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By Cliff Campeau
Principal of Advertising Audit & Risk Management (AARM), Cliff Campeau, questions how advertisers can confidently state they’ve actually received what they’ve paid for.
“Verifying actual costs and time-keeping relative to estimate, and independently vouching agency support is a sound practice – yielding solid learning that forms the basis of process improvements, enhance reporting, and improved controls“
Plans are approved, purchase orders are issued by the advertiser to their agencies who then invoice the advertiser on an estimated basis for the approved activity. Reconciling invoices are then submitted by the agency once jobs and campaigns are closed out are submitted. However, these invoices come sans any third-party vendor invoice detail.
So, how is it an advertiser can state with confidence that it received what it paid for?
The simple fact is that unless an advertiser conducts financial audits of its agency partners or it pays on a final billing basis (which is rare), they don’t know if value commensurate to its payments was received.
Think about that. Advertising spend is a material expense and there is little, or no billing support documentation provided by agencies to their clients to substantiate that expense. Given this approach it is fair to ask; “How comfortable should agency CFOs be that their organizations got what they paid for?” Typically, the only window into an advertiser’s approved expenses is agency invoice totals relative to approved purchase orders… not reconciled final billing support from agency affiliates and third-party vendors to the agency.
Along the way, marketing may receive agency reporting in the form of time-of-staff tracking and fee burn reports or job status summaries, but these are best used to generally track spend levels, not to verify purchases. The only way to vouch for the accuracy of an agency’s billing to a client is to conduct a financial management audit.
Unfortunately, the time lag between an agency’s initial billing to a client and final reconciled billing, where estimates are trued up to reflect actual costs can be several months – or sometimes not at all. That is a long time for an advertiser not to have a direct line of sight into the disposition of their funds.
This is the reason that client/agency agreements contain guidelines governing agency financial reporting, time tracking, job and campaign reconciliation and acceptable billing practices (e.g., cost to be billed on a pass-through basis, net of any mark-up). As importantly, it is also why all such agreements contain record retention and audit rights clauses that provide advertisers with the ability to conduct contract compliance and financial management audits.
Based on experience, client-side CFOs should not place a blind level of trust in agency partner billings and financial reporting. Verifying actual costs and time-keeping relative to estimate, and independently vouching agency support is a sound practice – yielding solid learning that forms the basis of process improvements, enhance reporting, and improved controls. This in addition to financial true ups in the form of historical recoveries that more than cover the cost of the audits themselves.
As the saying goes: “In God we trust, all others we audit”.
Cliff Campeau, MBA, PCM® is a Principal with Advertising Audit & Risk Management.