The answer to this question may seem fairly obvious and can be answered most succinctly with another question;
“How can an ad agency fulfill its fiduciary duty to an advertiser when they are not primarily focused on the advertiser’s best interests?”
In the context of digital media, agency trading desk operations are functioning both as media sellers and buying agent. Perhaps even more vexing is the mode of revenue generation which agency trading desks employ… media arbitrage. Simply put, agency trading desks purchase digital media inventory at one price and re-sell that inventory to their base of advertisers at a higher price, pocketing the difference. The higher the spread between the media cost and the rate at which it is sold, the greater the margin of profit which the agency can derive from their trading desk operation.
This dynamic would suggest that an agency’s profit motives could overshadow their obligation to provide reliable independent counsel to their clients and to secure the highest quality media inventory at the best possible rate for those advertisers.
Further skewing transparency concerns over this practice are the non-disclosure agreements which most trading desks ask their clients to sign. These agreements greatly limit advertiser insight into the true cost of the media, data analytics and technology costs and as importantly the percentage gain being realized by their agency partners. In the words of the noted twentieth century essayist, Erich Heller:
“Be careful how you interpret the world: It is like that.”
From our perspective, the trading desk operation model currently being employed by agencies is not serving advertisers best interests. Forgetting cost transparency, how can it when there are real questions regarding the quality of the inventory being sold to an advertiser; “
- Was this truly the best audience for my brand’s message or was it simply the best inventory which the agency owned?
- Was it even the best inventory which the agency owned or was that sold to another of their clients with a comparable target audience?”
No one is challenging the potential benefits of deploying technology which matches available inventory to an advertiser’s target audience within the timeframe and environment that has been identified as optimal for delivering that advertiser’s message. The concept of leveraging advertiser data, sophisticated analytical tools and engagement models to further enhance the targeting process in a real-time automated bidding process makes a great deal of sense.
The question to be asked is simply one of “Who” should be driving the bus. Perhaps that is why larger advertisers have begun to assess the potential for transitioning this activity in-house. In those instances where advertisers assume control of that portion of their digital media buying currently being handled by an agency trading desk it is logical to consider whether or not there is any role for the agency to play on a pre-bid or post-buy analysis basis.
Concerns over advertisers migrating programmatic operations in-house was at least partially responsible for WPP’s decision to re-evaluate its trading model and to consider a more “flexible” approach. In an interview with Ad Age, Rob Norman, Chief Digital Officer for WPP stated that; “Agencies need to retain their place in the value chain as new channels emerge. If we don’t do that, there’s the temptation for clients to take more of those [buys] in-house…” Interestingly, WPP is apparently not re-assessing their role as a media re-seller given Mr. Norman’s suggestion that their moves are in part driven by a desire “for clients to test Xaxis inventory in the open market against other inventory sources.”
To the extent that a greater number of advertisers would prefer a truly independent agency partner, WPP’s consideration of a more “flexible” approach may fall short of the market’s expectations. On the other hand, agency holding companies that look to leverage the investment which they have made in the technology, analytical processes and operational support required to deploy and maintain a trading desk could find an accepting market for monetizing that experience and those resources… without being involved in media arbitrage.