The rush of advertisers reviewing whether their media budgets are being spent wisely online was meant to stimulate the audit industry when in reality it has exposed its flaws. Advertisers are going beyond classic price auditing in their attempts to buy better ads.

It was during a recent attempt to take more media buying in-house that the senior marketer at a global advertiser realized they had to re-evaluate the role of media auditors.

Most of the ads bought by the team would be in online auctions where they would bid for ads in real time. There’s no rate card to benchmark against those sorts investments because it’s a fluid pricing system, and yet the audit firms that pitched to the team wanted to benchmark CPMs at a domain level, said the marketer. Those audits would have little value because the advertiser is constantly changing domains as well as the type of impressions it buys from them. Instead, the advertiser turned to a programmatic expert who knew how to fold metrics like quality, effective use of data, transparency and optimization into an audit.

Advertisers rely on big auditing firms to pore over their media investments and warn them of impending disasters. Recent scandals suggest they are not doing a great job. Viewability, fraud and brand safety remain big issues that are made even worse by audits that benchmark the cost of an ad at the expense of its quality.

“The sheer amount of variables that are involved in any digital impression is so large that a CPM benchmark by itself just is not valid and gives a completely wrong impression of the agency’s performance,” said Ruben Schreurs, managing partner at digital media consulting firm Digital Decisions.

There are two kinds of media audit: One is called “pool benchmarking” where the advertisers price and quality demands are benchmarked against the auditor’s pool of clients to understand the competitiveness of the media prices in relation to the media quality bought, and the second is called “value tracking,” which validates the actual media prices against the media agency price commitments coming from the agency pitch. Usually, price commitments are compared between agencies during the pitch, but without pool benchmarking, the advertiser won’t know whether those commitments are competitive versus the market average. Armed with this information, advertisers would then pick the agency that offered the biggest discount.

“I don’t think media auditors have set out to cause these problems, but they have struggled to solve them,” said Sam Tomlinson, a partner for media, insight and assurance at PwC. “The more sophisticated advertisers are recognizing that the old way of auditing media isn’t appropriate for programmatic and are asking for alternatives.

Deutsche Telekom has created a consortium of auditors that will split the advertiser’s media auditing and evaluation duties across Europe between themselves as part of a wider overhaul. Heineken has hired another firm, Digital Decisions, which will provide source data monitoring services instead of legacy cost benchmarking.

“The rigor in offline auditing does not currently exist in online, and that challenge will continue until the buying side settles down and matures,” said Andre Santos, director of marketing at Freesat, which has just concluded a media review.

Like the global advertiser, Freesat didn’t want its media pitch to come down to price comparisons. While Santos had compared the rates each agency could secure, he also took more time to gauge how the agency fit with its own strategic priorities when it came to areas such as reach versus quality, viewability and supply chain transparency. Following the review, Freesat moved its money from Havas to independent agencies Roast and Electric Glue.

“Certainly for our purposes, pool-based methodology is not the right choice, but largely that’s the result of the dynamics of the industry we are in and the size of the organization we are,” said Santos. “There could be instances though where — whilst not best in class — pool-based auditing is better than nothing, and, therefore, some organizations will derive value from it.”

Wary of the pressure on their outdated models, auditing firms aim to shake things up.

Ebiquity is trying to position itself as more of a strategic partner to advertisers, while Accenture wants to teach advertisers how to buy their own biddable media. Both pivots away from comparing prices are not without their problems.

Progressive advertisers have been less than enamored with some of the changes Ebiquity has made. As much as the company is focused on working with advertisers to define future media strategies, it’s hard to rationalize that pivot when the auditor has yet to show it has a grip on measuring anything but the cost of media, said one senior marketer on condition of anonymity.

“The challenge for companies like Ebiquity and Accenture is that they want to be seen as strategic partners but don’t have a firm grip on how the cost of online media relates to the outcome,” said the marketer. “Auditing as we know it is dead and will be replaced with effectiveness modeling.”

In response to those concerns, Ebiquity has revamped the way it audits online media to give advertisers a like-for-like view of both cost and quality on key aspects of their digital media performance that spans different markets.

Accenture has built a profitable business model reviewing other agencies’ performance and is now offering similar services to those same businesses. Despite the consulting firm’s claims otherwise, agencies aren’t convinced it can be both a rival and an auditor without any conflicts of interest. WPP has started to reject sharing data with Accenture to audit, according to four ad executives interviewed for this article.

“WPP at a global level have started to reject data requests from Accenture as a media auditor,” said a consultant on condition of anonymity because they had seen the confidential exchange between both groups. “WPP isn’t going to cooperate with audits executed by a competitor.”

Accenture and WPP declined to comment.

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