– Goliath pt. 442?

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So if I’ve got this right, WPP’s Group M is suing ebiquity’s Firm Decisions in London’s High Court for allegedly not returning or deleting sensitive material that several of its agencies in several countries sent to the auditor in error.

An agency group, which is part of a holding group valued at £19bn is suing a compliance auditor*, part of a group valued at £80m whose US operation has just been instrumental in a seminal investigation on behalf of US advertisers into US media agency and holding group practices.

The ensuing report for the Association of National Advertisers weighed its words very carefully – with very good reason – but nevertheless found much wrong with the industry it examined.

There’s some mischievous joshing in the defence’s response that WPP is ‘“a”, not “the” world-leading marketing communications group, but it’s beyond question that WPP is a leading, if not often a dominant, light in the industry.

Sources have been quick to deny any connection between this suit and the fact that Firm Decisions was the part of ebiquity that was most involved in the ANA’s investigation, thus far at least. But it’s also quite coincidental that it’s surfaced now and as my fellow Mediatel columnist Dominic Mills has pointed out, there’s some prior form between ebiquity/Firm Decisions and WPP/Group M.

A cynic might almost regard this as an exotic tale of entrapment and there’s a sense of David & Goliath to it too, though there are of course two sides to every story and this one is surely no exception.

Relations between media buyers and performance** and compliance auditors have always quite understandably been tense. For many years there has been a sense of “those who can, do”. Following consolidation, the big media buyers’ market shares now give them claim to comparable levels of visibility to performance auditors into market pricing.

Many have also long suspected and been uncomfortable with some auditors’ alleged propensity to find fault in order to precipitate remunerative pitch briefs. There are also persistent murmurs of sometimes unprofessional and indiscreet behaviours.

And it’s regularly quipped that “it’s a long time since anyone saw a bad audit”. The preparation needed for a comprehensive performance audit today requires extensive cooperation between agency auditee and auditor, which some allege ‘sanitises’ the outputs.

The way media is traded and priced – particularly the pricing guarantees now routinely sought and given at pitch – also involves the clients more closely in pricing and audits have changed to respect and compensate for this. A bad audit can sometimes be a criticism not of the agency but the client.

This High Court Claim recalls two old adages – “business is business” and “attack is the best form of defence” – but it may not show WPP/Group M in a good light amongst the people who (feel compelled to) employ auditors – the advertiser clients.

Then again, WPP is well-known for being litigious – as the senior executives that have left its orbit and been subject to lengthy quarantine in their gardens might attest.

It would be a pity if this were – as is likely – settled out of court, first because it would bury some things that I would argue should be surfaced, and second because it would set a bad precedent for anybody with the temerity to challenge a large group’s virility.

* Compliance auditors assess agency compliance with client contracts, for example whether commissions, markups or passbacks of media owner discounts and rebates are as contractually agreed. To be effective, this requires access to the net prices and terms at which the agency buys media. Given the level of competition between media buyers, this information is increasingly sensitive and is typically divulged to the compliance auditor only under some pressure and cover of appropriate non-disclosure agreements.
** Performance auditors asses a media agency’s media buying performance, typically by offering comparisions with market norms and their clients’ pooled perfomances. Agencies have developed a number of trading mechanisms both to deliver incremental remuneration and to ‘sweeten’ an indivudal client’s performance audit.

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