MEDIA: FORUM - Can media auditors crack the US scene?

Will companies such as Billetts make a go of it in the US or will not-invented-here syndrome win, Alasdair Reid asks.

People on this side of the Atlantic vastly underestimate the innate conservatism of US business life. By and large, the managers of corporate America get to the top later in life than is now common in Europe and they hang on for longer. It's a paradox we can't really get our heads around - in the "can-do" economy where, we'd like to believe, people aren't afraid of thinking the impossible, they actually like doing things by the book.

That's why the structure of the US advertising economy has taken so long to evolve, though full-service agencies are now, at last, being consigned to the dustbin of history. But one thing they've still managed to resist over there is the strange cult of the media auditor.

There have, of course, been US media performance monitors and pitch consultants knocking about for decades, but their involvement has not been as widespread (or on as formal a basis) as it has been for years now in Europe.

That may be about to change. Last week, Billetts launched a US operation called Media Performance Monitor America, in partnership with Erwin Ephron of the US media company The Ephron Consultancy and Neil Klar of the media data provider SQAD.

What are its chances? Ephron argues the market is more than ready for this. He points out that a mood of high anxiety has been sweeping the country in the wake of last year's financial scandals - from Enron to WorldCom. Clients are asking questions about things such as the famous upfront TV market turkey shoot, where buyers place a mindnumbing $8 billion dollars on the phone in ten working days.

Ephron states: "In a market that has been on an economic plateau for a relatively long time now, performance has been front and centre of everyone's minds. In the past it was in the interests of (creative) agencies to monitor the buyers' performance on cost and delivery. Agencies effectively kept an eye on each other. But that changed as the market morphed into media buying agencies of record. Now the drive for performance monitoring is through the procurement departments (of big advertisers)."

He argues that the problem with procurement people is that they don't have media expertise. "You need an independent third party at the same level as the (media buying) agency of record, with access to everything.

Access is the important point. Buying the data here is very expensive.

Smaller agencies don't have access to the data. But this isn't auditors versus the agencies. And, in fact, where you find problems, more than half of them are actually down to things that have occurred at the advertiser."

David Pattison, the worldwide chief executive of the PHD network, argues that it could be an uphill struggle for Billetts: "It's a very different sort of market compared with most of the markets that Billetts is active in. For a start, in the US, we are agents rather than the principals (in media transactions). The client pays the media owner directly, which means that, from the client point of view, it's a far more transparent market.

"Auditors will have to concentrate more on the quality of what's being bought. But it will be difficult for them to put together a database that will come anywhere near to the market share of the big holding companies - Omnicom, for instance, represents 20 per cent of the national broadcast market. So, yes, I'm sure auditors will gain a foothold but it will be difficult."

Rich Hamilton, the chief executive of ZenithOptimedia North America, says he finds it hard to comment on the actual details of what's being proposed because he hasn't see any details yet. He adds: "John Billett has sent an e-mail to lots of people over here but the details remain more than a little vague. Certainly we will be more than happy to look at this when he is more in a position to reveal what he's proposing.

But that said, I don't believe there is any need for third-party media evaluators in this country. I know auditors have made a case for themselves in other markets. I'm not sure I can comment on that either."

Dominic Proctor, the MindShare worldwide chief executive, echoes much of that: "I'd agree that there is a huge demand for transparency and benchmarking but not necessarily for auditors as such. We'll see, obviously. The market will decide. The thing is that transparency and benchmarking is already at the heart of what we do. I'm not at all sure it needs to be supplemented by a third party. They will only succeed if they find a way to offer something that the agencies aren't currently doing already. It's as simple as that.

They need to add another dimension. If they do there will be a place for them. They will be a welcome addition."

- "The strength of Billetts' approach is that it recognises media is a process and that you therefore have to take a quality-control approach to it. In media you've got to put in place checkpoints across the whole year and monitor continuously."

Erwin Ephron founder, The Ephron Consultancy

- "In European markets, it has been possible for auditors to identify ways in which there has been less than full transparency. That will be less of a factor in the US. Billetts won't be able to sell themselves that way."

David Pattison worldwide chief executive, PHD network

- "We have more than adequate procedures in Zenith itself and our clients regularly come in to go through the verification processes we have. When you've auditing procedures like that in place, you don't need others."

Rich Hamilton chief executive, ZenithOptimedia North America

- "The US market is very different from any Billetts has encountered. The total spend is much greater, there's a greater media choice and there's a geographical complexity that will make it difficult to build up the sort of market picture that it is used to building."

Dominic Proctor worldwide chief executive, MindShare.

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