Citing conflicts, WPP won’t participate in Accenture-led ad pitches

A spat between WPP and Accenture is turning ugly. The agency group is refusing to share its media data with Accenture for a media audit, saying Accenture could use that intel to undercut WPP’s prices on pitches for lucrative ad budgets, according to advertising sources.

The holding group will stop participating in any media pitches supervised by Accenture starting in 2020, according to an email seen by Digiday. An ad executive, who works closely with WPP’s GroupM buying arm, said WPP had already threatened to withhold cost and qualitative data on its media investments from some global pitches overseen by Accenture’s auditors. “It’s due to Accenture Interactive acting as both an auditor and a media agency of sorts with its pitch to help advertisers take their ad tech in-house,” said the exec.

Both WPP and Accenture declined to comment.

Agencies typically give auditors like Accenture access to their media data either when an advertiser wants to see how competitive those prices are versus the quality of the media bought, or if they want to compare the media rates one agency gets versus another. Data can include the cost per gross rating points on TV, display CPMs, viewability rates and how the reach of an ad equates to how many times the same person saw it.

If Accenture is privy to the prices WPP buys its media, the advertising side of the consulting firm could potentially use that information to offer advertisers cheaper, more effective media rates during pitches. Those worries were exacerbated last year when Accenture Interactive revealed its programmatic buying arm.

Accenture has always maintained there are internal barriers in place that prevent its auditing arm from helping its agency arm compete. Agencies, however, aren’t convinced those barriers are sufficient.

“As well as compromising impartiality, no business can legitimately offer competing media services to a market where it has a media auditor’s access to confidential client and agency media data and financial information,” said Paul Bainsfair, director general for U.K. ad agency trade body the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. “In an era where transparency is under the spotlight, this self-evident conflict of interest is unacceptable.”

It’s not clear whether the five other holding groups are making similar moves against Accenture. Both Havas and IPG declined to comment, while Publicis, Dentsu Aegis and Omnicom did not comment before this article was published.

The finer points of WPP’s boycott of Accenture are still being figured out, said a third exec, who previously worked at WPP’s buying arm, GroupM.

“This decision comes from the people at the top of WPP, but it’s hard to see how it plays out at global and local levels,” the exec said. “A stance like this suggests WPP will say no to being audited as there aren’t many auditors outside of Accenture currently that global advertisers are going to want to use. WPP needs to have a compelling argument to justify the boycott to advertisers as I doubt many will share the same conflicts of interests concerns as agencies.”

For WPP to hurt Accenture, its clients need to refuse to work with the consulting firm too, given clients often own data related to their own media investments. Whether an advertiser owns all that data depends on the contract with its agency. In some instances, the agency buys the media in the client’s name and therefore owns the data. But when an advertiser does own the data it’s often wrapped up in long-standing relationships with auditing firms spanning people, methodologies and outcomes that are baked into contracts with agencies. Moving away from all of that is a tall order for any advertiser that will depend much more on how satisfied they are with their own auditor than it does agency gripes with potential competitors.

“The uncomfortable truth is that potential conflicts of interest are everywhere you look within the agency groups, auditors and consultants that operate within the marketing and media industry, with very few exceptions,” said Paul Evans, a consultant and former global head of media at Vodafone Group. “Whether these are ever managed and held to account is ultimately down to the stance of the advertiser — whether they feel it matters or not to them.”

Mars, for example, is on the hunt for a new business to audit its media from 2020 onwards after parting ways with Accenture, said a source with knowledge of the review.

The timing of Mars’ move may seem like a seal of approval for WPP’s riposte to Accenture given the advertiser appointed MediaCom as its global media agency last August. But the factors surrounding it suggest it isn’t the sole motivation. Mars has been vocal for some time about the need to tighten its grip on how effective its media is, and made it a core part of its review last year. If the advertiser thought Accenture could help it demystify its media investments, then it likely would’ve stuck with the consulting firm regardless of what an agency told it.

“We see a lot of demand for a next generation of media auditing services, as cost-based pool benchmarking is not fit for purpose for digital media”, said Ruben Schreurs, CEO at digital media consultancy Digital Decisions. “A lack of innovation around auditing methodology and reviewing digital media specifically is a common reason we hear from advertisers that move away from legacy players in the space.”

Any concerns over how Accenture makes money from advertising budgets don’t appear to have hit its agency business yet. Accenture Interactive is forecasted to grow revenue by more than 20% in 2019, according to its latest quarterly results.

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