Media Auditor finds a new market niche

Sitting at the key junction of agency, client and media owner, auditors have traditionally been the guardians of client value for money. Allison Brodie hears how Media Audits boss Mike Larkin plans to expand his role

Mike Larkin is the first to admit that people in his profession are seen by many in the industry as "number crunchers".

These are the guys - often despised by agencies and described as glorified accountants - who are tasked with making sure advertisers get value for money from buying points.

As managing director of the UK's biggest media auditing company, Larkin's thoughts are, however, on more than ploughing through wallcharts and spend analyses.

Instead, his mind is focused on driving forward a process that has seen Media Audits become a key link between agencies and what advertisers want for their bucks.

Though there are four players in the UK market, Media Audits claims it is clear market leader, with Billetts its only sizeable rival. When Larkin became UK managing director, the company had just announced 10% year-on-year growth and set its sights on global expansion.


Evolving role

"Auditors are traditionally perceived as people brought in to crunch numbers, used by advertisers as a way to keep track of their marketing spend," he says.

"But there have been clear messages from clients over recent years that we should extend our services and become more involved in their marketing strategies."

He adds: "For example, we are being asked to get more involved in working out which investments are most appropriate for achieving media objectives. Clients are asking us to work out how best to optimise their overall marketing investment in many new ways."

Evidence of the shifting role can be seen in the arrival at Media Audits last month of former OMD UKand MPG TV buying director Nick Sparey, in the role of media consultant.

In the same month, Billetts, which has also been repositioning itself, poached Zenith Media managing partner Andy Smith to become a team leader.


Strategic thinking

Larkin claims Sparey's role is intrinsic to the media auditor's fresh approach. Sparey himself adds: "The role of the media auditor is now less about criticising an agency's buying work, more about stimulating discussion of strategic thinking.

"A criticism often directed at media auditors is that they have never been media buyers and do not understand the job.

"I can judge, from an agency perspective, the role media buyers must perform for their clients and help to convince a client whether or not their agency is doing a good job."

Larkin, who took over as managing director from Martin Sambrook in May this year, is himself from outside the auditing world. Previously he ran strategic marketing consultancy Catalyst. He says his job is all about creating a "happy triumvirate": advertiser, agency and auditor. "Clients want us to create a continual cycle of involvement and communication between advertiser and agency," he says.

The media auditor is in an ideal position to observe the changing demands of advertisers on their agencies.

According to Larkin, a clear message is emerging from advertisers. More than ever, a balance between managing budgets efficiently and a passionate knowledge of media strengths and weaknesses is crucial to an agency's success.

"Accountability has never been more at the heart of what the advertiser wants from a marketing strategy," says Larkin.

"More than ever before, agency planners are required to demonstrate how marketing will deliver payback. But they still need planners who are passionate about media itself."

Sparey agrees. "Clients have more spending options than ever, so they need independent advice," he says. "Agencies still have vested interests in directing budgets in a way that suits them, which is why companies such as Naked have been so successful. They have no vested interest in doing massive TV deals but can offer a media-neutral strategic-thinking role and leave buying to larger houses."

Larkin says the ideal agency proposition is one of channel neutrality, not media neutrality.

"Channel neutrality crucially looks at all elements of the communications mix rather than just media,"he says. "Neutrality should not mean indifference."

Larkin is disappointed with a lack of progress from media agencies towards lead-agency status. "The investment we all make in strategic planning has to become greater," he argues. "No great steps are being made to position media agencies as lead agencies for advertisers. They should be there because they are responsible for the largest element of spend in the communications budget."


Core territory

Despite their growing role in the marketing mix, Larkin says, auditors must not lose sight of the main task at hand. In particular, they must avoid duplicating agency work. "We must not abandon or lose sight of our core territory," he says. "We are here to provide independent, objective advice on campaign effectiveness and efficiency."

It has not all been plain sailing for Media Audits of late. This week it announced the loss of director of new business development John Storey after nearly 17 years. A major force in driving the group forward, his departure could leave a gap in the executive line-up.

But Larkin believes more growth awaits the company. It has recently introduced "brand health monitoring", under which various brands are compared to create a benchmark.

For example, cosmetics brands could be compared across a range of brand values, creating a benchmark against which others can be valued.

Another innovation is "scenario planning", which prioritises various types of media used in marketing brands.

In general, a range of new roles has opened up for auditors, including agency remuneration consultancy and media training and management.

As clients adjust their demands, so too auditors such as Media Audits are developing their business models.

"We have segmented our product offering into 10 different services," says Larkin. "These include managing the pitch process, modelling effectiveness of campaigns and optimising the media strategy."

For the future, he adds: "We will be looking to bolster the business by finding more new talent and experience."

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