Media auditor Billett attacks WPP’s GroupM over programmes for airtime deal with Channel 4

ID Comms chairman John Billett (below) caused quite a stir a while ago when he claimed that the big media agencies – more particularly the holding companies’ media operations like WPP’s GroupM – were the real media owners now. They controlled most ad expenditure so even big media owners had to do business on their terms or not at all. Daily Express and former Channel 5 owner Richard Desmond made the same point a couple of years ago.


Now Billett has welcomed – if that’s the word – new Channel 4 chairman Charles Gurassa with a missive alleging the broadcaster’s deal with GroupM, in which GroupM Entertainment supplies the channel with programmes in return for large slugs of airtime, is in nobody’s interest – apart from GroupM’s.

Here’s Billett’s letter to Gurassa and full (it goes on rather but that’s the Billett way).

Dear Mr. Gurassa,

Congratulations on your appointment as Chairman of Channel 4.

These are dynamic times in the advertising and marketing communications business and I am sure that you already have a large in-tray of matters for your attention.

I have no wish to add to your workload. However, as Chairman of ID Comms, a media consultancy working exclusively for advertisers around the world, I feel I have to draw your attention to recent decisions by Channel 4, which in our opinion, create imbalances that have the potential to damage the best interests of both our clients and those of Channel 4.

The specific issue concerns arrangements made between Channel 4, as vendors of advertising airtime and programme commissioners, and WPP’s media trading unit Group M. This is reportedly a two-year deal with Group M guaranteeing a large sum of its clients’ advertising money to Channel 4 with reciprocal arrangements for Group M to provide programmes to Channel 4 in return.

We shall appreciate your consideration and assessment of the following matters, which in our opinion bear high risks for the business you now head:

Would you accept that the end result of this agreement, with Group M buying out airtime from Channel 4 and selling in programmes to Channel 4 is that the price metrics for either will become an unreliable number. This makes it impossible for the advertiser to understand fully the true value of the deal they are being asked to fund and will be unable to audit it sufficiently unless Channel 4 are able to disclose the full value and details of the programming portion of the agreement with Group M.

This form of trading by financial institutions has been banned under the revised FCA arrangements. Are you satisfied that the commercial imperative of the same company both selling you programmes and buying media time from you represents good commercial practice?

Would you accept that Group M couldn’t know over the next two years who their advertiser clients will be? If you agree, then you must accept this represents a serious threat to your income forecasts.

Even if Group M have confidence that they will retain their existing advertiser clients, they cannot know what their ad expenditure will be that far in advance. Hence, would you also accept that there is no guarantee whatever that your revenues are secured?

Even if Group M have confidence in knowing whom their clients will be and what they will be spending, would you accept that they cannot know what their media strategy will be so far in advance and are simply guessing or gambling their clients’ budgets on the role that Channel 4 could play?

If you accept my supposition that this arrangement is not advertiser specific and hence no more than a commodity bulk buying operation, it follows that advertisers have no insight into what prices they will be paying on Channel 4 as part of this deal. Would you be content for that to be a satisfactory offer to your income stream?

Most advertisers’ contracts are with the individual media agencies in the WPP Plc and not directly with the GroupM trading unit. Would it be correct therefore to state that our advertiser client procurement management couldn’t validate the new Channel 4 arrangement, as the advertiser typically has no direct contract with GroupM? If that is so, what audit access will you offer to the advertisers who provide your income?

Would you agree with me then while it might appear that Channel 4 benefits from this arrangement by ensuring lots of airtime is sold for very little effort, the actual outcome will be to damage relationships with advertisers, the very people who fund the channel and expect to be treated with more courtesy.

Should the shareholding of Channel 4 come under scrutiny and any change in ownership be considered, potential shareholders will want to receive guarantees that I believe this agreement cannot support.

The “forgotten army” in this deal is the individual advertisers whose particular interests are abandoned by such deals and who are unable to validate value because the market price norms and media auditing data are busted. What action do you propose to rectify this imbalance?

We find this a shocking state of affairs and hope you will be able to find the time to work with your CEO, Sales Director and their teams to provide clear actions, insights and assurances for advertisers.

There seem to be two issues here: GroupM’s influence over Channel 4 programming and the fear that other advertisers will get bum deals.

Channel 4 says (with what you might see as admirable brevity):

“Channel 4 commissions all of its originated programmes from independent production companies. GroupM or GME does not sell or provide programmes to us. Instead, GME acts as a co-financing/production partner for a small number of shows that we wish to commission from independent producers, allowing us to invest more into delivering our remit.

“There is absolutely no conflict of interest as suggested and we retain complete editorial independence and control over programming, in accordance with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.”

GroupM says:

While details of Group M’s arrangements with Channel 4 remain confidential, we must address points in John Billet’s letter to the Chairman of Channel 4 which demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what Group M Entertainment (GME) is and how it fits within our business. As Channel 4 has confirmed separately, neither GroupM nor GME sells programmes to Channel 4. Likewise, GroupM does not ask any clients to fund specific programmes.

GME acts as a co-financing/production partner for a small number of shows that Channel 4 wishes to commission from independent producers, and GME operates as an independent business, separate from Group M’s media agency businesses. GME invests in content at its own risk and negotiates commercial terms with media partners and producers around that investment for the specific show. All business arrangements between Channel 4 and GroupM are completely in compliance with all applicable laws.

Clients of Group M agencies receive a consistent benefit in the form of favourable media pricing which GME is able to offer to clients in our group on an opt-in basis, if it fits in their media plans. Clients can and do regularly audit their media agencies’ performance, and we welcome this transparency. The needs of clients obviously remain at the heart of everything we do at GroupM and we continue to innovatively invest in media, technology, data and content to best deliver against the marketing objectives of our media agencies’ clients.

So where’s the smoking gun Sherlock? If there is one it must, as with most of these things, be in the particular negotiations. Does someone from GroupM bang their fist on C4’s elegant Chippendale table and say: “give us this airtime for all this programming we’ve (co-) financed or you don’t get any money (or as much money as you’d like).” Or: “this show’s pretty good and we and our programme partners are happy to be paid in airtime if that suits you better.” In the latter case C4 would say: “fine but we have to look after the interests of all our advertisers – so you can’t have all the good stuff.”

There’s another issue here too – media agencies and auditors. GroupM and ultimate owner WPP often find themselves at loggerheads with auditors, Ebiquity is another case in point. As in the case of allegedly undisclosed media rebates in the US – the subject of an ongoing ANA investigation – it’s the product of a dramatically changed media market in which a small number of very large media agencies/holding companies control most media money, particularly from big global clients.

They employ thousands of relatively expensive people even though, each time they pitch or repitch for an account, the fee goes down. So they have to make a turn somewhere, hence businesses like GME with their – alleged – lack of transparency.

Media broking has been frowned upon, in many instances banned, since the days when the Gross brothers, who founded Carat in France, used to dominate the French media market by buying media time and space themselves and selling it on to clients.

But client-by-client buying is no longer the norm with so much money (and so many clients) in so few hands. Most media owners don’t care where the money comes from so long as they get a share of it. So it’s broking by another name.

ID Comms’ Billett, who founded a very successful media independent himself back in the day, is the Geoffrey Boycott of the modern media industry, keen to remind his audience of the traditional verities of putting the client’s interests first. The big beasts of the global media jungle would argue that their interests are just as important. And that’s what this, and other spats, are really about.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.