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Media Auditing is Alive and Well, it Just Needs A Reboot

It’s fair to say that media auditing has been getting a bad rap in recent times. Several commentators have quite fairly questioned the relevance of traditional rate benchmarking in an increasingly biddable and performance-driven media ecosystem where performance is democratized and instant.

Others have equally reasonably flagged the conflicts of interest residing at the heart of organizations which purport to be both auditors and agents. It’s easy to drill holes in current audit practices, but we think what the industry really needs is a new audit model.

Back to basics

Let’s start by going back to basics – what is the ultimate purpose of an audit?

The role of audit is for an independent third party to examine the media buying records of an agency. This results in an evidence-based audit opinion regarding whether records have been presented fairly and accurately, and in accordance with the media targets or commitments made and methodological framework agreed. This increases client confidence in the buying, reduces risk and ultimately reduces the capital outlay required to achieve communications goals. In other words an audit needs to answer three questions: is everything accounted for, are the results accurate and does the outcome look good or not.

The problem with current auditing is that it has become distorted by focusing excessively on one aspect – unit price competitiveness. This happened because it was really easy to fulfil the first two questions – the outlets for media spend were traditionally quite narrow and the systems for recording and matching buying data to audience data were unified on a single industry platform, which meant that buying data was already in good shape before it arrived on the auditor’s server. The value-add for the auditor was therefore to create benchmarks around a handful of standard metrics.

But we now live in a digital world in which data sources are far more complex and fragmented; there are multiple buying platforms which adopt different taxonomies and metrics; the number of ad formats has multiplied almost as quickly as the number of buys. To provide a complete assessment of spend the auditor now has to assume the role of Data Aggregator as well as Performance Adjudicator. To provide an accurate assessment of spend auditors need a route into the buying platforms themselves – asking agencies to copy and paste data into templates is error-prone and no longer fit for purpose. And as media buying becomes more performance-led and data-driven, the definition of “what does good look like” needs to change.

What does good look like?

In the old world the media auditor acted as judge and jury by setting the performance measurements around standard industry metrics. To evaluate brand and performance media now we must let communication objectives determine the measurement framework. In other words, auditing has to start from a different place.

The role of the audit is to trace the data trail starting from the communications objectives, through the buying activities, to the outputs and outcomes achieved, across all media channels. Analyzing the data trail from start to finish flags good, bad and indifferent performance at the various stages of campaign activation, which yields deeper and more relevant insights for brands.

So, as media metrics proliferate beyond cost and reach to become more customer-focused, brands are designing their own bespoke measurement frameworks and are tracking more KPIs, which change more regularly. This requires a more agile, nuanced and customized audit to emerge out of the debris of legacy approaches. In this new order, benchmarks may be interesting but their role is to provide some context for reporting, not to act as the lead indicator of performance. As the influence of volume-based negotiation becomes a weaker lever of competitiveness, the best performers are the organizations which have the strongest processes and the most active optimization, so an audit which only focuses on unit price is incomplete and misleading. There are so many more components that an auditor has to consider, integrate, measure and evaluate.

Choosing your audit partner

My advice to anyone who is considering commissioning an audit is to concentrate far less on the size of the auditor’s client base and focus instead on the quality of its processes and the profile of its clients. Put these questions in your brief:

1. How do you source and process the data?
2. How do you analyze and visualize the data?
3. What metrics do you recommend we use? 
4. What experience and expertise do you have in my category?
5. Why do your clients choose to work with you?

In an increasingly complex world, the media audit is just as important as it’s ever been, as a means of checking, de-risking and improving performance. Audit programmes are successful if they are used to raise standards, improve performance and identify risk or opportunity, and not just used as a stick to beat down prices. Your audit needs a re-boot. 

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