Editorial: IDS saga harms media's growing respectability

It's frustrating that the advertising year should have got off to such a dirty start with the detail last week of media agencies' payments from a broadcast sales house.

IDS is the TV sales house for Flextech, and sells airtime for, among others, the UKTV channels - a joint venture with the BBC. Just before Christmas, it emerged that IDS was being investigated by Flextech's parent company, Telewest, for "certain business practices", including the payment of commission to media agencies.

On the face of it, this could be dismissed as an internal accounting issue, a matter between IDS and its paymasters. But there is a more significant issue at play here. IDS has been paying media agencies commissions based on the amount of client money they pledge to spend on IDS's channels.

There's nothing new there. The commission system, antiquated and all but redundant as it now is, is a recognised process of the client/agency/media owner equation. But the detail of the IDS payments was fishy enough to get the Telewest accountants interested.

Of course, in incentivising agencies to commit more of their clients' money to its channels, IDS has done nothing illegal. And, in taking the money, media agencies too have done nothing materially wrong. But the whole affair whiffs of poor practice. It would be naive to think such payments to agencies were unusual or, in these days of near-universal media auditing, that many clients are buying media that serves the agency balance sheet rather than their own marketing interests.

But as media agencies stand poised to ascend to the boardroom, to claim a place as clients' business partners, the IDS farrago simply reinforces all the old prejudices about media as a commodity business where you're advised to count your fingers after shaking hands with the buying director.

In truth, media has grown into one of the most professionally run, accountable and intelligent elements of the communications process. Of course, if more clients paid a decent price for this service, agencies would not be so tempted to take IDS's payments in the first place.