Enough with the funny business – here’s what media transparency actually looks like!

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

What does media transparency really mean?

It’s not agencies hiding rebates, it’s not an opaque digital media supply chain, it’s not contracts filled with euphemisms for undisclosed fees, it’s not withheld data, it’s certainly not something you’re likely to find in programmatic.

Marketers know what transparency is not, but do they know what it actually is? Are they capable of identifying it in their partners? Do they know how to cultivate it? Do they really know what they’re looking for?

Beyond ISBA’s Framework agreement, the heroic speeches of Marc Pritchard, and a few excellent publications from Ebiquity, there isn’t that much positive guidance out there. The focus has been on what’s wrong with digital, rather than how to get it right; there is a gap in the media narrative of transparency, where there ought to be examples of those defying the norm, a benchmark for all advertisers to measure their own partner relationships against.

What does a transparent advertiser-agency relationship actually look like? We need to define this, if we really want to progress.

Data transparency

Data belongs to the client, not the agency.

Yet somehow it has become the norm for an agency to hold their client’s data at ransom. Clearly agencies withhold this as a means of increasing their power - without access to the hard facts of a campaign, clients are less able to evaluate their agency; and if the data belongs to the agency, the client is pressured to stick with them if they wish to benefit from the insights it may provide.

Data is power, and agencies have been exploiting this fact for far too long.

A transparent agency will have systems in place to ensure data is 100% visible, and a contract that states that it is the legal property of the client. It’s the only sensible option, and it ought to be the standard.

Platform transparency

Your agency will use one platform only. Here’s why that’s important.

Major media buying companies built their businesses on negotiating good deals with publishers, and skimming some of the discount for themselves in one form or another. RTB replaced the need for negotiation, but the bargain-hunting instinct survived and found a new manifestation in programmatic. The range of platforms available creates a new opportunity for traditional agencies to buy media at a discount - this time by playing off different DSPs - and therefore a new opportunity for undisclosed income.

All the issues with rebates, kickbacks and other forms of undisclosed income were supposed to die with the decline of traditional media buying. Let’s not allow it to be reborn, for the sake of the industry in general - we all know what problems this leads to.

By choosing one platform only, an agency can avoid the many potential conflicts of interest a multi-platform approach creates. It also allows an agency to build up a thorough understanding of how the platform works, which means they can optimise their use of it, and better explain its functionality to a client.

It’s not only a safeguard against non-disclosure, but a one-platform approach facilitates greater knowledge symmetry - a transparency double whammy.

Transparent contracts

Rebates, kick-backs and volume discounts are the bread and butter of the media industry, so they dreamed up a whole load of pseudonyms to help disguise this aspect of their business model, such as "Service agreements", “Consulting”, “Research”, “Agency Volume Bonification”, “Media coordination” or “Strategy advice”.

The list goes on, and there will always be new items to add, but the function will be the same: to obscure undisclosed income.

A transparent agency will have a straightforward contract, preferably with only one fee (management cost) and a clear definition of its role as an agent. There will be no ambiguity, and therefore no opportunity for plausible deniability if there’s a breach of contract later down the line.

There will always be rebates - it’s an inevitable part of media buying and most major publishers offer some form - whether it’s cash or free inventory. Make sure this is referred to directly in the contract, and there is a clear stipulation that this will be returned entirely to the client. It’s your money, after all.

Transparent performance

You should be able to monitor a campaign 24/7.

As great as it is to have trust, it’s even better to be able to verify performance yourself; knowing is better than believing.

From a truly transparent agency, expect to have comprehensive dashboards built for you to monitor a campaign in real time. AdWords already enables this for search campaigns, but programmatic doesn’t necessarily grant a client visibility. It’s an agency’s responsibility to facilitate this, and it’s your responsibility to insist on it.

Transparent communication

What is your agency actually doing for you? How is it earning your fee? What the hell happens to your ad spend?

If you don’t fully know the answer to this, it’s due to a failure in communication. Knowledge asymmetry has always swung the power balance in favour of the vendor, leaving the customer vulnerable to exploitation. Just think of the complexity of modern financial products, to take an example from outside of our industry.

Transparency will inform the language of a pitch, the contract, communication during and after a campaign, even the website copy. You will be able to understand it. If there are aspects of their work you don’t fully understand, they will be willing and capable of explaining it to you. If necessary, there will be opportunities for external training. They will educate you, rather than leaving you in the dark.

Advertiser-agency relationships are just one aspect of this. Programmatic transparency - brand safety, ad fraud, the complexity of its supply chain - offer a whole other set of problems, but so long as agencies make transparency fundamental to their business, these issues will become far more easily resolved.

Change has to come from both sides. Once advertisers are clear on their expectations, agencies will be under far greater pressure to adapt. Once this starts to happen, we will see the industry truly begin to transform, with trust re-established, the old model done away with, and digital driving advertising to heights we all know it is capable of reaching.

Dan Gilbert is chief executive oficer of Brainlabs

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Daniel Gilbert

Dan Gilbert is chief executive officer of Brainlabs, a paid media agency.

All by Daniel