As we began 2020 no one could have predicted the level of upheaval the economy would experience as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes forced on businesses as a result of government mandated shelter in-place policies, while critical for curtailing the spread of the virus, have been devastating. According to consulting firm, Brand Finance “America’s Top 500 Brands could lose up to $400 billion” due to COVID-19’s impact on the economy.
Organizations have sprung into action, many slashing advertising spend, along with other expenses as they seek to offset dramatic reductions in revenue and to deal with mounting cash flow challenges.
As marketers approach the mid-point of the second quarter it is clear that the changes to their fiscal budgets will be significant and potentially lasting. In a recent poll of marketing and advertising executives, by Advertiser Perceptions, 77% of those surveyed expect ad spend to be soft through the first-quarter of 2021.
Thus far, many companies have taken a wait and see attitude with some of their advertising and marketing commitments as they rightly weigh options related to modifying, rescheduling or cancelling advertising commitments. Moving forward, decisive action will be required to safeguard and recall funds pre-paid to agencies, production resources, events management companies and media sellers for creative that will never come to fruition, media that will never run and sponsorships that will be postponed or cancelled.
Equally as important is the need to review and likely revise annual agency scopes of work, staffing plans and remuneration programs that have been impacted by the reduction in marketing spend.
These can be challenging and complex conversations to have with your agency partners and in turn, with third-party vendors, particularly because their organizations are dealing with comparable business and financial issues. For the purposes of this article, we want to focus on the client/ agency portion of the ledger, rather than external commitment and resource reallocation reviews that are likely currently underway.
A disciplined approach, focused on contractual terms and current financial facts, will yield the greatest return as you seek to right size your marketing budget in a fair, responsible and expeditious manner. This approach also recognizes that in addition to the goal of reducing costs, companies are seeking to improve financial flexibility and limit risks and exposures. Stephen Covey wisely suggested, it is best to; “Begin with the end in mind.” Same applies now, it is best to begin with a review of current governing documents between advertiser and agency, and any year to date agency financial reporting, in order to answer this handful of straightforward questions:
- Does the Agency Agreement afford you the right to modify your Scope of Work and or retainer fee? If so, what is the notification requirement in your agreement?
- What Scope deliverables have been completed to date?
- Where is the Agency on their Staffing Plan commitments?
- What P.O.s have been issued to the agency? For open P.O.’s what is the open balance on each P.O.?
- Do you have a detailed Job History Report, that provides financial details for all jobs, open or closed? Can you identify which jobs have been completed? Of those that remain open what are your options to postpone, modify or cancel any of them?
Answers to questions such as these will assist in facilitating productive interactions with all stakeholders, across multiple fronts ranging from informing budget reduction and reallocation decisions to the potential impact of internal or agency-side staff reductions on financial management processes and controls and the corresponding risks.
One area that must be addressed is agency remuneration. Reductions in overall spend, scaled back Scopes of Work and revised agency Staffing Plans necessarily impact agency compensation, whether commission or fee based.
For their part, agencies have rightly taken steps to address the impact of client ad spend reductions. To date, each of the major holding companies have announced plans to reduce expenses. These reductions include; employees being furloughed or laid-off, involuntary salary reductions, the waiver of bonuses and 401k contributions, executive management taking massive pay reductions and a freeze on non-billable expenses… all designed to lower their cost base.
If your agency is on a direct labor-based remuneration program, the reduction in the agency’s direct labor and overhead costs means that the fees which you pay should be reduced accordingly. With this compensation schema, even a modest change in an agency’s cost structure can have a meaningful impact on the fee calculation.
It should be noted that the goal of the compensation review is not to wring out savings at the expense of the agency, but to adjust the fees to reflect the reality of the revised 2020 marketing and advertising budget and corresponding changes to the Scope of Work.
Marketers have a fiduciary obligation to their organizations to account for, safeguard and recall funds targeted for reduction. This can best be done working in collaboration with their agency partners, while affording those partners a high level of respect and empathy. Once the budget right sizing process has been successfully completed, all stakeholders can refocus their attention on the future, perhaps drawing motivation from retired 4-star U.S. Army General, Colin Powell who once said: “Always focus on the front windshield and not the review mirror.”
The “Procurement Phenomenon” at the dawn of the new millennium has morphed squarely into the Procurement Era for Marketing and Communications Services. Agency executives can no longer ignore this new marketplace reality and must now embrace, educate, and in some instances, emulate this very influential Client stakeholder.
Join J. Francisco Escobar, President & Founder of JFE International Consultants for an engaging webinar that will take you through the evolution, definition, current trends, and best practices that will guide you and your team in optimizing client procurement relationships… Click Here
Court papers filed in the suit indicate that:
“Facebook’s internal documents show that Facebook personnel knew for years that the Potential Reach metric that it provides to Facebook advertisers on its advertisement purchasing interfaces (including on Ads Manager and Power Editor) was inflated and misleading.”
The evidence for these actions was identified in the original complaint and was based upon analysis conducted by independent groups, including the Video Advertising Bureau. In their 2017 report, the Video Advertising Bureau found that Facebook’s purported reach in every state in the U.S. exceeded their populations. A red flag to be sure.
Not excusing Facebook’s alleged behavior, one would think that an observant marketer or agency media buyer would question reach levels that are greater than the population of a given market(s) and raise questions, long before such revelations are made in relation to a lawsuit.
The irony is that reach estimates apparently were not questioned by agency planners or clients during the media planning process, nor at the time of post-campaign performance summary meetings. The seminal question is, “Why not?” Further, if and when suspicions were raised, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect media buyers to exclude any publisher suspected of inflating reach levels from consideration to begin with, and cease allocating client media funds to that entity moving forward? The answer is obviously “no.”
When one sees examples of this type of lackluster media stewardship, it is easy to understand why the C-Suite might question the efficacy of their organization’s advertising investments.
The fact of the matter is that Facebook has seen its annual global ad revenues grow from $1.8 billion in 2010 to over $69.5 billion in 2019 (source: Statista, 2020). Along the way, there have been publicly aired concerns about the accuracy of Facebook’s user base, culminating with the platform’s acknowledged purges of 3.3 billion “fake” accounts in 2018 and another 5.4 billion in 2019.
Certainly, as part of the heralded duopoly, media professionals have been keenly aware of the share of digital ad spend which Google and Facebook have accounted for as part of the digital media sector’s meteoric growth. eMarketer estimates that the duo represented 56.3% of total U.S. digital ad spend in 2019, with Facebook accounting for 19.2% of the total.
During this period of increased digital ad spend, advertisers paid their digital agency partners plenty in the way of fees and commissions to provide consultation, planning support, buy stewardship and oversight. So why did it take so long to identify the fact that a media seller’s reach exceeded the audience universe?
“The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.” ~ Khalil Gibran
Ad revenues are projected to contract by $20 billion this year alone, with no clear insight into the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the $690 billion global ad industry (source: eMarketer).
Setting aside the human costs of the pandemic, businesses in general and, advertisers in particular, face some startling decisions as the world implements various forms of social distancing in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
In the U.S. alone, the NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons, the NCAA Basketball Tournament has been cancelled, Major League Baseball has delayed the start of its regular season and The Master’s Golf Tournament has been postponed. We reference sports for one simple reason, the level of 2020 marketing sponsorships. Advertising and promotional dollars invested by advertisers in these properties alone was estimated by Kantar Media to be $2 billion.
Undoubtedly, advertisers will be seeking answers to the following questions as they begin their contingency planning efforts this week:
- Of the marketing and advertising commitments we’ve made, what can be cancelled outright?
- For those commitments that we’ve made in events, sponsorships or programs that have been suspended or postponed, can we recoup the impacted pro-rated investment amounts?
- How will media owners/sellers address upfront or volume-based commitments when it comes to media valuations in the context of advertiser rebates and or cancellations?
- If we pull-back on our marketing and advertising activities, what will the impact be on our annual statement of work, agency deliverables and associated fees?
Complicating this assessment for advertisers is the fact that so much of the industry operates on an estimated billing basis. Unfortunately, the advertiser’s line of sight is limited as to what percentage of estimated and pre-paid costs have been spent versus that which remains in the hands of their agents and intermediaries.
It would clearly be ideal to make go-forward decisions with a solid financial understanding when it comes to exactly how much budget can be pulled back and or quickly re-allocated. The risk of a bad decision in this area can often outweigh the costs of a delayed response. To assist in this area, marketers may want to consider conducting billing and agency fee reconciliations to help clarify where on the annual spending continuum they’re at when determining how best to approach potential budgetary reallocation decisions.
The time and cost required to conduct mid-year status checks and financial reconciliation work is nominal versus the inherent risk of making decisions without a complete picture. Importantly, engaging an independent firm to undertake these endeavors allows the marketing team members and their agency partners to focus their collective efforts on reviewing plan commitments, escape clauses and assessing resource re-allocation decisions.
Prudent, measured action in this scenario is a win-win for all parties.
“Prudence is foresight and far-sightedness. It’s the ability to make immediate decisions on the basis of their longer-range effects.” ~ John Ortberg
The fraudsters at it again with a devious approach to separating advertisers from their media spend. As if digital ad fraud practices including fake devices, fake locations, fake impressions and fake consent strings weren’t enough, the media industry now has to deal with a sophisticated domain spoofing bot.
According to an article in The Drum, fraudsters have now launched bot networks to evade ads.text protections, which was introduced by the IAB to allow publishers to “list authorized sellers” of their inventory. Both DoubleVerify and Integrated Ad Science (IAS) have unearthed fraudulent activity using 404bots, which employ domain spoofing techniques that misrepresent URLs, making buyers “believe that they are getting valid inventory, when in fact it does not exist.” IAS suggests that more than 1.5 billion ads have been impacted since September of 2019.
When will it end? Likely never. Ad fraud is to lucrative and too difficult to detect, creating a literal gold mine for fraudsters. In fact, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) estimates that “over the next 10 years, the global cost of ad fraud is projected to rise to $50 billion. The best defense for advertisers according to Shawn Lim, author of the aforementioned article, is “Brands and publishers need to work with transparent supply chains, reputable supply partners, and know what ads are appearing – and where.”
If you’re an advertiser, you would be right to pose the question; “Who has my back?” For all of the money invested by digital advertisers in specialist agency support, fraud detection services and brand safety tools, who is safeguard their funds? It seems as though the only thing advertisers have to show, for the promise of efficiency that was ushered in by programmatic digital media, is suppressed working media ratios.
The risks continue to mount as the amount spent on digital media in the U.S. is approximately $79 billion, with 85% of the total transacted programmatically (source: Interactive Advertising Bureau, February 2020). eMarketer estimates that advertisers spent 38% of their non-social programmatic display budgets on programmatic fees in 2019, a 20% increase over the prior year.
As one example of the congested digital media ecosystem, Danny Khatib, CEO of Granite Media wrote an excellent article in AdExchanger illustrating the inefficiency of the programmatic digital media supply-chain. Entitled; “Can We Please Reduce This Link In The Programmatic Chain Already?” the article advocates for consolidation between the DSPs and SSPs, long thought to function respectively as buyer and seller advocates, with “each taking a 15-20% cut and confusing the heck out of the web ecosystem in the process.” According to Mr. Khatib, “there really shouldn’t be a traditional SSP business separate from a DSP business – that distinction no longer makes sense, if it ever did.”
No wonder advertisers have stepped up compliance and performance audits of their suppliers and have heartily begun to embrace supply-chain optimization. The madness has to end and fueling investments in specialist agencies and adtech solutions is simply not achieving the desired result.
“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
~ Albert Einstein
It was a move many industry pundits saw coming. With a focus on expanding its interactive marketing services business, which accounted for $10 billion in revenue in 2019, Accenture made the announcement that it was going to “ramp down” its media auditing, price benchmarking and pitch management business by the end of August.
Advertising agencies and competitors within the media audit space were quick to celebrate the news, for differing reasons.
Agencies for their part have long felt that as Accenture grew its interactive marketing services practice, their audit services represented a conflict of interest. Afterall, how could a marketer trust the objectivity of the advice of an audit firm reviewing an incumbent digital agency, when the parent company offered services that were competitive to the incumbent? One fear among agencies was that Accenture could leverage the information taken in on the audit side and generate competitive insights that would yield an unfair advantage when pitching their digital capabilities to advertisers.
Media audit firms, which stand to gain business as Accenture winds down media audit activity, point out that Accenture’s approach to auditing, pitch management and media rate analysis, which relies on its proprietary rate benchmarking pool was dated and less relevant than in the past.
While there may be merit to both group’s perspectives, Accenture’s decision creates a major resource gap when it comes to global media accountability and transparency.
Make no mistake, there are a number of experienced, highly reputable independent media audit firms that will help to fill the void left by Accenture. That said, most lack the scale and or depth of resources to truly backfill this resource gap. This perspective was echoed by Rob Rakowitz of the World Federation of Advertisers’ (WFA) Global Alliance for Responsible Media, who stated that at a time when the “media supply chain needs more clarity” Accenture’s decision to exit the audit space “creates a hole” when it comes to independent oversight.
Interestingly, the holding companies have focused their commentary in the wake of Accenture’s announcement on the “competitive conflict” aspect of the discussion. However, some holding company financial executives, who know full well the impact of independent oversight on their media agency bottom lines, are likely breathing a sigh of relief. Since the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) 2016 report on media transparency, scrutiny of media agency practices and the resulting downward pressure on margins tied to curtailing some of the non-transparent agency revenue practices cited in the ANA’s report have been costly to agencies.
The good news is that there has been progress since the issuance of the ANA report four short years ago. Client/ Agency agreement language has improved, more advertisers have conducted contract compliance and performance audits and media supply chain transparency initiatives have gained traction. The global fraternity of contract compliance and media performance auditors, along with advertiser trade associations such as the ANA, WFA and ISBA have all played an important role in ushering in reforms tied to improved accountability and transparency practices.
Now is not the time for less oversight and one can only hope that the loss of Accenture Media Management and the $40 billion of annual global media spend coverage it represented will not impede industry media accountability efforts. Advertisers can ill afford further reductions in their working media.
Fraud continues to run rampant as digital media and programmatic buying continue to surge in popularity, garnering ever larger shares of global advertising spend. Regulatory actions around consumer privacy and data protection are presenting a plethora of challenges for the industry and its ability to use data to customize advertising messaging and delivery.
These are seminal issues that the advertising industry has been talking about for years. The risks and costs to advertisers and other industry players are significant. So how effectively has the industry dealt with these critical issues? If one were to generate an opinion based upon results, it would be easy to adopt the perspective that the ad industry has not dealt with these issues well at all.
Let’s start with the topic of ad fraud. While we all read the headlines, the question is; “Have we become numb to the impact of ad fraud on working dollars?” Consider that according to Juniper Research, advertisers lost $51 million per day to ad fraud in 2018. AFFISE estimates that 35.3% of all processed traffic in the first two quarters of 2019 was fraudulent. The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) has stated that ad fraud will hit $50 billion per year by 2025.
One short year ago Facebook, in a highly publicized move eliminated 2.2 billion fake accounts, this following the elimination of 1 billion fake accounts during the 4th quarter of 2018. Interestingly, Facebook, one-half of the vaunted “duopoly” which captured over 65% of U.S. digital ad spend in 2019, itself accounts for 1 out of every 5 dollars spent on digital media in the U.S. (source: eMarketer) before and after this move.
While surely an astute media planner could readily make the case for Facebook’s appeal to advertisers, the justification for its share of the digital ad market is mystifying to the layman. According to the United Nations Population Division, there are 7.7 billion people in the world. Nielsen Online has identified 4.5 billion internet users globally. So, if Facebook eliminated more than 3.2 billion accounts, albeit fake over the course of four months, how many accounts could it possibly have had? What level of due diligence were agencies and advertisers undertaking to verify the base? Or, could it be that the industry simply has no valid means of verifying or measuring key digital audience factors?
The term “Big Data” was coined in the early part of the 1990s, referring to the vast amounts of data being gathered as the internet expanded. The data allowed marketers to conduct computational analysis that could reveal patterns, trends and associations related to human behavior. As the use of algorithms, artificial intelligence and marketing automation technology has come into vogue, the ability to more finitely target an advertiser’s message to specific niches, based upon this data, held great promise. This led to the meteoric growth of AdTech and MarTech solution providers vying for a share of advertiser dollars.
Then, in 2016, the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), ushering in laws designed to protect consumer data and privacy. GDPR has since served as a model for regulatory action in countries around the world and within the United States, with the introduction of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). The impact on the ad industry has been significant as marketers, technology providers and publishers have struggled to comply with these varying laws. In turn, this led one important player, Google to announce the elimination of third-party cookies from its Chrome browser to avoid some of the risks associated with privacy regulation. The impact on marketers’ audience targeting and attribution modeling efforts will be swift and significant. Some have suggested that this could even signal the end of personalized marketing.
From this author’s perspective, the industry has not effectively dealt with these challenges. There are simply too many disparate interests at stake, which have served as very real impediments to progress in tackling these issues.
Let’s face it, in spite of the impact of fraud, fake devices, fake locations, fake impressions, fake consent strings, ineffectual brand safety and fraud detection services and a lack of uniform industry measurement and verification standards, advertisers continue to spend on media types, intermediaries and technologies that are simply not generating a return worthy of their investment. So where is the impetus for change?
Rather than working on real solutions to address real problems, the industry adopts labels or coins phrases that cover its retreat. Examples such as “Human Marketing” and the need to treat our target audiences as “people” as a solution to the inability to deal with the challenges presented by big data, technology and regulation to customize and personalize at scale. Or the use of the term “Contextual Marketing” in which ad delivery is based upon scanning texts of web pages and serving up a marketer’s ads based upon relevant keywords, rather than behavioral data. Or the nuanced notion of “Brand Suitability” versus “Brand Safety” to mask the inability to adhere to advertiser blacklists and or to ensure proper editorial adjacencies. Really? How is this all of a sudden more appealing than the noble quest, funded by advertisers, that gave birth to the “MarTech 5000” list.
From the outside looking in, it appears as though the industry is content with taking the path of least resistance, opting for a safer, more self-centered approach to issue resolution, rather than focus on doing what is best for the entire industry and ignoring advertisers’ desires to increase the effectiveness of their marketing spend.
To paraphrase American author, Richard Yates from his novel about 1950’s suburban life entitled Revolutionary Road; “It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little mediocrity.”
Much has changed since the diminished role of the full-service agency in the 1980’s. Decoupling and specialization initially swelled the size of marketers’ agency networks, then the meteoric rise of digital and social media further expanded the ranks of specialist agencies and gave birth to the adtech and martech industries. In the end, all served to significantly expand the advertising supply chain, adding complexity and cost.
A biproduct of these events is downward pressure on marketers’ working dollars, as an increasing portion of the budget is funneled to agency fees and underwriting the growing costs of advertising related technology. Thus, a key challenge faced by marketers today is evaluating how to reduce supply chain related fees as part of their efforts to improve efficiencies, drive revenues and build strong brands.
Strategies for addressing this challenge include; consolidating supply chain partners, reducing the number of agencies and intermediaries in the roster, and establishing distinct roles and responsibilities among agency and intermediary partners to eliminate redundancy and clarify deliverable and KPI ownership. Along the way it’s important to seek better alignment between agency remuneration programs, resource allocation needs and business outcomes.
Scrutinizing and monitoring supply chain partner performance, in the context of the client/ agency agreements that govern the relationships, is a necessary ingredient for successful implementation for each of these strategies. Establishing a formal marketing supplier accountability program also mitigates supply chain related risk while providing a foundation for improving supply chain efficiency.
Unfortunately, too often there is no clear organizational “ownership” around marketing supply chain accountability. While marketing clearly serves as the relationship management lead with suppliers, their principal focus is and should be on brand building, customer acquisition and demand generation. Therefore, it may be unrealistic to expect marketing executives to serve as the “principal in charge” for supplier accountability. This is particularly so considering the number and nature of obligations that comprise an accountability program, including but not limited to the following:
- Agency contract compliance reviews
- Agency remuneration reviews
- Annual agency fee reconciliations
- Annual marketing supplier billing reconciliations
- Annual 360-degree supplier performance evaluations
- Supplier performance reviews
- Supplier pricing reviews and competitive bidding
- Supplier contract and SOW reviews
Based on experience, we firmly believe that involvement and support from corporate groups such as; Procurement, Finance and Internal Audit are critical to marketing supply chain optimization. Involving individuals and leadership from these groups to shoulder responsibility for the accountability program is important to drive supply chain efficiency – or at the very least these individuals can support Marketing’s efforts, ease Marketing’s burden, and bring cross-functional perspectives to bear.
At the end of the day, there are two overriding goals for any marketing supply chain optimization program:
- Strong supplier relationships
- Optimized use of corporate marketing budgets
In a growing, complex, rapidly changing market sector which represents over $1.3 trillion in global marketing and advertising spend (source: PQ Media) the need to embrace supply chain optimization has never more clear, nor the associated benefits more meaningful.
In this context, what marketing team wouldn’t be open to turnkey solutions provided by existing agency partners, including the ability to easily access specialized skills and secure additional resources for quick-turn projects – rather than onboarding a new agency partner?
Put yourself in this situation… your external agency roster is already too broad, budgets are locked, and expanding current agency scopes of work is a challenge. Even if a new agency/ vendor might be desired it is disruptive and time consuming to work through procurement, vet possible candidates, on-board a newly selected vendor, negotiate a new statement of work, and move forward. Sound familiar?
Therefore, out of necessity Marketers in this situation often turn to a current agency partner and seeking to shift dollars from one project to another or increase staffing in order to alleviating pressure. In the process, it wouldn’t be unusual if the agency suggested engaging the services of an in-house studio/ department or an affiliate agency. The suggestion may come with the enticing proposition of being able to self-fund incremental work through savings generated by the affiliate’s involvement, or via the affiliate’s mode of remuneration (e.g. principal based media buying). Best of all, the agency may offer to handle billing for the related party and will offer to treat related party billings as though they were coming from a third-party vendor (as pass-through costs).
Problem solved. Right? Be wary.
“What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient.” ~ Bodie Thoene
Having your agency partner(s) tap an in-house resource or affiliate on your behalf, knowingly or unknowingly, as easy as it may seem, comes with serious financial risk and control issues. What is the mode of remuneration? How much is the affiliate being compensated and by whom? What mix of staff is actually being deploying on your behalf? How many hours or value is being delivered for the fees? What level of transparency do you really have into “actual” versus “estimated” affiliate fees and expenses?
If you cannot readily provide answers to these questions, your organization runs the risk of overpaying for services, and or not understanding “what you are actually buying and receiving.”
As it is, few client/ agency agreements have adequate controls to govern the appointment and utilization by an agency of an in-house, affiliated, or holding-company-owned resource. The lack of contractual guidelines leaves marketers open to negative financial impact that can weigh heavily on working dollars and expectations.
Common risk areas associated with agency use of a related party include:
- Lack of a formal client notification/ approval requirement
- No competitive bidding requirement
- No rate sheet or billable hourly rate detail
- No time-of-staff reporting
- No job reconciliations
- Non-transparent pricing/ margins
- Application of unauthorized mark-ups
We certainly understand the desire by the agency community to engage their affiliates on client work and appreciate the potential benefits to the advertiser when it comes to tapping these diverse resources.
That said, experience suggests that the practice should be regulated and carefully monitored. Importantly, rules and requirements must be clearly documented in the client/ agency agreement when it comes to agency use of an in-house studio or any other related party or agency. Further, the affiliate must understand that they are subject to the same terms and conditions documented in the agreement.
Once full transparency is guaranteed, remuneration and billing rules are documented and understood, appropriate authorization practices are put in place, then tapping an agency partner’s extended resource network makes good sense.