K2 Begins a Probe of the Ad Industry, but Who Are They?

Hired as Fact-Finders, not Marketing Experts

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K2 Intelligence headquarters in Manhattan.
K2 Intelligence headquarters in Manhattan. Credit: David Hall
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Tasked with identifying the culprit sending anonymous threats to a corporate client, Richard Plansky called in his forensics team to analyze a postcard. It was determined that the postcard contained hair and other materials that matched a suspect.

This is not an episode of "CSI," and Mr. Plansky is not an actor. He's the executive managing director and regional head of the Americas at K2 Intelligence, one of the two firms hired by the Association of National Advertisers to investigate allegations that agencies are secretly collecting media rebates in the U.S. The other firm is industry consultancy and auditing giant Ebiquity and its subsidiary Firm Decisions.

K2 is notably not a media or marketing specialist. It's a 300-person global firm made up of forensic accountants, engineers and former investigative journalists, prosecutors, FBI agents and CIA agents who handle a broad range of issues, from cyber-security preparedness and defense to asset recovery on behalf of corporate entities and government bodies.

Mr. Plansky declined to discuss the actual work the K2 team will be doing for the ANA. He would not identify the people staffing the business (nor would the ANA), other than to say he will be "personally involved" in the work. Of the specialty groups within K2, the business-intelligence practice seems the most likely suspect to field the ANA's fact-finding effort. Other K2 specialty groups include cyber investigations and incident response; anti-money laundering and regulatory compliance; and construction and real estate.

Before joining K2, Mr. Plansky was senior managing director and head of the New York office at Kroll, where he led the U.S. general investigations practice. Kroll was sold in 2004, and he followed its founders, Jules and Jeremy Kroll, to K2, which was opened in 2009. He was previously deputy criminal justice coordinator for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, where he supervised the development of numerous criminal justice initiatives and earlier served as an assistant district attorney for New York County.

The Madoff case
His background is not an anomaly at K2. Its ranks also include people like Julian Moore, a senior managing director who was assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York prior to joining K2 and a lead prosecutor on the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme case. With his team in the Securities & Commodities Fraud Unit, Mr. Moore indicted and successfully prosecuted 11 defendants and assisted in the recovery of approximately $10 billion in stolen money, according to his company biography.

For the last three years K2 has been helping the Madoff Bankruptcy Trustees claw back funds on behalf of victims, largely through its data and analytics resources. The Madoff case also likely involved "asset tracing," one of the company's most robust businesses, with a potentially big part to play in what the firm does for ANA. "People on staff worked on more asset recovery cases than any other," said Mr. Plansky. "Asset tracing is a real sweet spot for us."

As with Mr. Moore, Mr. Plansky's past sometimes bleeds into his current work. For example, K2 conducted a series of undercover investigations for a nonprofit called Everytown for Gun Safety, which was one of Mayor Bloomberg's nonprofits designed to demonstrate how weapons fall into the hands of criminals.

Avoiding the rabbit holes
Each case is different, emphasized Mr. Plansky, but "the one thread that runs through all engagements is our clients' need to know something important, usually to support some sort of critical decision," he said. "You almost always find something along the way that surprises you. It requires certain flexibility. It also requires some structure to make sure you don't run down every rabbit hole."

The first thing the firm does is work with the client to agree on a question they'd like to answer. Then, in phase one, the team may investigate using a number of resources and tactics, including interviews with knowledgeable sources, targeted surveillance of relevant people, forensic accounting of records and digital information and research of publicly available sources. The firm assesses what it learns and what's relevant to the initial key questions, and identifies gaps that need to be filled. Phase two is, in most cases, "more surgical than the first," Mr. Plansky said.

"I didn't understand why [the ANA] needed two agencies until we heard from them," said an industry executive in the room during K2's pitch for the ANA business. "Having no prior knowledge of K2, their presentation came off as incredibly professional and their methodology seemed very much state of the art. It had a thorough and tenacious tone to it, and felt like no stone would be left unturned." Most of all, the executive was impressed by the firm's methodology and its employees' backgrounds, he said.

When asked if the firm's work ever prompts government involvement, Mr. Plansky said only, "That's a hard question. It's not up to us. It never is. We're professional fact-finders. We call it like we see it."