GroupM's Trump-style attack on the ANA

07 Nov 2016  |  Dominic Mills 
GroupM's Trump-style attack on the ANA

Irwin Gotlieb, global chairman of GroupM

Some of GroupM's recent criticisms of the ANA's report into media transparency are downright ridiculous, writes Dominic Mills

I suppose it was only a matter of time before we saw Donald Trump's influence spread. Whether he wins or not on Tuesday, Trump's style - leaving aside the wholly distasteful misogyny - has undoubtedly been effective.

Challenged, Trump uses some or all of these behaviours: bluster, deny, insinuate, obfuscate, mislead, dissemble and hit out - do anything but engage in reasoned and rational debate.

That was how I felt when I read of the response of Irwin Gotlieb, global chairman of GroupM to a question about the ANA report into media agency practices.

You can read a fuller summary of Gotlieb's comments here. For starters there's a not-very-subtle attempt to shift the spotlight on malpractice over to some other holding companies, by hinting that there might be messy stuff afoot at those agencies whose holding companies are not Sarbanes Oxley-compliant - which WPP, IPG and Omnicom are, so no prizes for guessing who he might mean.

But here's a key quote in which Gotlieb characterises the ANA report as merely an attempt by auditors (in this case Firm Decisions, a subsidiary of Ebiquity) to win more business.

"I'm going to be really harsh," Gotlieb said candidly. "The entire effort was a biz-dev [business-development] effort...The ANA allowed themselves to be part of a third-party's business development."

He continued...

"If you are a forensic investigation firm and promise to uncover stuff, you get retained to do it," Gotlieb said. "If you're an auditor...I mean, the weekend before the ANA report came out, there was a page on the Ebiquity site that essentially incited clients to action. It was pure biz-dev," he charged. "It was in such poor taste that even they took it down."

Wow. From which point do we start to unpick this? One, the ANA report was instigated following a talk to the ANA annual conference in 2015 by one of Gotlieb's former colleagues, erstwhile Mediacom US CEO Jon Mandel, highlighting agency malpractices.

Two, the report was actually put together at the ANA's behest by K2, a high-level investigations agency. As I understand it, FirmDecisions' role - in response to an RFP from the ANA - was, separately, to produce a report suggest how advertisers might tackle these issues, and a best-practice guide.

In other words, K2 provided the diagnosis and FirmDecisions proposed possible cures.

Three, does Gotlieb really expect people to believe that the ANA was effectively hoodwinked and then hijacked by FirmDecisions to serve its own purposes? I looked at the make-up of the ANA's agency relations committee, and then its media leadership committee.

I'm struggling to believe that these heavy-hitting, big-brand executives allowed themselves to become a tool of a niche auditing firm's new-business development.

Gotlieb is right only insofar as FirmDecisions stands to benefit from any increase in the profile of auditing (as do other specialists), but to suggest it, rather than the ANA, instigated the whole process is ridiculous.

Could Gotlieb be firing a warning shot across Ebiquity's bow?"

And I can't believe either that the CMOs who make up the ANA's governing bodies will see Gotlieb's comments as anything other than an attack on their credibility and integrity.

Of course it might to help to know - as the fellow interviewing Gotlieb failed to point out - that GroupM is also currently embroiled in a legal spat with FirmDecisions' parent over an unrelated matter. Could the two be connected? Could Gotlieb be firing a warning shot across Ebiquity's bow? Hmm, well let me think for a nano-second about that.

There are three ways of looking at it when someone - Trump like - lashes out blindly in response to a challenge.

One is to conclude that they are much more threatened than they would have you think.

The second is to ask whether, even if they're saying black is white, they really believe it.

I asked someone who knows him well if Gotlieb believed what he was saying. The response (and I paraphrase): 'Yes, he takes the view that contractual compliance is everything and media agency contracts, whether fully disclosed or the non-disclosed model sometimes used by GroupM, are negotiated by each side to the best they can.'

In other words, as I interpret this, Gotlieb is saying that both parties are fully-consenting adults and any contracts entered into are their own businesses. Caveat emptor.

The third is to conclude is that this is a false trail, the production of hot air designed to deflect interested parties away from the real issues.

I have no idea which of these is in play here, but I fear Gotlieb's dismissive attitude will have done him no favours with clients. Whatever he thinks, he needs to be seen to take the ANA seriously.

Role-reversal shock

There I was boarding a mid-week flight to Newquay from Gatwick last week (for work, not pleasure), and who should march on behind me? None other than a gaggle of medialand's finest...a clutch of senior media agency and media-owner folk. I'm not sure who was the more surprised when we spotted each other.

Ah, I thought, this is a jolly. Indeed it was, but not quite the way I'd thought.

Far from being a media owner ponying up to take agency folk out for the day, in which the supplier spends lavishly on the buyers, it was the other way round. Yes, a media agency was entertaining its suppliers.

How refreshing. This may have happened in the past, when relationships between buyer and seller were more equal, but the balance of power has shifted to the extent that such role reversal today is, in my experience, extremely rare. Indeed, most agencies exhibit a sense of entitlement when it comes to being entertained by media owners.

I'll spare the agency's name - in case all its media-owner suppliers start demanding equal treatment - but let me say they are now even higher in my estimation.

(Disclosure: I have, from time to time, done work for both GroupM and Ebiquity.)

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