Greg March
Jun 13, 2016

Too big not to cheat

The ANA transparency report was no hatchet job. It was the inevitable result of a corrupt system, says Noble People's CEO.

Too big not to cheat

"A healthy and constructive debate about media buying can only happen with a bipartisan, engaged, industry-wide approach." This was what the 4A's, an industry organization meant to represent media agencies, wrote in response to the ANA report on media transparency released Tuesday.

But while the investigation was in progress, MediaPost reported that the CEO of GroupM, the largest media agency in the world, sent an internal memo instructing his employees not to talk to K2 should they reach out.

So you can tell your employees not to talk to investigators, and after that discredit the report for being one-sided? This can't be taken seriously.

Media agencies are saying the report is a hatchet job. And they have to. At best, the report paints them as dirtbags who craftily use the fine print of contracts to misrepresent their actions and objectives to their customers. At worst, it paints them as corporate thieves.

Here's a question: Why would a trade organization of clients do a hatchet job on its vendors? It is not like these are competing businesses. It's not television industry versus the Internet industry, or Hollywood versus tech. The ANA had to do this because it was clearly no longer a secret that many media agencies line their pockets rather than serve their clients.

Consider the people in charge. Brian Lesser was never once responsible for the full media budget of a brand, but he built a trade desk that was great at making money. He's been promoted to CEO of GroupM. The President of Digital for Mediavest is a career media seller, not an agent. Why are these people getting these jobs? Maybe it's because these are the people who know more about how to structure deals than how to sell soda, cars and makeup. And that's what is most important at these companies. If the report is false, why is this happening?

Assigning blame to an individual is tricky. The problem is there's no throat to choke. At a holding company, you have sister companies who don't feel they are bound by the same contract as their partner agency who signed the deal with a client (page 24 of the report). So when Agency 1 in a holding company outsources to Agency 2, Agency 1's promises don't count. Whose fault is that?

The CEO of Agency 1 might not have control over the rebate of Agency 2, or even know about it. The holding company CEO is far enough from the details that he never broke his word to anybody. And it's not like any of these guys are directly making the money from the fraud. It trickles down in disassociated bonuses and promotions.

Everybody's cheating, nobody's directly benefiting from it, it's everyone's fault, so it's nobody's fault. Media agencies have become too big not to cheat.

It's time for the market to revert to media agencies where an agency owner can make a promise, spit on their hand, shake on it, and know that their company will keep it. So now it's on the clients. Your media agencies have told you for years that they spend your billions of dollars based solely on your interests. I challenge you to read the pages of these reports and think that is true. Each empowered marketing client has to decide for themselves whether or not that matters to them.

Greg March is partner and CEO of independent media agency Noble People. Prior to that he spent seven years at Wieden+Kennedy New York, where he helped build the digital media practice and served as Director of Media Strategy.

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