Media: Spotlight On: Media Auditors - Auditors spark off debate but controversy comes at a price/Billett’s report could add to grievances felt by media agencies

A seminar hosted by the Billett Consultancy a couple of weeks ago has succeeded in raising a lot of hackles across town. The seminar, and its accompanying report, argued that television was in decline as an effective medium for food advertisers - traditionally one of TV’s staple sectors.

A seminar hosted by the Billett Consultancy a couple of weeks ago

has succeeded in raising a lot of hackles across town. The seminar, and

its accompanying report, argued that television was in decline as an

effective medium for food advertisers - traditionally one of TV’s staple

sectors.



Fairly controversial. But it was by no means the first time that an

auditing company has made a public contribution to a media industry

debate. Nor is it the first time that an auditor has taken a robust

stance on a particular topic.



The combination, though, is new. At least that’s what some observers

feel. Not only new but unpalatable. Billett, they say, has now crossed a

line. And the intensity of feeling on this issue is heightened because

there is a history of simmering resentment against auditors in some

quarters.



Indeed, some major media companies have long and detailed lists of

grievances against auditors. They feel frustrated too - they can’t make

those grievances known because they would be seen to be criticising

their clients. In any case, nobody likes a whinger.



For the record, though, the grievances come under three main

headings.



Firstly, that auditors are funded out of media specialists’ margins;

secondly, that they effectively stifle the evolution of more

sophisticated communication planning models; and, lastly, that they

’steal’ proprietary tools developed by individual specialists and share

them around their client base. Media owners have similar concerns and

are less hidebound when it comes to expressing them. However, they also

tend to find ways to avoid direct confrontation.



Could that change? Are auditors abusing their position? After all,

Billett isn’t the only auditor in the frame here - Media Audits is also

believed to be preparing to take a more prominent role in stimulating

public debate.



Isn’t it more appropriate for watchdog companies - which trade on

integrity and trust - to operate quietly behind the scenes? Just what

should be the extent of auditor influence?



Interestingly, of almost a dozen advertisers contacted, not one felt

compelled to contribute an opinion; but Billett has plenty of defenders

on the agency side of the fence. Nick Manning, managing partner of

Manning Gottlieb Media, states: ’Auditors have integrity. They have to

because they are the last line of defence - no-one audits the auditors.

I know that occasionally media owners are tempted to question their

motives and it may be true that sometimes auditors go over the top to

capture headlines, but they always reflect the essence of what’s really

happening in the marketplace.’



Nick Milligan, the sales director of Channel 5, points out that this is

essentially a new business tactic from Billett; but other media owners

were less understanding. Steve Platt, the managing director of Carlton

Sales, states: ’John Billett may want to promote his own company but I’d

question his methods. His analysis is subjective and he manipulates the

figures in a way that creates fear in the marketplace. The buyers and

sellers of airtime get frustrated at that, particularly when an analysis

is compiled by people who have never negotiated a campaign, never bought

or sold a spot in their lives.’



Has the backlash begun? Another senior TV sales executive sincerely

hopes so: ’ITV people are right to point out that the Billett initiative

on FMCG was hugely and irresponsibly simplistic. My position - though I

can’t say it publicly - is that auditors have been detrimental to the

quality of media thinking in this country and this sort of public

initiative merely makes things worse. Planners and buyers are more

scared of getting a bad audit than of getting the schedule wrong.

Billett will also say that he merely throws stones into the pond and

sees what sort of ripples they create, but he just can’t expect to

distance himself in that way. He may find out that, if this sort of

controversy is detrimental to the long-term interests of the media

industry, it will become a double-edged sword for auditors.’



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