Disinfecting the media toilet: sunshine OK, bleach better
The ANA lifted the lid on the media toilet earlier this summer to discover something rotten. How can the industry get rid of such a putrid mess, asks Dominic Mills
It was a lawyer of all people (US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis) who coined the phrase "sunshine is said to be the best disinfectant; electric light the best policeman".
Far be it for me to pick a fight with him, but I'm more of the school that thinks a germ-nuking bleach is the best disinfectant and while a policeman with a torch is OK, a policeman with a torch and a truncheon is much enhanced.
But sunshine is a good place to start. And it seems to me that this summer's ANA report into media agency practices has revealed them to be a toilet.
By lifting the lid on the media toilet - discovering a nasty-smelling, putrid stew at the bottom, with maybe some filthy germs around the rim - the ANA has let the sunshine in.
Now it's time to get busy with the bleach, and then let truncheon-armed police loose.
So far, Nick Manning, the chief strategy officer of Ebiquity, is chief bleacher, wielding a bottle of, let's say, Mr Muscle. I'm sure there are other consultants splashing the Domestos also, but Manning is certainly busy talking to advertisers in the US, UK and elsewhere.
You can see his recent webinar on the subject of transparency for the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) just three weeks ago here. As I understand it, ISBA has also had him in this summer for private sessions with its members.
Of course he has a vested interest in this: Ebiquity's sister company, Firm Decisions, assisted the ANA in compiling the report, and both it and Ebiquity, which provides advertisers with media consultancy and evaluation services, stand to profit from cleaning up the mess.
But in fact Manning has been highlighting media agency malpractice for some time now. Indeed, like a prophet in the wilderness, he was in many ways several years ahead of his time in recognising the issue. You can read examples here and here.
No-one can accuse him of getting the bleach out late in the day. Besides, as the co-founder of what is today MG OMD, he knows, er, where the media agency shit festers.
If Manning is liberally dispensing the bleach, who are the policemen? The auditors, of course, with the proposed new contracts between media agencies and clients as the truncheons.
Indeed, the new-look truncheons are now available. ISBA announced its version in May - greeted by storms of protest - and the ANA followed up with its version last month. That too has been met with the cold shoulder from US agencies.
Both draft contracts are, by the way, large documents at over 50 pages. Most recommendations are sensible, and not the sort of thing clients and agencies should fall out over.
Just as the agencies need to stop throwing rocks at agencies, so clients need to acknowledge their own errors"
There is perhaps one exception. The ANA recommends that clients should get access to all data, including that of media owners. Really? How does that work? And, even if it does, could you see the likes of Google, Sky, ITV or News UK going along with it, or allowing a media agency to sign it on their behalf.
Meanwhile, the entire ad industry seems to be working itself into a nervous paroxysm about the breakdown of trust, as evidenced by this 18-minute video from Campaign.
It's hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in the video, but it seems to me to put the cart before the horse. You can't have trust without transparency, so in order to rebuild it, the transparency issue has to be sorted first. Media agencies, where the problem is most acute, are a good place to start.
And yet, despite all the sturm and drang, there are reasons to be optimistic. The genie is out of the bottle, and clients have woken up. I'm told that in at least two UK media pitches clients have pushed forward the ISBA model contract.
At the same time, wise heads such as the vastly experienced David Wheldon, currently CMO of RBS and also president of the WFA, are reminding advertisers why they need agencies, and not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But, from talking to some of those close to the action, some CMOs are still sticking their head in the sand, crossing their fingers that their CEOs and CFOs don't ask them too many hard questions. Still, when - or if - they do take the issue on board the pressure on agencies will grow.
But, just as the agencies need to stop throwing rocks at agencies, so clients need to acknowledge their own errors. Certainly their own negligence and inertia is partly to blame.
To that you can add - and this point has been conceded by the ANA - the way some CMOs have allowed procurement teams to dominate price negotiations, thus denying their agencies the chance to make a fair margin.
The latter, of course, does not excuse agency behaviour over rebates and other dodgy practices, but it goes a little way to explaining it.
It won't happen, of course, but something like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which both sides could admit to past failures without fear of retribution, would be a good starting point.
What it needs is a chair with the integrity and status of Desmond Tutu. Sadly, I fear, there is no adland equivalent.