OUT FOR THE ACCOUNT

Media auditors are much more than number crunchers. Their expanding role

Financial accountability sometimes seems to have replaced creative accountability within agencies, and in such an environment the media auditor has been elevated from number cruncher to judge, jury and executioner.

According to buyers, media auditors, like policemen, make them feel guilty even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

For those who haven’t noticed, media is turning into a heavily policed state. It is estimated by the main buying points that at least 55 per cent of TV money spent in the UK is audited. Although their client lists are confidential – they are known to include Pizza Hut, Commercial Union, Camelot, Cadbury, Britvic, Visa and Heinz – all the major auditors claim to have doubled or tripled their client base in the past five years.

Late last year, the largest auditor – Media Audits – hired Zenith director Sue Oriel to run its first media planning division. It is a move that represents an encroachment into non-auditing designed to show that the auditors are more than number crunchers.

At the same time, the dispute between the ITV sales house Laser and buyer CIA focused client attention on agency deals and how they can distort an advertiser’s communication needs to suit the agency’s deal.

So it is hardly surprising that auditors are bullish: “We think there is still a potential 20 per cent of the TV market available for us to chase,” says Media Audits managing director John Storey. “There are 20 per cent which are too small to need us, or are so large that they think their TV deals are so good they don’t want anyone else to know about them.”

Auditors work either by pooling all their clients’ buying rates to build a benchmark price for various target audiences, or by modelling all of the TV market as a whole from client data.

Agencies are much less resentful of the auditor’s presence than they used to be: “We always say get an auditor and we are not alone in the industry in saying that,” says Mike Anderson, marketing director of CIA Medianetwork. “They are like independent financial advisors making you feel happier before you buy insurance or a pension. And if they praise an agency’s work it has much more clout than saying it yourself.”

However, some buyers are still dismissive of their usefulness: “Their raison d’être is to be negative. I’ve known auditors lose clients because they have found nothing to fault in a buyer’s work, so the client thinks ‘why am I spending all this money on them?’ When that’s happened once or twice, you know the auditor will always try to find fault.”

Auditors also get the blame for maintaining client obsession with cost, rather than value, which they claim hampers creative media planning.

What all agencies deny is that they worry overly about the auditor’s visit: “Imagine an auditor in Marketing Week looking at your expenses,” says Anderson. “You would probably think ‘did I get that taxi on that night?’ but that’s as far as the worry goes.”

Others are more scathing: “We talk (to the auditors) before reviews and agree about where we are going to disagree,” says one media director. “This helps some of them more than it helps us because we can correct their rubbish figures and data before they go in and embarrass themselves in front of the client.”

Buyers argue that when campaign costs have gone wrong there is usually a good enough history between client and buyer for the buyer’s excuses to be accepted: “‘The buyer left halfway through the campaign’, ‘the market moved against us’, or ‘the client signed off the money too late’ are the usual ones,” says one group head.

Agencies are unwilling to criticise auditors on the record because of the perception that they are able to move business around. Although auditors deny that they are responsible for clients reviewing, they nevertheless help clients come to a decision when they do so.

“I think the client hands the auditor our numbers after the pitch and asks if it (the financial objective) is achievable. Therefore the auditor has the power to make a recommendation,” says one new business director. “That explains why auditors spend so much time being wooed by agencies.”

The firms spoken to by Marketing Week – Media Audits, Barsby Rose and the Billett Consultancy – deny ever having been offered a bribe by an agency; but then they also deny getting much corporate hospitality: “They get treated almost better than clients,” says one agency head.

“Clients usually say no, whereas auditors are usually ex-agency people and therefore complete liggers. You will often find yourself with ten tickets for a rugby match and an invite list with eight clients and two auditors on it. On the day, you will have eight auditors and two clients at the match.”

But the relationship between agency and auditor is more complex than simply subservience from agencies. “Fifty to 60 per cent of new business lists for auditors are drawn up by agencies,” says Storey. Agencies say they couldn’t recommend a single auditor to clients as the auditor would not be trusted for their impartiality, but they will put a list together.

On the whole, the symbiotic nature of the relationship between agency and auditor is open and free from taint. However, in the past, after a succession of media reviews handled by one auditor went to the same buyer there were mutters that at least one relationship had become too close.

Agencies generally welcome the presence of auditors at pitches. They feel they are conducted with discipline, with the right questions asked and the feeling that unscrupulous rivals are less able to dazzle the client with false promises.

The big media reviews and centralisations of the early Nineties have dried up to an extent – perhaps proving the auditors recommended the right buyers – and so the auditors are looking for new areas to ply their trade.

“We had an involvement in CIA/Laser,” says Storey. “We are very much able to act between media owners, agencies and clients when there is a problem. Laser was going to clients direct so it created an opportunity for us to act as a bridge between the buyer and seller.”

Conflict resolution is just one area where auditors see an opportunity to move beyond a simple price evaluation role. “Actually we started life in 1987 offering media consultancy, as well as auditing,” says Pat Barsby, a partner in Birmingham-based auditor Barsby Rowe, which was established as a breakaway from Cadbury.

She says auditors move into the planning and consultancy area once the relationship with the client has developed beyond checking their past prices.

“It’s progressive, a new client will come to you with auditing their buyer’s historical performance in mind,” says Barsby. “This becomes a forward look at longer-term strategy. We might undertake a project for an advertiser worried about declining youth audiences on TV and options they may have to consider in the future.”

Both Billett Associates and Media Audits are developing expertise in econometric modelling – merging data from sales, advertising awareness, media planning and spending to develop effective frequency models. And all employ systems to audit press, radio and outdoor spends.

It is this possible move into planning which has created the most hostility from agencies, dismissive of the auditors expertise, and anxious about auditors infringing on their own market.

“With the exception of one or two, what most auditors know about planning you could write on the back of a piece of confetti with a big fat wax crayon,” says Andy Tilley, managing director of Zenith Media.

Other agencies fear that snappy planning ideas auditors see in presentations will be passed on to their client’s competitors which are in the auditor’s pool.

“It may be described as a demonstration of best practice,” says one planner. “But it is giving away the crown jewels to the competition.”

The auditors defend their expansion plans.

“Demand for these services comes from the increased accountability throughout marketing,” says John Billett, managing director of Billett Associates. “There is also the pressure from finance departments and the insecurity of marketing directors that put us in more demand.”

Barsby sees the move to consultancies as part of a more general shift in business philosophy. “If you buy in a media person of your own, you also need to buy in the audience data and the IT systems to handle it. That is a fixed cost and most businesses are moving to out-source everything that is not part of their core business.

“That explains not just media auditors but all sorts of suppliers and consultants who are booming currently. Twenty years ago most of them had their own in-house media experts.”

However, not everyone is convinced that the consultant has to be the way of the future. “We have been around the TV market long enough to know when we are getting a good deal,” says Philip Buckman, Nestlé’s group marketing services manager. “We have two agencies to give some bench-marking and we have our own experienced in-house auditing department. We only cherry-pick certain services we want from outside suppliers.”

Because of the “policeman” feeling their visits provoke, Storey was the most popular custard-pie target the advertising charity NABS had ever had at one of its “fun” evenings. But it looks very much as if it could be the auditors who still have the last laugh.

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