit partners is paramount. Funding the effort through marketing, finance or internal audit budgets can ensure that the program will be executed as designed.
  • Establishing direct relationships between client-side finance and agency finance personnel greatly enhances an advertiser’s line-of-sight into the disposition of their funds at each phase of the advertising investment cycle.
  • Develop a relationship with a co-source supplier with deep marketing audit expertise.

Enhancing an advertisers control framework to include the regular review of their agency partners’ client accounting practices and controls along with their contract compliance to contract terms will inevitably mitigate risks and lead to better management of this important investment. In the words of Simon Mainwaring, brand futurist and businessman:

“The keys to brand success are self-definition, transparency, authenticity and accountability.”