The five questions every marketer must ask their media partners now

Dentsu and Facebook’s separate admissions of irregularities in how they quantify what they say they offer, and what they actually do deliver, are fuelling fears that clients are losing trust in their media partners. Fears that belie just how exposed many marketers could be right now should they fail to ask the following questions of the rest of the media industry.

More transparency questions

1) What level of transparency – financial, operational, media – are you currently providing us?

Rather than ignore the warning signs that are Dentsu’s “inappropriate operations” and the findings from this year's ANA report, the smart marketers see it as a chance to understand what has happened to make agencies feel they have to overcharge, hide kick-backs in order to satisfy their client and stay in the black. Advertisers are never going to cease working with agencies despite these suspicions and so the onus is on them to seize the opportunity to push for improved contracts that work for both parties.

“Transparency’ comes in many guises and may mean many different things to different people – it needs to be defined in the context of the specific client/agency relationship,” advises Ryan Kangisser, digital partner at global media advisory firm MediaSense. “Aligning this from the outset will help to remove uncertainty and ambiguity in the client/agency relationship.”

This can only be done if both advertiser and agency commit to a frank and honest conversation that acknowledges failings on both sides. For brands, they have allowed procurement to come in and hammer their agencies down to the lowest possible price. While agencies have allowed the value of what they deliver to become distorted, with many of the larger outfits dependent primarily on how much an advertiser spends rather than the actual outcome of what media they have bought.

2) What metrics are being tracked and used for optimisation and calculation of ROI?

While the transparency debate will undoubtedly be mentioned at every digital pitch, the conversation, especially for digital advertising, should now move to how best to understand consumers and advertise to them in a targeted way, not how to save cost on impressions that may not be seen and could be placed in front of anyone.

It’s been an open secret for some time that margins are easily hidden in programmatic campaigns – independent auditors have noted that agency fees have been going down while profits have risen.

Gaining a clear understanding of the component costs which make up a digital media buy is essential to knowing whether a media budget is being fully optimised, particularly if the additional costs are failing to deliver incremental gain.

“Independent agencies will have little sympathy, having traditionally been seen as more expensive options, being undercut by the networks’ stronger buying power,” argues John Barham, head of paid media at independent digital agency Roast. “If this is a wake-up call then it is overdue because these aren’t new concepts, everyone from Facebook to Google are more specific about how to buy audiences rather than anonymised volumes of impressions and clicks.”

If the most important part of the job for agencies is to understand an advertiser’s market better, and learn how best to advise them on how to deliver what they need, well then that’s just basic marketing rather than a technological arms race and everyone should be happy about it.

3) Can you provide a clear rationale to support your technology and media recommendations, including areas where a commercial or strategic relationship with the supplier is in place?

Just because an agency stands to benefit from working with a particular adtech partner or media owner isn’t cause for concern and in many cases can lead to gains for all parties. Indeed, exploiting its negotiation leverage on behalf of its clients is the raison d'être of a media agency, but these benefits should be disclosed and not “unduly influence the recommendations it makes to its clients,” argues MediaSense’s Kangisser.

It’s what must make the Dentsu and Facebook revelations such a worry for industry experts. While many advertisers will track the overall performance of their media spend in-house or using an auditor, a large part of their relationship with agencies and digital powerhouses like Facebook is based on trust and consequently many aren’t aware of what they do not know.

Having that oversight should also extend to asking ‘what measures an agency or media owner is taking to ensure that inventory from them is brand safe, fraud free and viewable?’. In the same instance, they should also contemplate ‘what content verification tool will be used in relation to digital placements?’

Proactive management of securing quality online inventory has become a critical driver of value and success. Therefore agencies should (if they are not already) be working closely with their clients to agree acceptable standards and KPIs across these very elements (viewability, brand safety and fraud).

“We’ve already started to see membership to industry organisations like the 4A’s be affected by transparency,” says Carl Erik Kjærsgaard, chief executive and co-founder of AI media platform Blackwood Seven.

“To prevent further damage, the industry needs to collectively hold itself to higher standards. The truth is coming, whether or not agencies are ready for it. More and more we’re hearing marketers ask what happens to an agency’s objectivity when it’s getting paid by the media owner? Agencies haven’t changed too much in my time in the business and it feels like they’ve been sleepwalking for the last 5-10 years.”

4) What level of access are you willing to provide us with regards to the analytics you collect on our behalf, eg with ad serving, DSP, DMP or ad verification?

The amount of data available can be overwhelming to any client and it is understandable that most prefer their agencies to provide an aggregated view of performance. Nevertheless, Mediasense’s Kangisser advises clients should “maintain” the right to access that very data (in its most raw format) should they wish to “ingest it for their own internal purposes,” or conduct their own analysis on performance.

The perils of advertisers foregoing that right are laid bare in the revelation that Facebook has been claiming its ads are being watched for 60 to 80 per cent longer than what they have actually been.

For a true and fair assessment of viewability, engagement and attribution, Theo Theodorou, managing director for xAd, believes advertisers should push for third-party measurement, the kind his business offers. “Having third parties objectively qualifying the insights brands are getting is not only preferable, but is a strategic imperative for creating effective marketing strategies,” claims Theodorou.

Looking at location for instance, it’s crucial that brands are able to measure the link between mobile campaign delivery and in-store visitation to understand actual foot traffic into stores,” he continues.

as a result, xAd has partnered with comScore to help brands do so. “Putting a measurement framework in place is the only way to quantify the value of online advertising on offline sales,” adds Theodorou.

5) Can you give me an itemised break down of my media budget, and explain the benefits of a ‘blind network buy’, etc?

The rise of programmatic media buying has led to some opaque media practices, with ad networks, exchanges, and ‘audience buying’ across the internet – as opposed to ‘buying context’ in physical media – historically rooted in smoke and mirrors. However, advertisers are increasingly bearing down on these historic practices, a trend facilitated by improved knowledge among brand-side marketers, and propelled by the emergence of outfits geared towards bolstering transparency in the media landscape.

Nick Manning, CSO of auditing outfit, Ebiquty, urges advertisers to ensure the benefits, and practicalities of their media plans are made clear. He says: “Media transparency is the big issue in 2016. It begins with impartial, evidence-led media planning, supported by fully transparent channel and content execution and a copper-bottomed contract with full compliance. Trust will be restored when the supply-side of the business restores the right value equation for advertisers."

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