Why media auditing is effectively dead

I don’t usually like headlines in marketing declaring that something is dead. Television was dead. Advertising is dead. But I am confident that with the recent announcement that Accenture is dropping media auditing, it is fair to say the end is nigh. Sure, there are still plenty of advertisers wanting to have the price of their media benchmarked, but in a time of real time bidding and programmatic trading, the ability and the need to provide an audit of the price paid after-the-fact is becoming less relevant.

But perhaps the numbers of those advertisers, who traditionally relied on media auditing to measure the price of their media, are also decreasing rapidly, which would go some of the way to explaining the steep decline in the share price for Ebiquity, who struggle to move beyond auditing in most markets.

It is not as if this decline in demand for media auditing is a surprise. John Billett, considered the father of media auditing in the UK, stated back in 2013 that media auditing was clearly flawed. This perhaps explains why he had sold out to create Ebiquity eight years years earlier.

It was around this time, we made the decision to not support media trading benchmarking, because there were so many better ways to assess media value than by price alone.

According to Ebiquity, media auditing is “the practice of checking that the media that a client has bought is in the right places, at competitive prices”. This was originally largely based on television or broadcast media buying. The practice of CPM comparison against large advertiser pools for mass audiences is increasingly less relevant for all but the biggest brands with broad audience appeal.

For most advertisers, selection of the most fertile environments now overrides the ‘low cost eyeballs’ approach of the past. Value is now achieved by buying the right audience in the right environments at a competitive price, not just the lowest price.

Traditional media auditing sits at odds with shrewd tactical placement where deeper engagement is the core campaign objective. It works to penalise rather than reward smart strategy and innovation in delivery. Over emphasis on inventory pricing (linked to agency reward) isn’t a great springboard for innovation and ‘game changing’ strategy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are still many major advertisers out there demanding media auditing – or media benchmarking to use a more appropriate term. In fact, not a week goes by when we do not get a Request for Proposal from a procurement team, somewhere in the world, wanting us to respond to their need for a media auditor.

This is rather embarrassing actually, for them as well as us, because it means we first have to contact them and explain not only that we do not do “media auditing”, but also explain why. Do you know how hard it can be to engage a procurement person in a conversation? Many are like ghosts, hiding behind their keyboard, sending out requests by email from an email address as anonymous as procurementservices@vlmnc.com.  Occasionally, if we have triggered their curiosity, we will get a response and on the odd occasion a phone call.

The conversations are enlightening. It appears that many advertisers are addicted to media auditing for a number of reasons: first, many bonus their media agency based on beating the audit; second, they equate cost with value on the mistaken belief that media is a commodity where buying cheaper is buying better; and third, their whole media management process is based on the audit. You can see their predicament. It’s a situation where even when you may know the process is fatally flawed, you cannot let it go for fear of having to embrace something new.

If you are not convinced of the flaws in media auditing, one of my favourite conversations starts with asking how well their digital display and online video auditing is going. If you are measuring your media agency on achieving lowest price, it is highly likely they will not be using private markets or buying premium inventory, due to cost. Operating in the open market and buying on lowest cost per impression can leave you open to huge amounts of ad fraud. So how are they factoring in the waste in potentially millions of low-cost fraudulent buys that no-one ever sees?

Believe me, it does not take long for the conversation to stall. (Sure, they may have an answer, but it is usually that one adtech provider is marking another adtech provider’s homework and the whole purpose and independent integrity of the media audit is lost.) Usually they hang up and we never hear from them again. Why? Because it is better to stick with something that is flawed, than to change to something new. Even if that means you will get a much better understanding of the actual value delivered and not just the cost.

It is just a matter of time.

This article first appeared on The Drum March 9, 2020

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