The ‘Road To Recovery’ starts with all of us

David Angell

How does the media agency-world rebuild itself in the wake of revelations that have come out of Mediacom/GroupM this week? TrinityP3’s David Angell argues the industry as a whole needs to address some of the issues of misreporting, auditing, value banks and client culpability.

For those of you living in an industry-proofed cave over the last week, the Mediacom furore has once again run red hot across the trade press, as the results of the audit into trading practice at the agency were released to the waiting world.

The level of debate has reached fever pitch over the confirmed revelations of inappropriate behaviour within Mediacom, going against both basic ethics and the avowed standards of their own parent group GroupM.

Now let me say right now (and I don’t think I’m the first to do so) that Mediacom, in the situation they’ve found themselves in, have acted with a level of openness and integrity that can only give them back some credit.

John Steedman and Mark Pejic, two widely respected individuals, are transparent and honest in publicly accepting the situation for what it is.

But ‘some credit’ is obviously insufficient to repair the serious damage done to the agency’s reputation, not to mention the delicate trust-balance between agency and clients (all of them).

Mediacom has responded by a tightening of process, which, let’s face it, is the only thing that can be done, at least in the immediate term, to begin a road to recovery.

None of us can escape the fact that this expose raises more questions than it answers – some of which are far more constructive, and productive, than others.

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A lot of the commentary, ably assisted by one American heavyweight, has been around agency volume bonifications (AVBs) and AVB on-selling, media credits and assorted industry kickbacks.

Such commentary is valid and parts of it (AVBs in particular) are directly relevant. But the coverage is inevitably snow-balling into a big explosion of an original issue which, at its base, was directly related to a ‘front of house’ and, on any other day, relatively mundane procedure – the post-analysis reporting of TV campaigns.

The back of house stuff sells papers, so to speak – I get that. But ultimately, to extend a very old fashioned analogy, it’s likely to end up as tomorrow’s chip-wrapping.

The ‘front of house’ piece needs some more thought, both now and after the headlines have gone away. There are a lot of questions that should be addressed.

Here are just four of many:

1) How much is ‘process tightening’ actually going to achieve?

Based on what I read, Mediacom intends to formalise the way that clients sign off on briefs, introduce new software, and lock campaign targets in PDF files. And they’ve hired or charged some impressive individuals to steer the ship. Well…yes.

No doubt there’s more detail, but as headlines go, they don’t exactly grab, do they? ‘Change’ feels more like adhering to the basics that should be in place in any business. It also feels a bit like stable doors and bolted horses.

What’s happened at Mediacom goes much deeper than process; it’s cultural. I’m not saying that what’s happened defines the culture of the whole agency, but they’ve clearly had a problem. They need to get to the bottom of exactly what it is, culturally speaking, that caused those individuals to do what they did – which may be a bit hard given that they’ve all left the building.

2) How much should be done across the rest of the industry?

Let’s be clear. The road to recovery is not something that Mediacom should do on its own. The whole industry – other agencies, governing bodies, the press, the auditors and consultants – need to take a good hard look at themselves.

Lumping it as a Mediacom problem is head-in-sand personified. The MFA saying that ‘we aren’t a regulator’ – yes, maybe, but surely it should be taking at least some steps, having some voice beyond standing at the scene of the accident, hands in pockets and head turned away?

What we have here at the ground floor is an industry full of relatively inexperienced, often younger than average people, many of whom don’t have vocational qualifications in the same way as say, the law industry.

They handle millions of dollars of client’s money and are sometimes promoted into managerial positions quite quickly. There is not the grounding in ethics and good practice that we might find in other sectors – it’s often learnt on the job.

Learned behaviour is powerful, it’s generational. And these guys are socialising and gossiping all the time. The MFA code of practice – let’s be constructive – is there, but it’s broad-brush at best. It is not something I have ever been shown by any agency in the eight years I’ve been in Australia, and it is not at all aimed at the people who most need a code.

Young people coming in to the market need to be educated from day one on a strong, standardised code of ethics that apply to the whole industry, not just Mediacom. There needs to be a serious professional entity charged with constructing them (i.e. not an NGEN Powerpoint deck).

If it doesn’t come from the MFA, it needs to come from somewhere. Perhaps from somewhere that is not self-funded (a small marketer levy on all media plans, anyone?) And the agencies – all of them – need to get on board to drive compliance.

3) How relevant are conventional media trading audits?

Well, they don’t exactly come out shining, do they? And the post-issue response feels like nothing more than a piece of Sellotape on a wonky pair of glasses. Getting the client to supply the data instead of the agencies – in all seriousness, how does that change a damn thing when it’s the agencies who still ultimately need to supply the data to the client?

Either a completely independent body is established to handle all trading-related data, or it will remain in the same domain.

Ultimately, the whole episode raises a big question mark over how myopic, and therefore how useful, these kinds of audits are (bear in mind I now represent a company who has conducted its own rate benchmarking).

And I am not just talking about data integrity. TV trading performance is one small part of what an agency does: how it gets to those results is, as has been amply demonstrated, just as important, if not more so. We’re all so addicted to seeing how our rates stack up against a pool when the reality is that it’s much, much more complicated than that.

I’m not suggesting that there’s no place for trading audits – just that we’ve all been placing too much importance on them as an agency performance marker.

4) How have the clients contributed and how can they help? Contributed? Help?

I can hear an East Wind of online retribution screaming towards me. How can this ever be the fault of the clients? Why on earth should clients help when it’s the agency that’s been caught fiddling the books?

Because some clients are cultural aiders and abettors, that’s why.

Please let me be crystal clear: I am making absolutely no reference here to IAG, Foxtel or Yum, none of whom I have worked with and none of whom I would have any basis against which to comment.

But in the fifteen years I’ve been in media agencies, I’ve worked with, or have indirectly observed, some real corkers. Clients who scream – literally scream – abuse at junior buyers when their spot list isn’t right, or nit-pick over it so obsessively that the original buy is unrecognisable from what goes to air, based on the programming the client feels is right, rather than the experience of the buyer and the data at their disposal.

Clients who meaninglessly twist and turn on a brief so many times that by media plan version 32, nothing is clear, the buyer having been turned inside out with worry, stress and confusion.

Clients who brief TV campaigns forty-eight hours pre-transmission and expect three spots in The Block and a perfect Ebiquity audit at end of quarter. Clients who exhibit passive- aggressive detachment, sitting in the agency presentation of post-analysis with their heads down, writing emails. Clients who won’t sign off, won’t sign MBAs because they’re too busy, who brief in one-line emails saying ‘maximise TARPs and reach’.

Clients who contractually back agencies into corners against derivative and ever-diminishing CPM or rate position targets. I could go on. As at all organisations, the fish can rot from the head; as at all organisations, it’s the younger clients, in my experience, who are often the ones causing these issues.

As with Mediacom, I’m talking about a minority. And nothing changes the fact that in this case, the fault is with the agency. But it’s pernicious, this lack of respect for the role and expertise of the media buyer, particularly the TV buyer. It exists in pockets right across the industry, but to remain on point here, this includes some in the client community.

It belies the reality of just how challenging the job can be and it causes churn, stress and demoralisation, particularly at the more junior end of the spectrum. Hardly helps to generate strong ethical behaviour and attract the best talent, does it?

I’ve just re-read this post and realised the emotion in my voice. But I’m not going to apologise. I’m emotional because the majority of my career has been spent in agencies. And the majority of people I’ve met in agencies have genuinely wanted to do the best job they can for their clients.

Nothing is perfect, of course it isn’t. And there are some practices which should be stopped. But it isn’t as simple as many seem to think.

I guess I hate seeing this situation unfold, and I hate seeing the insipid reaction of people and organisations who should be doing more as much as I detest the unabashed glee with which some commentators (mostly anonymous) have welcomed it.

But let’s look on the bright side. What an opportunity – what a golden, gilt-edged opportunity – to generate some traction for real change that ultimately supports Mediacom, the industry and the clients. It is in the best interests of a sector that employs thousands of individuals in this country.

We just need to be asking – and, post-headlines, following up on – the right questions.

David Angell is the general manager, head of media at TrinityP3



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