Virtually all client-agency agreements contain both an “audit” and “record retention” clause. The purpose of this language is to afford advertisers the ability to answer the question, “Are we getting what we paid for? Yet, few advertisers ever implement contract compliance, financial management or performance reviews of their agency partners.
There are multiple reasons why the marketing budget, a material expense, and the stakeholders responsible for stewarding those funds (e.g., advertising agencies) have not undergone more scrutiny. Few of those reasons make much sense when compared to the risks and costs faced by advertisers choosing not to periodically assess how effectively their funds are being managed.
Below are three key reasons why we believe that advertisers should exercise their audit rights:
- Flaws Tied to Estimated Billing Process – The ad industry operates primarily on an “Estimated” billing basis. Plans are approved by the client, purchase orders issued, and the agency then bills the advertiser in advance for the approved amount. In theory, estimated fees and third-party costs are reconciled to actual costs once a job is closed. However, this does not always occur in a timely or accurate manner. Experience shows that perils abound such as, approved but unspent funds are accumulated by the agency, unused funds are rolled over to other brands/ jobs/time periods for future use, unapproved and non-transparent mark-ups are applied, unbilled media balances are retained for inordinately long periods of time and aged credits are not always returned to the advertiser in a timely manner. In the end, left unchecked, agencies can hold and direct how and when client funds get applied to a greater extent than most client-side CFOs or Internal Audit directors would approve of.
- Review of Support for Agency Billings to Client – Because clients are typically billed in advance by their agencies on an estimated basis, and agency final invoicing almost never contains third-party or fourth-party invoice support, the only way an advertiser can evaluate whether agency billings are accurately supported is to conduct a financial review of all underlying billings being passed through from the agency to the advertiser. At a minimum, this includes validating billing costs from vendors to the agency and payments from the agency to the vendors. Further, for direct labor-based remuneration programs, which rely on the accurate entry and tracking of time by agency personnel, advertisers should independently review agency timekeeping system data and processes to validate any time tracking reports being provided. Such reviews should also include assessing the types of personnel logging time (i.e., full-time employees, temporary employees, freelancers, interns, etc.), the staffing mix relative to the approved staffing plan and agency employee turn-over rates on their business… data not always shared with clients.
- Performance Validation – Results matter. Whether in the context of compliance with contract terms, attainment of agreed upon goals and KPIs or delivery against planned spend levels advertisers stand to benefit from independent reviews of their agency partners’ performance. Given the increased pressure on CMOs to achieve results, it is imperative they have confidence in the outcomes associated with their and their agency’s stewardship of marketing funds. As importantly, their C-Suite peers routinely question the efficacy of an organization’s marketing investment and to what extent that expense is contributing to the attainment of company goals and objectives.
Audit is not a four-letter word. We have witnessed first-hand the positive impact that an independent review of an organization’s marketing investment can have on both safeguarding and optimizing those funds. These reviews yield solid learning as it relates to improved controls, risk mitigation and efficiencies tied to process improvements. Further, the identification and recovery of funds tied to billing errors, compliance violations, aged credits, rebates, and under-delivery (i.e., agency resources, media, etc.), when combined with the identification of cost avoidance strategies for the future, far exceed the cost of an audit.
Importantly, advertising agencies also benefit from these projects when client-side instructions, process inefficiencies and timing issues (i.e., ineffective briefing processes, disorderly client approval process, short project lead times, the timing of the release of funds, etc.) are brought to light and addressed. As well, it’s always a great result when the clarification of the intent of certain terms included in client-agency contracts aligns with everyone’s future expectations.
In short, properly structured audit programs, which deal with both client and agency stakeholders in a candid and collaborative manner identify solutions and help to lay the groundwork for implementing the changes necessary to improve the client’s return-on-marketing-investment. As such, Chief Financial Officers and Chief Audit Officers should require marketing to allocate funds in their annual plan to cover this important transparency and accountability program. The cost? Tenths of a percentage of an organization’s annual spend, with financial returns that dwarf the outlay for implementing a formal audit initiative.