MEDIA FORUM: Is there a market for an invoice-checking service?

Are media clients being overcharged enough to warrant paying a specialist spot-matcher, or is the service unnecessary, Alasdair Reid asks.

The media industry veteran Mike Yershon reckons he's spotted a significant gap in the broadcast market - and he's offering to fill it, if anyone's interested. Yershon reckons the invoicing system in the broadcast market is at best inaccurate and at worst an impressionistic travesty.

Invoicing? Sounds like a dull back office technicality but not so dull, Yershon argues, when you realise the enormity of what's at stake. Advertisers, he reckons, are being invoiced for rather a lot of inventory they don't receive. TV advertising is a fast-moving business. Planners and buyers may lay down a schedule way in advance of transmission but in the heat of battle, the first thing to go by the board is the plan. On some campaigns there's a lot of last-minute tweaking - not least when broadcasters alter their programme schedules at the last minute.

The trouble is that much of the paperwork has to be done in advance so that media owners can raise an invoice in time for the buying agency to pass it on to the advertiser in time for the client to send the cash back to the agency in time for the agency to pay the invoice in time to take advantage of prompt payment incentives from the media owner.

So it's inevitable that the monthly invoice, which often reflects the plan rather than the execution, sometimes doesn't match up to reality.

And of course there's the odd slip-up at the media owner end - spots that weren't broadcast for one reason or another. On some multichannel campaigns these days, the invoice may only be 20 per cent accurate.

That's why Yershon is launching a new company called Yershon Media Assessment.

It will offer two products, Dealchecker and Invoicechecker, which will do exactly what they say on the tin and, thanks to proprietary software, they will do it electronically and automatically. The system has evolved out of consultancy work for Esure ad campaigns.

Yershon says that due to its speed and transparency, his service allows advertisers improved control over their television spend. He adds: "The reason no-one has raised this before is the complexity of the task. An invoice can comprise thousands of spots and these need to be reconciled against Barb-reported transmissions plus the details negotiated with TV contractors by the media agency. This service can dramatically improve a client's return on investment from its TV advertising."

This could have big implications for the broadcast economy. If there's such a large routine inaccuracy at the heart of the industry, might it not be that some clients are routinely paying over the odds? And if they use the new service and put that right, could it lead to a revaluation of the sector's revenue potential?

The immediate response of many in the market was that Yershon's products would have been appropriate for the way the TV market was traded circa 1986. The problem now is that campaigns are no longer agonised over spot by spot. These days, while some of the fine detail is handcrafted, you tend to buy big ratings packages that broadcasters are allowed to fulfil in the most efficient way for all concerned via optimisation software.

Invoices are merely a pro forma mechanism triggering a regular cash flow and to squabble over every last line of them would surely bring the business grinding to a halt. As long as the books are balanced at the end of the deal period, then everyone's happy, aren't they?

When Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest, first started in the business at Young & Rubicam in the 70s, Yershon was the main man in UK media (the media director of the biggest and sexiest agency in town during that period, Collett Dickenson Pearce) and Marshall was doing spot-matching - a humble task just up the career ladder from making the tea.

Marshall is not immodest enough to suggest he is now the main man in media; but he is mischievous enough to find the irony in Yershon seeking to end his career setting up a company to do spot-matching.

He states: "All of this is recorded by Barb and through our computer system. Anyone who's not already doing this should be shot. To be honest, a combination of client expertise, auditors and agency reconciliation processes has cornered this off. If he can find clients prepared to pay for his service, then good luck."

Andy Bolden, the UK advertising director of GlaxoSmithKline, would perhaps be a likely target. After all, the company doesn't employ conventional media auditors, so it's not exactly overburdened by outside expertise.

Bolden says he doesn't know the full details of the proposed new service but from what he understands, this is not likely to be an area that many advertisers will be fretting over.

"It seems to me that they are talking about getting money back or not releasing money. The way the TV market works, if the contractor owes us anything, it's value, not money. It's also a matter of trust. If you have a decent relationship with the media agency and have confidence that it is delivering, then whether I'm in debt or in credit this month is not really an issue. It kind of works its way through," he says.

On the other hand, he concedes, it could shorten the time between the broadcast of spots and the receipt of an accurate transmission report.

"But to my mind it doesn't add to the spirit of trading between client, media owner and agency. In future, I'm sure we will be moving to more electronic ways of trading but there are other things that brand teams can be more profitably doing," he states.

Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, can't believe that the new offering is necessary because the integrity of the broadcast system is higher now than it has ever been. And the whole rationale for YMA seems to imply a fundamental dishonesty in the way the marketplace works. "That is unwarranted and unhelpful," he argues. "It only serves to reduce the trust between the client and a media buyer. I think the industry would be better served by having more resource directed at establishing which media strategy is the most effective rather than simply more bean-counting."

But does the new company undermine the existing auditing companies? Julian Spooner, the chief executive of Media Audits, points out that he already offers this service as part of the client package - and for free.

He adds: "As a standalone service, we do not see it as being of enough value to charge clients for a basic spot-check from Barb data. This is a very basic grass-roots audit. If our clients required or requested this service on its own, we would oblige. However, most advertisers are more interested in effectiveness and the deals they have based on their target market."

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