Accenture has confirmed that it plans to “ramp down” its media auditing, benchmarking and agency pitch services later this year amid accusations the businesses conflicted with its media output. Who will mark the industry's homework now one of the lead players has stepped down?
For the last two years, there's been lengthy questioning around how Accenture Interactive's consultancy business would remain neutral while entering the media buying space. The IPA in 2018 blasted as a 'direct conflict of interest'. The business seems to have finally agreed with the critics, albeit after lengthy consideration, and will no longer offer the services to clients come August.
“As part of the plan, we will work with clients to fulfill existing commitments and support their transitions,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Accenture Media Management claims to annually audit more than $40bn of global advertising spending and says it invests more than $5m a year in proprietary tools and media research.
It said it offered "transparency and accountability" in a culture of confusion around digital media spend but the continued questions surrounding the conflict of interest were perhaps making the operation difficult to fulfill that ambition.
When announcing its move into a programmatic offering, Accenture Interactive’s global chief executive Brian Whipple explained: "As their experience agency, our clients have been asking us to help them drive greater efficiencies with their programmatic media spend, specifically digital media."
He added: "We are already focused on all the pieces that are related to media placement so it was a natural extension for us to help our clients deliver more hyper-relevant customer experiences through digital media."
Rivals such as WPP are said to have refused to enter pitches against the management consultancy as Nicki Mendonça explained the situation to The Drum not long after joining to lead Accenture Interactive Operations.
“When you prick an elephant’s arse, the elephant screeches,” she said of the pushback. “It shows a certain myopia as to the depth and breadth of Accenture which is a $100bn company,” she continues. “It’s 440,000 employees and we have our tentacles everywhere within 175 diamond clients. By fixating on one specific area of the business; say the auditing aspect of the media management aspect and blowing that out of proportion shows a certain myopia.”
As a result, the decision has not come as a surprise to external industry commentators.
“By shutting down its media auditing arm, Accenture obviously removes a perceived conflict of interest, by focusing on the much bigger segment of media buying rather than media auditing. In a time when trust and transparency are more important that ever, this action enhances the trust the marketplace has in Accenture,” offered Bill Duggan, Group executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.
Agreeing that the ramping up of its digital agency offering would eventually see Accenture on a “collision course” with its auditing business, Rob Rakowitz
Initiative Lead for the Global Alliance for Responsible Media within the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) highlighted his concern at the potential ramifications.
“We’re at an inflection point where the media supply chain needs more clarity – clients, agencies, and media owners need more independent oversight to ensure that promises on performance and quality are delivered. By exiting this category it creates a hole in an industry that needs rebalancing, and one less player doesn’t advance that need. We’ve gone from looking at a conflict of interest for one company to looking at an industry with less and less oversight – and that’s not a good thing.”
The industry is already set to look to companies such as Ebiquity to fill the void.
Christian Polman, chief strategy officer for Ebiquity, claimed that the decision by Accenture meant "fundamental change" to independent advisory services.
"Increasingly, brands must be able to trust the advice they receive from advisors if they want to truly unlock the potential of their marketing spend and drive enhanced value and impact. This requires full independence from the media trading ecosystem, as well as adherence to well defined standards that are in-line with what is expected by brands and their agency and technology partners, such as what we’ve spelled out in Ebiquity’s Code of Conduct."
Polman claimed that Ebiquity's clients were crying out for independent training and standards around digital media, an area the organization has invested into recently with the acquisition of digital media monitoring firm Digital Decisions to further its auditing services.
Meanwhile, Tom Denford, chief executive ID Comms, another firm that offers media auditing services to advertisers in both the USA and Europe, also said he was unsurprised.
"Advertisers have been demanding innovation in the traditional media audit which Accenture simply could not justify investing in. Why waste the money when you know you will have to close it down at some point due to a growing conflict of interest.
“Accenture and the other traditional media audit firms hadn't kept pace with advertiser demands in recent years, especially in tracking digital media investments. Their traditional approaches have historically been slow and manual.”
He added that it was his experience that advertisers were searching for a “far simpler approach” to understand their media investments which would be understood by both chief marketing officer and chief financial officer alike.
“Most traditional media audits you need a maths degree to decode,” he continued.
“The traditional audit firms like Accenture and Ebiquity turned media auditing into a complex dark art over the years that is baffling and boring to most advertisers these days and provides little meaningful insight, in my view.”
Denford called on advertisers to reconsider how they used their audits and to look at the depth of information they needed to power their management tools and inform decision making within marketing and procurement teams.