Certain elements of the media business have been getting excited about the third anniversary of the ANA transparency report. Self-congratulatory pieces have appeared from Ebiquity and their sibling Firm Decisions. Both have a point in that they (and in particular their ex-colleague Nick Manning) drove one key output from the ANA work. But it’s by no means a matter of “job done.” In fact, auditors (like Ebiquity) are a part of the current problem as the media agency business struggles to transition from a buying-led culture to one more focused on planning and consultancy.
The catalyst for the ANA enquiry was a speech made by Jon Mandel (ex-MediaCom) to the ANA Media Leadership Conference on March 5, 2015. Mandel had surveyed agency planners to inform his presentation. Here’s part of what he said: “Media agencies aren’t living up to their fiduciary duties to their clients … They are not transparent about their actions. They recommend or implement media that is off strategy or off target if it works for their financial gain.”
Note: “Recommend or implement.” In other words, agencies are not always transparent about their planning. They recommend media forms or individual vehicles that may not necessarily be the most appropriate for the job in hand on the basis that they gain financially from such a recommendation.
One part of these “fiduciary duties” is indeed ensuring that rebates due go back to the client. That’s the “implementation”’ bit, and it is the “easy” bit to monitor (easy being a comparative term). Where rebates go can be covered in a contract, tracked by specialists like Firm Decisions and the end result (the price paid for a particular buy) monitored by the auditor. It’s also the “easy” bit to get aerated over. Anyone can grasp the concept that if an advertiser’s budget generates a discount then the advertiser should get that discount back.
Much, much harder to get to grips with is the major issue Mandel was highlighting: the appropriation of the plan by the buyer for the agency’s own ends. That’s the “recommend” bit. This happens a lot (and anyone who’s ever worked in a media agency knows it), is very hard to spot or prove and leads directly to the current mess where planning is mis-understood, under-valued and often not paid for.
Media auditors like to see themselves less as monitors of media prices and more as well-informed trusted advisors steering their clients through all the complexities of the media world of today. Some do indeed do this and do it well. (ID Comms is a good example.) But with others this is really window dressing. (We’ll save specifics for another day.)
Underneath it all the long-established media auditors are auditors of price. Most of the individuals involved in reporting back to their clients aren’t from a planning background. Most wouldn’t know the questions to ask to unearth any undue influence played by agency deals (despite having the data to allow them to at least question anything that would look odd to a planner).
Plus, planning questions are easy for an agency to bat away. How could the auditor possibly know what the client’s needs are? Or how ads in particular vehicles have performed in-market?
Getting answers is hard. Spotting deal-driven (as opposed to plan-driven) buys isn’t easy, but it is possible and it is essential.
We need to be less obsessed with buys and prices. Pretending that “good buying” equals “good media” by spending hours on something that isn’t the wrong thing, but is by no means the whole thing, demeans and under-values planning.
If the future of media agencies lies in comms planning and consultancy, we had better get a whole lot better at promoting the benefits these disciplines can bring. Planning awards certainly help by promoting the good, but auditors happy to monitor prices versus a pool need to evolve their approach, fast.
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