This week marks exactly three years since the US Association of National Advertisers published its study into transparency in the US media market. The study found substantial evidence of non-transparent practices in that market for the first time.
A couple of weeks after its publication, we worked with the ANA across both Ebiquity and FirmDecisions to produce a comprehensive set of recommendations for advertisers on media transparency. This report – titled Prescriptions, Principles, and Processes – provided seven definitive recommendations on how brands can drive greater transparency to all aspects of media.
So what has changed in the three years since the study and our recommendations? There are three broad observations.
We’ve moved beyond transparency
First, the conversation has evolved since 2016. We’ve moved beyond focusing just on transparency to a much broader debate about trust. Advertisers are concerned about trust right across the ever-more complex media trading ecosystem, with more calling into question the sustainability of the current marketplace.
Transparency remains a cornerstone to rebuilding trust and there’s some evidence that levels of trust are lower than they were when the ANA study was published. It’s now also harder than ever for advertisers to secure comprehensive transparency around the financial details of their media trading, given the fast pace of change.
These concerns are clearly reflected in the data about changing priorities among advertisers. The World Federation of Advertisers runs a regular barometer survey among the world’s biggest-spending brands.
In August 2017, marketers’ number one priority was transparency (with 47% of respondents pinpointing this issue as their leading concern), followed by brand safety (36%).
By March 2019, however, priorities had changed, with the WFA reporting that the issue most marketers wanted to address was the online advertising ecosystem more broadly (47%), followed closely by the related issue of cross-platform measurement (45%) and with a growing concern around data privacy in third (24%).
As advertisers have learned more about the issues – and as the challenges they’re looking to solve have grown more complex, hand-in-hand with the ecosystem itself – so priorities have changed too.
Second, plenty of leading global and national advertisers have taken direct action to address the issues raised by the study, following the recommendations in the report. In the past three years, we’ve worked with more brands than ever before, helping them review their contracts to ensure they’re more transparent.
More and more contracts have increasing levels of transparency built in and advertisers are taking governance of media and marketing more seriously. Template contracts have made a big difference. In many cases, these developments are enabling more collaborative relationships between advertisers and their agencies.
For example, the locus of control of media buying and performance data – and ownership of that data – is shifting to where it should be: into the hands of brands themselves. What’s more, for each of the past three years, our partners in Ebiquity’s media practice have helped more than 100 major advertisers to review and renew relationships with their agency partners of choice and worked with many brands to help strengthen their agency partner relationship.
Lots still to do
And third, while many advertisers have flexed their muscles and asserted control, there’s still plenty of work to do. And it’s not as if the world has stood still since 2016. As advertisers have closed loopholes in their agency contracts, new revenue streams have emerged across the media supply chain as the marketplace has evolved.
The battleground today is often around what is and isn’t included in the contract and the language used to describe free media and rebates. With the rapid changes in the ecosystem, the devil is increasingly in the detail.
Subtle changes to contracts can have dramatic consequences for a brand's access to data. We're seeing evidence of small clauses in contracts that are having large knock-on effects for how clients account for their media inventory.
Media and marketing are getting more and more complex in the march towards digitisation, meaning there’s more and more for advertisers to stay on top of. Just as the knowledge gap between advertisers and agencies appears to be closing, innovations in the market open it up again, often wider.
Fundamentally, we believe brands should own and control the strategic elements of their media and marketing, including consumer data, marketing technology, and measurement and analytics data. That’s why we encourage brands to ensure that their contracts are aligned with best practices and why we urge them to review their data and technology set-ups regularly.
In the three years since the ANA study and recommendations, the pace of change has – if anything – increased. This demands increased vigilance by and action from advertisers. So while plenty has been done, there’s still plenty to do.
Stephen Broderick is global chief executive of FirmDecisions