MEDIA: FORUM; Can ITV force agencies to be more accountable?

Last week, ITV came up with proposals to make airtime trading more transparent and put an end to various abuses of the trading system. Both sides have been at fault in the past, but agencies have been the most recent offenders. Is it time they were forced to clean up their acts? Alasdair Reid asks the media buyers and sellers

Last week, ITV came up with proposals to make airtime trading more

transparent and put an end to various abuses of the trading system. Both

sides have been at fault in the past, but agencies have been the most

recent offenders. Is it time they were forced to clean up their acts?

Alasdair Reid asks the media buyers and sellers

Media buyers can hardly say they haven’t been warned. On at least two

occasions since the notorious 1993 Yorkshire overtrading fiasco, the

television airtime market has threatened to go into meltdown again. On

both occasions, the crisis was due to blatant agency overdealing and the

resulting ITV threats that it might be forced to take action and sue the

offenders. It didn’t come to that on either occasion and many observers

reckoned that the agencies involved were lucky to escape the disastrous

headlines that would have resulted.

But ITV has now decided that enough is enough and is promising that it

will act tough. Last week its auditor, Rickards, wrote to the finance

directors of television buying agencies, requesting - perhaps

‘demanding’ would be closer to the mark - free access to all trading

accounts on a month-by-month basis.

Most airtime deals involve agreements on the share of billings that the

media buying company is prepared to commit to a particular sales point.

The greater the share, the bigger the discount. The temptation, for some

agencies, is to offer apparently large shares to all of the sales house.

The agency’s total commitment to the market as a whole will be more than

100 per cent, but how will the sales houses ever know? After all, they

are fierce competitors and don’t spend a lot of time talking to each

other about their deals.

This new system of auditing will be watertight, and it will also make

agency finance directors responsible for making sure that deals are met.

All of which is fair enough, surely? Well, not entirely, media buyers


Bill Barker, the broadcast director of J. Walter Thompson, is not

entirely happy with the ITV initiative. ‘Our basic position is that this

agency has nothing to hide when it comes to enhancements to the auditing

procedure,’ he asserts. ‘But this shouldn’t turn into a fishing

expedition for ITV, with the sales points trawling for all the

information they can get hold of to help them in future airtime

negotiations. The auditor should be able to assess an agency’s

performance on deals and give it a pass or a fail - no numbers should be

involved at that stage. If it fails, the auditors should be able to come

back and go through the numbers so that the sales point can see what it

is owed. There is no justification for seeking monthly information when

a deal is done on an annual basis. ITV is after far more information

than is strictly necessary for transparency purposes, and we have a

problem with that.

‘It is also our view that trading transparency would be further enhanced

by allowing our clients to audit ITV’s books in greater detail.

Basically, if we are talking transparency, there is a lot it can be

doing too. There must be clear terms of reference on both sides.’

John Blakemore, the UK advertising director of SmithKline Beecham and

the chairman of the Broadcast Action Group of the Incorporated Society

of British Advertisers, says that he welcomes the initiative - in

principle. ‘Anything that ensures that the terms of deals are met gets

my approval,’ he states.

‘But I’m not sure this is the right way to go about it. It seems heavy-

handed to say the least. Some of the information ITV is asking for does

not concern share deals and is therefore none of its business.

‘I have written to our buying agencies telling them not to release any

information other than what is necessary to assure them that we have met

the terms of our agreements. I don’t know if this is going to be an ISBA

issue because we haven’t had time to have a meeting. All I can say is

that it might have made more sense for ITV to talk to us first.’

Mick Desmond, the chief executive of Laser Sales, says that the issue is

about good business practice as well as trading transparency. The

business community as a whole has been seeking to ensure that the front

of house - traders and negotiators - are singing from the same hymn

sheet as the back of house - finance controllers and directors.

‘As far as the auditing process is concerned, nothing has been

formalised yet and I can only talk on behalf of Laser,’ Desmond says.

‘As a company, we now have the necessary structures in place to

reconcile deals, which are signed off by both front and back of house.

We trade in an open fashion and in that respect we are in line with most

major companies these days. In order to fulfil station average price

agreements we publish our revenue figures and validate those figures by

producing Independent Television Commission certificates.

‘We are looking for the same open practice from agencies. Some agencies

have gone through these processes - but it is not something that any of

them should be afraid of, especially if they have nothing to hide.

Unfortunately, in the past, there have been examples on both sides where

the dealing process has been abused. What we are keen to see is the

introduction of the best possible trading practices for the industry.’

Tony Kenyon, the managing partner of IDK Media, agrees that ITV’s

motives are more impressive than the methods it intends to use. ‘ITV has

to weed out those agencies that are defaulting on deals,’ he says. ‘Most

people will agree with that. And I suppose you can understand ITV’s

reasoning - let’s talk directly to finance directors because they are

less likely to tell porkies. But it should stick to asking for

information relating to the deals that have been agreed. It wants more.

‘I’m afraid this would appear to be classic ITV arrogance. This should

have been brought up as part of annual negotiations in the autumn rather

than halfway through the year. We will politely decline this request,

while making it clear that we are in favour of doing what is helpful in

weeding out offenders in the airtime market. If, in the future, we do

come to an agreement about sending information relevant to share deals,

it will have to be done at a frequency that doesn’t put an intolerable

burden on the agency.’