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Category Archives: Advertising Agencies

Is It Too Late for the 4A’s on the Topic of Transparency?

26 Sep

too lateEarlier this month, the 4A’s announced that it was pulling out of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) “Transparency” panel scheduled during Advertising Week in New York City.

In light of the organization’s decision to break from ANA / 4A’s joint media transparency initiative earlier this spring, ostensibly to chart its own course, this move comes as no surprise. However, it is nonetheless disappointing. After all, why wouldn’t the 4A’s and it member agencies want to share the stage with the ANA to address advertisers on the topic of transparency?

The quest for improved standards and performance related to transparency would benefit mightily from the involvement of the 4A’s. The ANA, advertisers and many within the agency community have sought the 4A’s cooperation on this issue and would welcome a united effort to address this topic.

Clearly a full-court press is necessary if the industry is going to improve both transparency and ultimately the level of trust between advertisers, agencies and publishers. Aside from the eye opening findings from ANA / K2 study on media transparency, there have been two recent announcements that certainly seem to bolster the results of this study. First, just this past week Facebook indicated that it had misrepresented average viewing times for video ads played on its site. Secondly, the global agency holding company Dentsu came forward and cited multiple instances where there were “failures of placement,” “false reporting” and “inappropriate operations” which impacted over 100 of their clients. Dentsu’s CEO, Tadashi Ishii issued a statement saying that there were “instances where our invoices did not reflect actual results, resulting in unjust, overcharged billings.”

In fact, the impact of the 4a’s decision has resulted in two agencies, Empower and Mediasmith, pulling out of the 4A’s citing the associations failure to take a more progressive stance when it comes to working more closely with the ANA to resolve the issue of media transparency.

From the perspective of advertisers, they are rightly concerned about the issue of transparency and are taking matters into their own hands. Consider the September 23rd article in the Wall Street Journal; “Major Marketers Audit Agencies“ in which firms such as J.P. Morgan, General Electric Nationwide Mutual Insurance and Sears Holdings Corp. indicated that they “had hired outside counsel” to conduct audits, due in part to the ANA study. Additionally, the article identified more than a half-dozen other firms that are “trying to get more liberal auditing rights” to improve the protections afforded them under their Client/ Agency agreements.

Given the importance of transparency and full-disclosure in establishing productive, long-term relationships between advertisers and agencies it is unclear what the 4A’S hopes to gain with its current approach. While the 4A’s has issued transparency guidelines of their own, advertisers and many industry observers have indicated unequivocally that these guidelines are inherently biased in favor of the agency holding companies and that they simply don’t go far enough to address advertiser transparency concerns.

The very fact that many agencies are deriving non-transparent revenue from the budgetary dollars entrusted to them by advertisers is an affront to a principal-agent relationship. And even if, as some agency leaders have suggested, not all client / agency contracts espouse a principal-agent relationship, it is simply not a good practice (and promotes distrust) for an agency to leverage an advertiser’s funds for its financial benefit without its knowledge. This is particularly true when such gains undermine the notion of “objectivity” when it comes to the media investment counsel being provided by these agencies to their clients.

Noted novelist, Thomas Hardy once said that; “The resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.” One might argue that as an industry, when it comes to transparency, trust and their impact on client / agency relationships the point in time to frame a resolution is long past due. Sadly, for the 4A’s, change is afoot and the organization’s actions may render it as an observer rather than a co-author of a doctrine for positive change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertiser Audit Rights: Define & Exercise Them

02 Aug

auditThere 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.

 

“Our Agency Contract has Expired…”

22 Jul

expiredThis along with feedback such as; “We can’t find a copy of the agreement,” “We don’t have an executed copy of the contract” and “Hadn’t seen that version before” are common responses from advertisers when asked for copies of their Client-Agency agreements when undertaking an inaugural agency contract compliance audit.

While alarming at a certain level, perhaps no more concerning than the dated, evergreen and largely inadequate agency-centric contractual instruments that represent a majority of the agreements that many advertisers have entered into.

Concerning? To be sure. Perhaps these organizations aren’t familiar with the words of legendary investor, Warren Buffett, who once said:

Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

In an industry grappling with issues such as fraud, transparency, relationship stability, trust and the fairness of agency compensation systems the risks posed by non-existent or inadequate contracts are significant and include, legal, financial and intellectual property exposure.

The reasons for this dilemma are many and common across many client organizations:

  1. No central contract repository within the organization
  2. Limited cross-functional agency relationship oversight
  3. No strategic supplier management system
  4. Contracts negotiated by one function, not shared with relationship owners
  5. No enterprise wide accountability initiative

By now, most are aware of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) study on “Media Transparency” that was prepared in conjunction with K2 and released in June of this year. If there is one takeaway from the findings of that study, which all advertisers should pay heed to its the fact that a solid Client-Agency contract is an advertisers best defense when it comes to protecting their advertising investment.

One side benefit of the ANA/ K2 study is that C-Suite members within many advertiser organizations are asking the questions; “How susceptible is our firm?” and “What level of control and transparency do we currently have when it comes to our marketing investment?”

Addressing these questions is an excellent place to begin, because it necessarily involves securing and reviewing current copies of the contractual agreements that are in place with each of the organization’s marketing vendors. Perhaps the next best place to turn is to engage either outside counsel or an independent agency contract compliance specialists, with deep knowledge of the marketing/ advertising industry and some of the advancements and best practices which are in place to safeguard an advertisers investment.

Once an updated agreement is put in place, the easiest way to manage these contracts, amendments and ongoing statement’s of work is to schedule (and contractually mandate) annual reviews of the agreement and all legal documents governing your agencies staffing plans and compensation.

For those seeking an added layer of protection, engaging an agency contract compliance specialist to monitor each agencies adherence to the terms and conditions of the agreements that govern these important relationships is an excellent idea.

Interested in assessing your organization’s legal and financial risks? Contact us for a complimentary agency contract risk assessment by emailing Cliff Campeau, Principal, Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com today.

 

Decision Time for Advertisers in Wake of ANA Study on Media Rebates

30 Jun

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 “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:

  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 fairly 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.

The Real Cost of Agency Employee Turnover

01 Jun

talentTalent. Whether viewed in the context of attracting, developing and or retaining ambitious, gifted employees, talent management is a major challenge for all professional service providers, perhaps none more so than for advertising agencies.

As the industry has evolved over time, the ability to attract entry-level talent has become more difficult. Agencies have reduced their on-campus recruiting presence, starting pay levels are not as competitive as other professional services firms, such as management consultants and agencies are viewed by many candidates as “sweat shops” with low pay, long hours and little loyalty.

Sadly, once a young graduate joins an agency, some of these perceptions too often mirror reality. This is often compounded by limited opportunities for training and development, in favor of a “baptism by fire” on-boarding process marked by immediate deployment onto client accounts with high expectations and demanding, results oriented environments.

The end result for advertising agencies has been an increased level of employee turnover. In turn, this lack of stability has led to higher operational costs ranging from increases in time-on-task to higher recruiting and training costs. The impact of increased agency employee turnover rates negatively impact clients. This often takes the form of higher re-work rates and the need for greater staff coverage to cover of employee inexperience and a lack of direct knowledge of the client’s business.

More significantly, many would argue that these talent issues have negatively impacted client/ agency partnerships, resulting in shorter tenures and more shallow relationships between personnel on both sides of the aisle.

For its part, the industry has acknowledged that “talent management” is a challenge that must be addressed. Given the rapidly changing marketing landscape, driven in part by a seemingly never ending stream of technology advancements, there is a clear need to expand not only the depth of the agency talent pool, but the breadth as well. The need for application developers, coders, data scientists, user-experience architects, social community managers and content curators and creators is now just as important as attracting account managers, copywriters, art directors, media planners and buyers.

By comparison, management consulting firms have been able to more successfully manage their talent pipelines, attracting the best and brightest of our university graduates, developing that talent, retaining their personnel and achieving billable rates that are much higher than their agency counterparts (or should we say competitors).

The irony is that management consulting firms have quickly morphed their business models, competing directly with traditional ad agencies. Firms like Accenture and Deloitte now provide a full suite of marketing and advertising services involving branding, attribution modeling, digital management, graphic design, social and experiential marketing to provide clients with end-to-end customer engagement support. Importantly, these firms also have the ability to readily deploy personnel within these functions on a global basis.

With an expanding set of competition including other professional services firms, technology firms, media sellers and advertisers migrating select functions ranging from their agencies to in-house solutions the challenges for agencies looking to address their talent needs will likely remain steep in the near-term. That said, given the importance professional staff play in establishing trust and credibility with clients, the growing pressure from advertisers for full-disclosure remuneration systems and the resulting need to build out agency teams and the pool of billable hours will be critical to driving top-line success.

If agency holding companies want to avoid becoming temporary staffing firms, one important element in the talent acquisition cycle is to build strong agency brands with compelling cultures that appeal to college graduates, young professionals and mid-level managers. With the multitude of agency’s within their networks, holding companies may ultimately have to consider consolidating and integrating some of their agency brands to create scale, introduce a broader range of services and to provide meaningful career development opportunities for their associates.

Beyond building compelling brands/ cultures, agencies will likely have to rethink their staff compensation programs, which over time have become very polarized, with top managers earning significant salaries and more junior personnel laboring at lower salary levels with few perks. Unfortunately, the easiest way for these folks to advance their economic status is to jump ship and go to another agency for a loftier title and a bigger paycheck. Too often this pattern is then repeated every two to three years.

This will require ad agencies to begin with rethinking entry level pay, which pales in comparison to what a college graduate can earn by going to work for another professional services or technology development firm. There is no sense in ratcheting up the on-campus recruitment effort, if an organization is not willing to back that up with a competitive compensation program.

According to a 2014 4A’s report, average ad agency starting salaries of $25,000 paled when compared to the $70,000 paid at management consulting and technology firms and $125,000 for 1st year law associates. Sir Martin Sorrell called it right in 2011 when he called the agency talent situation “criminal.” In the past, agencies were able to leverage the industry’s reputation as an energetic, forward thinking, collaborative, fun sector and the agencies themselves were thought to have engaging cultures that helped candidates look beyond compensation. Today, it is the technology companies that are viewed as having employee friendly cultures, while agencies are viewed as having more competitive, more cutthroat culture, which does not appeal to millennials.

Earlier this spring, Digiday published an article suggesting that as challenging as the competition for entry-level personnel might be, the real talent crisis was in middle management, individuals with 3 – 5 years of experience. These are the frontline troops, the doers and problem solvers. While compensation is a concern for this group, they are also looking for “more challenges” and “leadership experience.” Often times, they cannot satisfy their desires in this area at their agency and when they leave, many don’t stay within the industry.

In our experience, addressing the challenges of attracting top talent and reducing turnover in the ad business is an important component in reinvigorating client/ agency relationships, boosting the levels of trust and confidence… and the caliber of the work. We hope that agencies can make meaningful progress in this area and once again become desirable, highly coveted career alternatives for talented young people.

 

 

Principal-Based Buying: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

29 Apr

contract signingRecently, Ad Age ran an article entitled: “Risky Business: Why Media Agencies are Betting on Principal-Based Buying.” To be honest, my first reaction was, what in the world is principal-based buying? It didn’t take long to figure out that it was simply a new descriptor for media arbitrage.

Clever, principal-based buying sounds so much more appealing and less subversive than media arbitrage. However, arbitrage is arbitrage, regardless of what moniker that is placed on the act of purchasing media and reselling said media to advertisers. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of arbitrage is clear:

The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of something in one place and selling it in another in order to profit from price discrepancies.”

 We certainly understand the primary allure of media arbitrage to agencies; the potential for higher margins than what traditional remuneration models would allow for. Let’s face it agency holding companies are publicly traded entities with a fiduciary obligation to drive shareowner profitability.

Simply, “principal-based” buying is a practice that is in clear violation of the principal- agent relationship, which has long been the driving concept behind client/ agency relations.

Forget the opacity, which is a hallmark of this buying tactic and the potential risks to advertisers seeking to optimize media value and boost working media ratios. The main issue with agency ownership of media is the potential impact on the objectivity of the advice, which it offers its clients.

Media time and space is a perishable product. It is also speculative in nature when it comes to projecting future value from a relevancy and audience delivery perspective. So what happens in the event an agency, indulging in arbitrage, has a significant ownership position in distressed, dated inventory? Could such a position create internal pressure on the agency’s media staff to move that inventory? In turn, might such pressure result in agency media team’s pushing that inventory off on clients, whether it represents the best fit at the best price?

Assuming that an advertiser knowingly engages their agency partner’s trading desk and believes that this relationship will yield a price advantage over traditional buying practices there are a few questions to consider; “How will you know? What methodology will you apply to vet the quality of the inventory and the price paid? Who will conduct that analysis for you?” In short, is this a proposition whose economic benefit to the advertiser can ever be accurately evaluated?

Sadly, while the agency community may shrug off the notion of ever having committed to a principal-agent relationship with its clients too often we find that agencies, which have embraced media arbitrage, have not disclosed this fact to their clientele… in spite of the position often taken in the trade publications.

In our agency contract compliance practice we find that in most instances there is not a separate letter of agreement between the agency’s trading desk operation and the advertiser, that the language dealing with “related parties” within the contract is inadequate to cover such a scenario and that there are no limitations in place regarding the percentage of an advertiser’s media buy that can be run through the trading desk.

Hopefully, those agencies that intend to engage in and or extend their use of principal-based buying will also commit to fully disclosing this practice and its application to each of their clients, well in advance of implementing this buying approach on those clients’ behalf.

From an advertisers perspective, it is imperative to assess the type of relationship that you desire with your media agency. If a principal-agent relationship predicated on full-disclosure and the fiduciary obligations, which underlie such relationships, are important to your organization, the client/ agency agreement will need to reflect that position. On the other hand, if there is interest in exploring principal-based buying consider contracting directly with the agency trading desk and establishing caps on the percentage of the budget, which can be invested through that operation.

Seeing Their Way to Digital Media Growth

21 Mar

visionDigital 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.

Linking Agency Fees to Outcomes

14 Dec

contractThe topic of agency remuneration is one that the advertising industry has wrestled with for the last few decades, since the 15% standard agency commission went by the wayside. 

Agencies want to be paid fairly for their services and clients want to earn a fair return on their agency fee investment… at least theoretically. In reality, agencies want to earn as much money as possible on each of their accounts and clients want to pay as little in agency fees a they can. 

Unfortunately, both stakeholder groups’ true intentions can at a minimum negatively impact perceptions one side may have of the other and in a worse case scenario, drive bad behavior. This can include an advertiser focusing on continually ratcheting down agency fees, with little consideration for the relationship between agency fees and the scope of services. In turn, this is a perfect breeding ground for an agency’s decision to pursue non-transparent revenue sources to shore up perceived inequities at the expense of the advertiser. Ultimately, these actions can serve to undermine trust and eventually the stability of the client/ agency relationship. 

Thus the question remains; “How can both parties bridge the divide when it comes to the agency remuneration discussion?” 

The best solution, obviously, would be to structure a compensation system which is fully transparent, fair to both parties, encourages good behavior and fosters a relationship based upon mutual respect and shared goals. As Sam Walton, founder of one of the world’s largest companies once said; 

“We’re all working together; that’s the secret.” 

In our experience as contract compliance auditors, we have found that the most effective compensation programs link to agency fees to outcomes. We have seen more beneficial results when this is the case compared to fixed retainer fees that have no link to a mutually agreed upon foundation. Typically, these outcomes fall into one of three categories: 

  1. Agency deliverables
  2. Agency time-of-staff investment
  3. Qualitative and quantitative outcomes, those controlled/ influenced by the agency and KPIs tied to the success of the client in-market

It should be noted, that remuneration programs often combine elements from each of the aforementioned categories. In many respects, this is an ideal scenario, particularly in the context of agency-of-record relationships, where the nature of the client/ agency relationship is more akin to a partnership than a buyer/ vendor interaction. 

Regardless of the mode of compensation ultimately selected, value-based, direct-labor driven or performance based, we believe that there are two critical components, which must be negotiated in advance of focusing on the level of remuneration. 

First and foremost is the development of a tight scope-of-work (SOW) collaboratively constructed by the client-side marketing team and the agency account services team. At a minimum, the SOW should explicitly identify all projects, expected outputs, the quantity and timing of those outputs and some indication of whether those items must be created versus modified or adapted. Ideally, the SOW will also address issues with regard to project component complexity and the number of rounds of input/ review per project component to assist the agency in assessing the required time-on-task and to assist the client in establishing project briefing and approval processes which are consistent with desired project outputs. 

Secondly, with a mutually agreed upon SOW, the agency should be asked to provide a detailed staffing plan, one which identifies the names, titles and functional responsibilities of the specific individuals who will work on the business along with their utilization rates. The staffing plan should also identify the base number of hours utilized to calculate a full-time equivalent (i.e. 1,800 hours per year) and at a minimum, a blended hourly rate by department or by function for use in pricing out-of-scope work and or in reconciling fees relative to the agency’s time-of-staff investment if and when necessary. 

The time invested by both parties on the front-end to clearly establish the client’s desired outputs, timing requirements and qualitative expectations and to assess the resource investment required by the agency to deliver on those anticipated outcomes will yield significant dividends. 

Additionally, tracking monthly progress project status and the agency’s time-of-staff investment will allow both parties to stay on track and within budget… while eliminating any surprises.

In the words of Henry Ford; “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sourcing Your Programmatic Buying Partner

14 Dec

programmatic agency sourcingWritten by Peter Portanova, Project Analyst for Source One Management Services

The concepts of reach and frequency have long guided the way marketers approach advertising, and when multiplied, they provide the calculation for Gross Rating Points (GRPs) to measure and evaluate the success of your campaigns. However, the rise of programmatic ad buying (automated buying based on real time data analysis of competitive rates) forces marketers to reconsider their historical understanding of success in marketing, and encourages the consideration of new and potentially more effective metrics.

GRPs are hugely important across a variety of marketing channels, exclusive of programmatic buying. The ideology that more GRPs means greater success is severely flawed, and by using such a calculation in a highly targeted and customized solution like programmatic buying, one misrepresents the technology’s true value.  However, instead of arguing the utility of GRPs, it is more critical to consider alternative means of success in marketing and how embracing programmatic can revolutionize your approach to online advertising, while driving a variety of critical KPIs.  

Programmatic buying is growing quickly, and is responsible for billions of dollars in digital media placements. Programmatic buying is the intersection where data and advertising truly meet, with engineers, traders, and data-management platforms replace traditional sales planners. Agencies would like you to believe that their programmatic efforts reduce overall costs, but the truth of the situation is that, when viewed holistically, programmatic buying is actually more expensive.

Implementing programmatic buying efforts does have its merits, and agencies are quick to note that initial costs can be negated quickly. However, for programmatic buying to reach its maximum potential, marketers and advertisers must learn to move past the traditional reach and frequency mindset, and consider the long-term advantages of highly targeted placements. In fact, industry experts note that using programmatic buying to place more advertisements decreases transparency, which can lead to fraudulent placements. In using programmatic buying to deliver a highly targeted message to the right individual at the right time, brands are able to increase their visibility to the appropriate segments, increasing potential brand engagement.

Marketers must begin to understand programmatic buying from a holistic perspective. Why is this more expensive? Does it involve fewer people? Most marketers are shocked that programmatic buying proposals suggest fewer advertisements at a greater cost. While inventory is cheaper in programmatic buying compared to manual buying, there are substantial costs of doing business to implement and manage these efforts. In an article on AdAge, a media agency executive said, “Five full time employees are needed to spend $100 million national broadcast budget, while the same number would be needed for a $5 million programmatic buy.”

Understanding the discrepancy in FTEs and costs becomes more complicated when you also factor agency commissions into the equation. The employees required to manage a programmatic buy are in far greater demand, having a unique skillset that commands salaries 50-100% greater than manual buyers. The technology and the platforms do not eliminate the need for human input, and therefore it is critical to entice highly skilled employees for retention. Traditional full-service agencies have seen these employees move quickly to digital agencies that have a greater focus on new technologies, including programmatic buying. 

The true cost of programmatic buying becomes noticeable when considering agency commissions that are charged to simply breakeven. The same agency executive interviewed by AdAge stated that, with a budget of $100 million, break-even points begin at 1% with TV, and quickly jump to 10-12% with programmatic. It is also worth noting that the 12% commission is only the break-even, with many agencies charging a rate of around 20%, to turn a meager profit.

There is a substantial cost of placing media through a programmatic partner. AdAge refers to these costs as an “intermediary tax” which accounts for all the transactions that take place to make a programmatic buy occur. With 7% to 20% taken by ad exchanges, another 10% to 20% taken by automated software providers, and then another 15% for the data-management platforms, there is potential that only $.50 of every dollar will reach the publisher. While these rates may seem expensive, there is value in using programmatic buying; however, the marketer should be fully aware of the intended use of programmatic, with no expectation that they are receiving a more targeted solution for a lower price.

While so far we have discussed mostly the potential benefits (and drawbacks) of programmatic buying, there is always a need to manage costs. Consider the following best practices when working with your agency to ensure greater transparency in your agreement.

Contract Language

  • When contracting with your programmatic buying partner, ensure that language exists around specific rates. Furthermore, consider a period where you can renegotiate these rates to be more favorable.

Redundant Services

  • Prior to considering your programmatic needs, understand the services you require and what you may need outside of traditional manual buying. When working with multiple vendors (which is common with programmatic buying), there is potential to be charged for the same service multiple times.

Liberate your Data

  • Unless specifically outlined, your data may not belong to you after working with a particular partner. If you are unable to retrieve your data during any part of the process, the supplier immediately gains tremendous advantage.

Understand your Options

  • Do you need managed service, or do you need self-service? In a self-service agreement, the vendor charges for the use of their technology, but does not charge for any resources associated with operating the platform. A managed option typically has charges for not only the technology, but also the management fees associated with run and execute a campaign.

Consolidate

  • Find a partner capable of providing you with a variety of services, and consolidate your marketing to that one agency. Using separate agencies to plan and execute your manual and programmatic buys is inefficient, and unless information is shared freely across agencies (it probably will not be), the effectiveness of both operations will be hindered. Consolidation also allows for better reporting and recognition of opportunities across channels.

As for the future of programmatic buying? It’s only anticipated to grow. EMarketer predicts total programmatic buying spend to exceed $20B in 2016. When it comes to digital marketing, there is no “one size fits all.” While programmatic buying is typically more expensive than other traditional tactics, there’s no doubt the method offers significant ROI in the form of operational speed and efficiency and increased scale and targeting. Like any other agency sourcing engagement, do your due diligence when looking for the right partner for your programmatic buying requirements.  Beyond assessing agency scale, technology and data analytics, and skillsets, take steps to establish a strategic client-agency relationship. This begins with strong contract language that drives further value from your programmatic efforts and continues with fostering ongoing communication and transparency with your agency.

Peter Portanova is a marketing category enthusiast and Project Analyst for Source One Management Services. He is an expert at developing RFPs and executing strategic sourcing strategies for clients in a wide array of industries, specializing in navigating the complexities of the Marketing spend category. Click to learn more about Source One’s Marketing Category expertise.

 

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