WPP is right not to participate in Accenture-led pitches

WPP is right not to participate in Accenture-led pitches

As the management consultancies diversify to span most media agency services and beyond, things get very murky, writes Bob Wootton. Plus: the politics of convergent media audience measurement.

News emerges that WPP is taking an increasingly hard line on its clients using Accenture, citing serious conflicts of interest.

In the halcyon days, advertising agencies were better paid and often even conceived products for their clients and were therefore privy to early-stage business strategy.  And they were very compliant towards client concerns over conflict.

Around the same time media separated wholesale this was eroding and nearly three decades later few agencies are nearly as close to their clients’ inner secrets.

Meanwhile, media buying consolidated into a game for the biggest dicks, dragging planning along with it.  Agencies have to argue conflict is no longer an issue as most now handle multiple conflicting accounts at global, regional and local levels.

The management consultants, whom conflict has never seemed to bother, have moved firmly (maybe better) to occupy this top table seat.  But as they diversify to span most agency services and beyond – like pitch management and media evaluation – things get very murky.

I’m with WPP on this one.  How can they share their performance with companies which claim independently to assess it but simultaneously offer those same services?  Talk about competing with at least one hand behind your back.

Imagine the fuss if a retailer got hold of information about a competitor’s trading positions.  Or a bank got another’s full customer details?  We’d never hear the last of it.  So, what’s different?

Supply and demand, master and slave is what.  And that the agency relationship is often held by someone with another agenda, whereas the management consultant will engage at C-suite and likely the top person.

A code of conduct might be kicked into committee for years and never materialize, so better that the biggest players put their feet down and make clear what they will and won’t accede to.  Handing proprietary information to a competitor should top such a list.

Short-term, this Pyrrhic move might drive some unimaginative advertisers towards the consultancies’ ‘agency’ offerings.  Medium-term it would give agencies a clear rallying point around which to reassert a point of difference.  Is there really a choice?

The Great Unification?

Phew.  Conference season is over for another year.  Amidst all the usual hogwash and hype around AI, 5G and purpose (though bravo new Unilever CEO Alain Jope calling out ‘wokewashing’) – convergent media audience measurement surfaced.

Back to management consultants, welcome PwC, smartly positioning itself as the partner of choice for advertisers and trade bodies seeking independent, skilled external resource.

Some 33 major advertisers are apparently behind a push for unified cross-media measurement which reflects increasing globalisation.  From instigators Unilever to P&G, WFA to ISBA, they seem very up for it.

Entirely right and laudable, if unrealistic.

Perhaps they’re unaware.

Probably true for some, but not many – most major advertisers now have people with industry experience – if they listen to them.

Perhaps (once again) they believe that if the source of the money demands something, it will happen.

Experience shows otherwise.  From historic TV airtime pricing to previous calls for better and more integrated audience measurement to transparency and brand safety, this stance has seldom delivered.  Rather, it has been humoured until it passes, which it will as these paymasters themselves move on ever more quickly.

Perhaps they aren’t heeding advice.  I think this is likely.

UK audience measurement illustrates how fraught progress will be.  It’s undertaken by Joint Industry Committees comprising and requiring consensus among media owners, agencies and advertisers.  Like democracy, these are widely regarded as the least worst option yet discovered and are the envy of much of the developed world, even the US.

There are significant politics*.  Advertisers want to know ever more about audiences, but have long withdrawn from funding directly, seeing it instead as a cost of sale for media owners and delegating it to their industry body.  With this view power and influence at the table is diminished.

Agencies used to distinguish themselves with clever use of industry data but now prefer proprietary studies which yield unique insight, especially when pitching.  Even their industry body is more preoccupied with its own grand oeuvre, the world-class and world-first IPA Touchpoints.  But agencies do continue wisely to co-fund industry research directly, buying effective influence.

Many media owners want to know how little they can spend to keep credible audience research upright.  Understandable – the channels that are scooping up the money aren’t subject to industry standard measurement.

Everyone who’s selling wants to see their figures, and thus their revenues, rise.  Every change in methodology or canvass is subjected to lengthy tests to reassure that nobody will lose out, which means real change is nigh on impossible.  Legacy flaws are perpetuated and new ones introduced.

And as the online onslaught continues and legacy players have migrated onto the platform, there’s tension between old and new guards.

BARB is a case in point and must test its CEO’s saintly patience daily.  Its Project Dovetail has been under way for several years, seeking to embrace new channels, platforms and ways of viewing.

Measuring second-by-second, BARB can tell how much of anything is watched.  Called viewing persistence, this is of great interest to advertisers.

The broadcasters persist honourably with a strict definition of viewing while online channels steam ahead clinging to the risible “standard” that half the pixels in view for one or two seconds constitutes a “view”.  Blink and you will miss it.

How can you progress a common standard for audience measurement given such divergence?

Other joint industry bodies surveys might measure new economy players as a necessary by-product but don’t include them in their governance.

And as any fule kno, we’ve operated comfortably over decades with quite different definitions of what constitutes a view, or an opportunity to see, per medium.

At a global level it gets even trickier.  Demographics are not consistent, often for good societal reasons.  Wealth and its distribution differ.  Nor is retirement age uniform, not that anybody advertises to this wealthiest of demographics anyway.

So, any serious progress will require harmonisation of demographics and what constitutes a view.

Good luck with that.

Will this flurry pass?  Probably, though some who have nailed their colours to the mast are powerful people with reputations at stake who want to be seen to be taking tough stances.  Industry will likely have to give them something to save face before they too move on.

Why don’t they simply take personal responsibility for the vast sums of money they are spending on behalf of their employers (and shareholders) by specifying the metrics and returns they seek?

For fear their competitors will swoop and exploit any weak flanks thus exposed.  Simples.



* As ISBA’s Director of Media, I represented UK advertisers on the boards of all the JICs for some 20 years

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