Service companies such as advertising agencies (and yes, even media auditors) have a term for assignments which migrate and expand over time to incorporate responsibilities which were not part of the original project.  The term which companies use for this circumstance is of course “Scope Creep”.

At MMi, we encourage advertisers to vigilantly guard against another kind of “creep” from their agencies and media vendors – namely “Accountability Creep”.

Accountability Creep –[uh-koun-tuh-bil-i-tee kreep]noun

– the reduction in an advertiser’s media accountability and agency/media vendor performance expectations over time (typically unwittingly on the part of said advertiser)Has your organization suffered from Accountability Creep?  Do you have people on staff with the expertise and the level of visibility to recognize it, if you had?

Examples of (Attempted) Accountability Creep

  • Agencies and TV/radio stations lobbying or attempting to shift quietly from established per-station, per-quarter delivery minimums (i.e. 90% per station, per quarter, with Under-Delivery weight due the advertiser for any shortfall) to per-market and/or annual thresholds
  • Allows stations and/or quarters to offset one another’s under-delivery
  • Results in less overall media delivery for the advertiser and less accountability for the agency and media property
  • The introduction by full-disclosure agencies of “special” or “proprietary” offerings which provide their Clients with the opportunity to receive “below market” rates via exclusive agency arrangements with selected vendors.   As a condition for participation in the programs and enjoying the “below market” rates which accompany them, advertisers must agree to a non-disclosureparadigm (i.e., the agency will not provide the Client or its auditors with the actual terms paid by the agency for the media)]
  • Advertiser has limited transparency into this activity, as agencies are not required to supply certain details
  • The non-disclosure nature of these deals suggests the agency/holding company is profiting from them (this in addition to any planning and/or buying fees they already receive from the advertisers.
  • “Below market” pricing is typically quantified by the agency – the same entity profiting from these “non-disclosure” offerings
  • Creates a situation where the agency has at least the opportunity to place a disproportionate amount of an advertiser’s activity into profitable “special” offerings (disproportionate relative to that advertiser’s objectives , media targets and/or budgets)
  • It should be noted that arrangements such as we describe here are distinct from typical barter-for-media activity (which is also non-disclosure), where the Client’s media agency generally operates on its behalf as an advisor and intermediary with a barter firm who executes buys with media vendors using a mix of cash and trade
  • Questioning, abandoning, or changing expectations for performance against 3rdparty measurement and benchmarking resources based on “methodology concerns” or “comparability”.
  • Attempted dismissal or diminishing the validity of audience/ratings measurement methodology, its evolution, available data streams, currencies, etc. (although said methodology has already been agreed upon and is considered the best and/or only measurement available)
  • Suggestions that 3rd party cost-benchmarking resources are inaccurate, inappropriate for Client in question, do not adequately capture shifts in market conditions, etc.
  • Regularly challenging and reevaluating measurement resources and their methodologies is very worthwhile, and agencies and media properties often have the expertise to contribute a great deal of value to these discussions.  However, they also have a vested interest in the results.
  • Advertisers and their agencies should absolutely push for continuing improvement in measurement and benchmarking methodology, but challenging/discounting the research without offering a viable alternative is not in the best interest of Clients (as it eliminates accountability altogether).
  • Changes in performance against established benchmarks should be tracked over time, and reasons for these changes (Client behavior, measurement methodology, agency performance) should be explored to drive future learning
  • Accountability or compliance standards are identified and agreed upon, but when exceptions are actually identified and quantified, they are positioned as “non-actionable”
  • Spot separation requirements, late-night cutoffs, or restricted programming are identified in buying guidelines, client buy recommendations, etc.
  • Expectations are not communicated to (or agreed upon by) media vendors, and thus any “violations” which are identified are not eligible for any restitution from the media properties

It should be emphasized that the presence (and prevalence) of attempted Accountability Creep witnessed by MMi varies significantly from one assignment to the next.   However, at MMi, we do see endeavored Accountability Creep quite regularly – which certainly begs a question:   If an agency being audited on an ongoing basis, with defined, transparent, quantifiable performance standards will attempt to migrate its accountability downward, then is it plausible that one which is under considerably less scrutiny might attempt to do so (and might be more likely to succeed)?

To be clear, we are not just talking theory here.  This is not simply an exploration of “Trends in Agency Accountability”.  These migrations in accountability have immediate,tangible implications for advertisers.  Ultimately, this boils down to media value and effectiveness, which of course in turn boils down to resources (dollars).  Changes in the accountability paradigm directly impact how resources (dollars) are distributed between the advertiser, its agency, and the media properties.In our role as a leading advocate for advertisers, MMi sees on a daily basis the benefits which Clients receive from fair, consistent, transparent media accountability standards.  We thus encourage all advertisers to beware of “Accountability Creep”!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like "3 Cautions for Advertisers During Onslaught of Media Agency Reviews".