MEDIA FORUM: Should media auditors be reined in or supported?

Some in the industry think that media auditors are stepping beyond their roles. Do Billett's ITV proposals reinforce that view?

John Billett is, some industry wags say, one of life's natural referees. So it is no surprise, those same sources say, to find Billett suggesting that there should be an arbiter in the airtime market, in a proposal which aims to offer a protective framework if Carlton and Granada are allowed to form a single airtime sales house.

While Billett stopped short of throwing his own hat into the ring for his task, the wording of his proposal suggested that a media auditing company would be best placed to monitor the sales houses.

The proposal was made last week in a submission to the Competition Commission's investigation into the proposed ITV merger - and it provoked a response in the advertising business that must have surprised even Billett, who in the past has been no stranger to controversy.

A couple of things seemed to irritate. First, the implication conveyed by the document that, because Billetts acts as a media auditor for 41 per cent of the UK's top 500 advertisers, it is able to speak on behalf of the client community. Then there's the call for an independent auditor to monitor a single ITV sales operation - does John Billett see himself as a possible minister of airtime allocation?

It brought to the surface all sorts of festering resentments felt by both media owners (especially broadcasters) and media agencies towards the auditing profession.

The underlying resentment is fuelled by a perception that auditors have been increasingly stepping beyond their traditional role as the industry's bean-counting police. These days, don't they undermine client-agency relationships, then stage-manage the subsequent pitch and end up trying to cosy up to the client in a more general advertising consultancy role? Clients, of course, have a rather different view and often see their auditor as a guardian of their media spend.

Geoff Russell, the director for media affairs at the IPA, sums up the general fears that occasionally surface in some quarters of the industry.

"Given the clear concerns that agencies might have that the auditors might have a vested interest in destabilising accounts, it is vital that the media auditor should demonstrate absolute integrity throughout the audit process to offset any fears."

This is a subject that Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, follows with interest - at one stage in his career he worked for a media auditing company. He can see why there has been recent concern about the role of auditors in review processes but emphasises there has never been any evidence of abuse.

"As for the Billett submission, it was passed to me by a number of advertisers who were not entirely comfortable with it and who realised that it has an impact on what I am spending a lot of my waking hours doing. I think that there has been disquiet at the implication that Billetts represents advertisers and is speaking on their behalf. Billetts does not represent advertisers. It may service them but it does not represent them. ISBA is the organisation that represents advertisers.

So that was a clear differentiation that we had to set straight with the regulators. There is a strong sense when you read the document that it is self-serving," he states.

Andy Pearch, the chief executive of Billetts Media Consulting, says he can't comment on the Competition Commission submission but he can respond in the strongest possible manner, to speculation surrounding more general aspects of the role of media auditors.

He comments: "First of all, let's not proscribe the market space of Billetts and our competitors with the label 'media auditor'. This is like labelling media agencies as 'media buyers', which would be disingenuous and dismissive of their function.

Like any media agency, Billetts responds to the demands of our customers, and we have extended and broadened our product offering to better serve advertisers' needs."

And specifically, on pitches, he adds: "We abide by four golden rules in pitch management: first, we never select the shortlist; second, we always ensure that the process is fair and transparent for all participating parties; third, we never have a vote in the final decision and, finally, we never negotiate agency terms of business. Our customers are universally appreciative of our contribution on pitches."

Julian Spooner, the chief executive of Media Audits, has a slightly different take - but it's not a million miles away where the substantive points are concerned. He states: "We only ever provide informed advice, experience and analysis to help them make their own decisions. If you are saying that we should just audit and nothing else, then that does not reflect the way that clients see value in us as advisers. They ask us to help them, and the agency improve the way that they work.

"The number of times we actually trigger a review is extremely small - because, frankly, these days there are no really bad agencies out there. It's about trying to find the right fit for the client and to meet its specific needs at any particular time. So many clients are actually very disappointed when they change agencies so our role is often to work to improve the current relationship.

"John Billett is very good at PR. If there's a public stance we need to take on something we will take it, but we take the view that promoting ourselves is not necessarily what our clients want. We tend to take a more discreet approach -more old-fashioned if you like."

Nick Theakstone, the investment director of MindShare, says it's good that the Competition Commission has asked a gamut of people their opinion on the ITV merger. "Having done so, it would be wrong to ignore the views of anybody. However, you could argue Billetts wants a chaotic market in which there is a role for a referee."

But he does agree that the accusations levelled at auditors are usually misplaced, concluding: "In terms of the auditing process as a whole, we have moved beyond the old days when there was a combative relationship.

We are very proud of what we are able to deliver as an agency and it is important that we have an independent entity attesting to that.

"On pitches, from a client point of view, it also takes the uncertainty and confusion out of the whole process. Clients are often confronted with agencies offering all sorts of things and the auditor can help them focus in on the issues that will be important for them. In turn, the auditors are able to help us with the cost-effectiveness of what we do. By helping clients understand the deliverables, auditors can actually help sell us to them."