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Our objectivity critical to media audit'
November, 24th 2011

Audit and advisory company Spatial Access Media Solutions recently launched a new logo and restructured its services under three SBUs (strategic business units). The company works with advertisers to help them achieve continuous improvement in the efficiency of their marketing services investments. It measures media, production and below-the-line investments and provides client-specific solutions that are unbiased to ensure the highest possible impact and efficiency for their marketing investments.

Based in Mumbai, Spatial Access Solutions (SAS) is an independent organisation with no links to any agency or advertising network. In an interview to BrandLine, Meenakshi Menon (Madhvani), Founder & Chairperson, Spatial Access Solutions (SAS), speaks on the changes in the company and the way ahead for media audits in the country. Excerpts:

Why the need for a separate logo and why create SBUs for SAS at this point of time?

Our logo was created eight years ago when media audit was just a concept. The market was ignorant not just about the service but also about the need for the service. I commissioned in-depth interviews with MDs and CMOs of some of the top 25 advertisers. Each of them said there was a need for transparency and accountability but some of them were reluctant to support audits because of the concern that it would upset their agency partners. What we saw was that there was a stated point of view which was more accommodating. This, however, hid the real concerns and issues that clients faced.

Given this background our service was focused on one area media. That was the area where the concerns were the greatest and the spends the highest. Also, agencies had started the process of consolidation to drive volumes and improve their own bottom lines. Over the last eight years, things have changed. We at Spatial Access were responsible for the change and we needed to ensure that we were ready for the next wave of change and evolution! Thus the logo change. It signifies a transition from a concept-selling stage to a market expansion phase where the logo needs to reflect the inherent complexity and power of the organisation.

How has the media auditing business evolved in India since you started operations eight years ago?

Today we work with over 120 clients across six cities. We are in three countries. We have three verticals and audit and advisory services that cover every aspect of marketing investment. We are pleased with the way the market has responded to our service and products.

How much of media has SAS audited across industries? What are the media auditing trends you have observed across industries?

The four business categories that have adopted audit as a way of life are financial services, auto, FMCG and telecom. Some of them are retainer clients, who work with us on an ongoing basis while others have a project-based approach.

Some clients want to focus only on media while others want to look at a combination of media and production audits.

Our film production audit service has been a boon to advertisers who make a large number of films, such as FMCG and telecom players.

In fact, it works because the guys who negotiate are always seen as the bad guys and in the case of film negotiations the agency does not want to antagonise the producer. Our film expert, on the other hand, knows the ins and outs of the business and is not scared to discuss the nitty-gritty of film production. Thus, in our service, what is brought to the table is our expertise and objectivity.

It is that objectivity that is critical because it is a rare commodity in our industry. Our audit and advisory services put that objectivity at the centre of all that we do. Agencies that have interacted with us have understood that we do not have an agenda. We are fearless when it comes to telling off a client.

What are your plans in terms of measuring marketing spends in the digital space?

We have been working with digital planning and buying for the last two years. This is one of our ongoing services.

What are the expectations from clients today in the audit and analytics space? How do you intend catering to them?

I think everyone has a mantra which says more for less. Every client wants to rationalise costs. However, sometimes this is at the cost of value. We advise our clients on the need for a balanced perspective, one that factors in value and cost.

This is what is making the analytics space so exciting. Now we are not measuring just the input in terms of GRPs and the cost of those GRPs but the output. What is it that those GRPs deliver? How much of the media support you put behind a brand actually converts into sales? Can you measure that? What works better? TV, print or digital? These are the questions that have to be answered.

The first step is understanding and measuring input. The second stage is understanding and measuring the output delivered by that input and finally being able to manage throughput ratios and relationships.

That is the quest and we are getting there.

What is competition like in the media audit industry? After Ernst & Young and yourselves, do you see more players being added to give more value to such offerings?

Being one of the big four, E&Y has the ability to deliver a consistent financial audit of media activity. Our deep domain expertise is an advantage in the measurement and evaluation of marketing ROI.

Thus there is a clear difference in the type of services we offer our clients. There could be more specialists in the pipeline. It all depends on client needs. However, what is required is a meaningful product proposition delivered with quality and consistency. The market will then expand at a higher rate and we are interested in fuelling market expansion.

Initially there must have been reluctance on the part of clients and their media agencies to get audited. Do you think there is more acceptability now? Have ROIs actually improved for your clients?

There was reluctance, but it was from agencies and not clients. Even today, there are some agencies that actively unsell the concept of audits or push one service provider because it is convenient to have someone who does not understand the nitty-gritty of the media business doing a media audit!

The media agencies who fight media audits have a lot to hide.

That is the most obvious reason for their reluctance. But they come up with all kinds of innovative creative excuses. We get special rates and so cannot share them with the auditor. Does that mean that every client who works with an agency gets the same rate? Regardless of their size of spend? How ridiculous is that!

Media owners do not want to share rate information is another excuse that is trotted out and is an absolute fabrication because most of the large media owners work with us on their own marketing spends.

We are not sure of the auditors' pool and which clients are part of it is another original derailing tactic. If we were to release the names of our clients then they would claim that we are sharing client information!

We have come to realise that the agencies with the most to hide are the ones who make the loudest noises against auditors. The others may not be our best friends but they know we deliver value to clients.

Ultimately it is the client's money. It is his call, even the ISA (Indian Society of Advertisers) has endorsed that view as has the WFA (World Federation of Advertisers)

Unlike in the West where volume rebates have to be passed back to advertisers, in India they are retained by most agencies which is why an advertiser can never be sure if his plan reflects the strength of the vehicle or the agency AVR (agency volume rebate). That's why an objective perspective becomes critical and that is exactly why some agencies fight audits!

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