The fallout from Jon Mandel's statement at the ANA about Agency kickbacks has led to a number of anonymous executives admitting it has happened under their watch and some even confessed to participating themselves. Now, this doesn't mean that these individuals received kickbacks, but that they allowed their agency/media company to take or give money for a media buy. Initially I thought Jon Mandel was overstating a problem, but apparently it is more prevalent than we could imagine. This is certainly more significant than an agency taking the 2% cash/pre-payment discount--which is still sometimes offered--and not offering the money back to the client. In my last blog I focused on the kickbacks that were occurring out in the open via mega holding company specialty shops. Read that blog for background. So to go into more detail, here's how the mechanics would work in two scenarios:
- Moving buys through a barter division. To simplify things, media companies sometimes want to take clients on a trip or schedule a sales meeting in a nice venue away from the office. Rather than pay cash for these trips the media company will offer future access to media inventory at a reduced price or for free to a barter agency. This is easier than going to management and asking them to pay out-of-pocket, but the media company offers value of inventory that is higher than the cost of the trip. The media company can be more lavish and less cost-conscious, especially when it comes to taking clients on a trip. The barter agency sells the inventory either internally or externally at closer to market pricing and makes a significant profit. The barter division of the mega agency holding company tries to move this inventory internally first, where they can ask for equivalent market pricing. If they sell it externally it needs to be sold at below market pricing. Suddenly a 2% commission on national Cable TV becomes 25% or more--I'm being kind. Remember, some of this inventory can be accessed for free. Barter division provides kickback to media agency to ensure the deal goes through.
- Non-disclosed media buying. Marketers less familiar with the agency process or infrastructure might be led to believe that their media buying is falling under the master contract with a creative agency when, in fact, it does not. The media agency adds their commissions into the media prices they quote, taking a high commission rate. The creative agency keeps all of their fees, not having to pay for media service while completely offloading the labor. Sometimes they even get a kickback above and beyond their fee.
Both of these scenarios would pass muster on an audit because the audit only goes one transaction deep. The auditors are not examining every transaction nor do they know there are secondary transactions. The kickback would always be treated as a separate transaction, not discounts on invoices.
The more you know, the more you don't want to know.