Media auditing has never been more important, yet harder for advertisers to get right. The industry needs to wake up and realise that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work, in what is a complex and fragmented media landscape.

Current media auditing practices have failed to adapt to the shift in media consumption and as a result, advertisers lack a true assessment and perspective on the effectiveness of their media investment. One of the main issues is the focus on price and pool based benchmarking. A method that hasn’t changed much since it’s introduction in the 1990’s. If one was to look at the media landscape and buying methods then and now, you would see a stark difference. As a result, you would expect media audits to have adapted to this change, however, the industry has failed to keep pace.

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Media audits have historically been completed in two parts:

Firstly the auditor would provide the media agency with an excel based template that requested information for each line item buy. In channels where audience targeting was broad such as radio (i.e Female, ABC1, 25-44) and a set number of variances affected the media buy (time of day, station etc.), the process was manageable from an input and analysis perspective. 

The auditor then compared and benchmarked this data to their market wide data, known as pool based benchmarking. This pool was an amalgamation of data from different media owners and agencies. It was, therefore, possible to understand how good or not a certain agency was at buying a 30” ad on a prime time national station. This typically looked at the last 12 months of media buying and by the time the analysis was completed, it was usually 6-9 months old.

At the time, the focus on price (the input) was fit for purpose in situations where an advertiser had limited mediums for distribution and target audiences were broad. This allowed clients to keep their media agency accountable and track the value of media on a yearly basis across traditional media channels (TV, print, radio, OOH). 

The rise of digital media and auction-based/programmatic methods involve a new set of trading dynamics. In 2019, programmatic ad spend is forecasted to account for 65% of all digital media spend (Zenith Media Programmatic Marketing Forecasts). This is the catalyst that the industry is trying to grapple with.

With the rise of digital, one of the main benefits is the availability of data and measurement. This provides advertisers with the opportunity to measure the outputs from their media investment, either in terms of sales for performance clients or engagement for brand. The ability to evaluate media performance on outputs rather than inputs (price) creates a great opportunity for advertisers and media auditors.

In a world where price is the focus, advertisers can fall into a trap, as the quality of media quickly erodes, resulting in your brand appearing next to unsafe content or seen by non-human eyeballs (despite agencies and large online platforms claiming to be 100% brand safe).

Coupled with the pitfalls of focusing on price is the inability to correctly benchmark that price vs a pool. Within digital, the complexity of targeting combined with dynamic pricing results in an endless amount of unique auction buys, causing an accurate benchmark to be neither achievable nor realistic. 

Due to these concerns, many advertisers are finding their digital media being exempt from current audits (although Direct IO buys can still be evaluated). There are also those who wish to keep auction-based buying off audits due to hidden margins but this is slowly decreasing thanks to improvements in operating models and contracts. As a result, an increasingly large proportion of advertisers media investment is going un-audited. How the industry has let this happen is an embarrassment and sign that something needs to change.

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What is media auditing and why it needs to change

So if the input (price) shouldn’t be the focus when it comes to online media auditing, what should advertisers expect and demand from their auditing partners and the industry? How can they incorporate the nuances of digital to ensure they continue to keep their agency accountable for the media they are buying? 


Upstream planning

Media starts at the planning stage. Where an agency decides to investment, impact’s the ability for that media to deliver against key outputs or KPI’s. Media auditors require the knowledge of media planners, in order to assess the validity of the media plan, not just the execution (buying). The old saying of buying the plan vs planning the buy is what we mean here. It’s important that the auditor has the skill set to know where to look and the right questions to ask, that would uncover such errors or good practices.


Focus on optimisation and outputs

If there is one element that digital benefits from, it’s the availability of data and opportunity for optimisation. Two agencies could have the same channel investment and even bought through the same platforms but yield different results. The correct application of knowledge and expertise, following what is considered to be best practice can largely impact the performance of media. Auditors needs to be able to assess the setup and ongoing optimisation of activity.


Access to log files and platforms

For digital audits to be successful, auditors will need access to the buying platforms (Facebook, Google etc.) as well as the log files that are generated as a result of campaign activity. Log files are essentially the most granular data that digital media generates, providing far more detail than what you would be able to view from a report downloaded via an ad server or one of the buying platforms. Many advertisers may be unaware of their access rights, based on current contractual agreements. It’s important that this is reviewed and updated before any audit takes place.


Speed

Digital can be optimised continuously, it’s therefore important that advertisers have access to the audit results as soon as possible. This will ensure that any findings from the audit can be implemented and benefit future investment. Traditional audits typically look at data from the previous year (due to the length of time it takes to collect and analyse the data). Using insights and recommendations from audits that are 6-9 months old, reduces their value to the advertiser and their agency. For this data to be more effective, the time between analysis, insight generation and application needs to be reduced. 

Independence

In an industry rife with conflict, it is important that the auditor has no vested interests. Recent move by some auditors (Accenture and Deloitte) to get into the media buying business has upset agency holding groups. WPP and Omnicom have taken a stance by stating that they will not be participating in audits run by Accenture from 2020, according to industry sources. The issue lies in WPP’s concern that Accenture will gain access to their buying rates, putting Accenture at an unfair advantage when competing in future pitches for media buying. Going into an audit, there should be no question as to the auditor’s methods or motives. Going forwards independence will be a key factor.

ID Comms believe that the industry should embrace the dynamics of modern media buying, understanding that whilst offline media can still be audited through tried and tested methods, a new approach is necessary for digital. 

For this reason, ID Comms have built an auditing framework that applies relevant methodologies to both offline and online media. Where possible these methodologies focus on outcome-based KPIs. By adapting the KPI’s to fit modern trading practices, our evaluation extends beyond price to evaluate the data, talent and tech capabilities of your media partners, levels of transparency provided, as well as best practice regarding media management and optimisation.

The approach blends quantitative and qualitative KPI’s using auditable data from active/recently concluded campaigns and importantly analyses this data within a shorter time frame. By using more recent data and speeding up the rate of analysis, ID Comms are able to provide the insights & recommendations faster, allowing advertisers and agencies to implement recommendations to drive improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.

This approach provides a more holistic assessment of an advertiser’s media investment, ensuring that we maximise the percentage of auditable media and agency accountability.

We have built this approach as we believe that advertisers deserve more. Progressive advertisers should be looking to understand the quality of media placements, rather than solely focusing on price.

ID Comms pride ourselves on providing and integrating a strategic and consultative mindset to auditing, so that our clients are provided with actionable insights and recommendations, allowing them to make informed decisions on the future roles of their media planning and supplier investments.

Advertisers who embrace this approach and look to advance the sophistication of digital measurement have reported being 70% more efficient in driving positive ROI than those beginning their digital transformations. Success is, therefore, achievable with the appropriate investments and fine-tuning to get it right (Alix & Partners - Achieving profitable growth 2019)

ID Comms Media Transparency Report

Download ID Comms 2018 Global Media Transparency Report

The ID Comms 2018 Media Transparency Survey is one of seven ID Comms research projects that are undertaken every two years and explore the seven critical media behaviours of successful marketers. Transparency is the first survey to be revisited, having kicked off the research programme in 2016.