Accenture, Audits, Agencies

A few weeks ago we featured an interview given by Mark Read, now joint COO at the post-Sorrell WPP in which he stressed the importance of the group focussing more on clients and less on internal matters.

We made the point that that sentiment may be obvious, but it needed saying.In the light of that thought it’s worth revisiting the fuss the agencies (certainly not just GroupM) made around what many see as a conflict of interest in Accenture entering the programmatic media buying business.

We’ve been here before – only two weeks ago, but it’s interesting to take a look at some of the language the agencies use.

Here’s Stephen Allan, Worldwide Chairman and CEO of MediaCom: “You can’t ask for money to pay the piper and then play the tune yourself.” And, “As someone who now competes with one part of the company, I would be extremely reluctant to provide MediaCom’s proprietary data to another part.”

The first bit you could hardly make up. A media agency suggesting it is not acceptable to ask for money from someone (oh, I don’t know, like a media owner possibly?) and then be seen as objective (as in planning a campaign potentially featuring said media owner, perhaps?).

It may be hypocritical but that first part is hardly news. The second quote from Stephen’s article is more revealing.

On the one hand (you can read this sentence two ways) I can see Stephan’s point. Imagine yourself as an agency in a pitch, run by Accenture on behalf of a client. An element of the brief asks for a demonstration of a particular suite of tools, or skills that are particularly relevant.

What’s to stop Accenture pitch management handing every agencies’ secret sauce over to Accenture programmatic? Aside of course from a strong ethical sense; a series of well-placed firewalls; a desire not to put at risk any business the wider Accenture might have with that client; and the very real threat that such behaviour would soon lead to the entire organisation becoming known as untrustworthy and as leaky as a very leaky bucket.

Serious reputational damage, in other words. Network agencies should recognise that threat.

And that’s before we even get to the reality that most agencies’ secret sauce is hardly secret (staff churn rates being what they are); and that nobody ever enters a pitch presentation with so much technical detail on display as to make whatever it is worth nicking for the purposes of ripping it off.

There is though another way of reading this sentence, that has been reflected in public comments from other agencies too. And that meaning is that a client audit of the agency’s work is something the agency can decide not to participate in.

WPP has form here. An age ago, as referenced in this post from February 2014 Xaxis formally refused to agree to be audited. And WPP threatened legal action against the auditor Ebiquity because a WPP agency had mistakenly sent some confidential material to the auditor. I know, weird.

Any service organisation can of course refuse to collaborate in any request from any client.

A local media agency can always say to its local client: ‘We understand your desire to audit your media spend; we appreciate that you have been through a rigorous competitive process in which client confidentiality has been front and centre, and that you’ve come out the other end selecting Accenture as your auditor. But our global CEO has decreed that they’re not acceptable to us as the guardian of your budgets and thus we won’t be supplying them with any information relating to the way we’ve chosen to spend your money.’

The fact is though if they say that the client probably won’t be a client for long. Which is why this conversation tends not to take place.

It might be an idea for agencies to focus on their clients and on doing the job so many do so well and to stop boxing shadows.

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