Levi's Review Asks Shops to Reveal Sensitive Price Data for Other Clients

If Agencies Complied With Controversial Demand, Could Be Breach of Confidentiality

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Agencies are used to bending over backward for new business, especially in these tight times. But Levi Strauss & Co.'s recent $50 million contest for media planning and buying on Levi's and Dockers asked them to bend too far: It sought invoices from agencies that could conceivably be used to determine what their other clients were paying for media.

It was an unusual and controversial demand that, if complied with by participating agencies, could breach their confidentiality with roster clients.

"That is an enormous issue," said Tom Finneran, exec VP-agency management services at the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "Our best-practice recommendation for a confidentiality agreement to be included in client agreements specifically calls out media-buying rates as an area that should be protected. This almost sounds like a definition of a worst-practice RFP."

The RFP was created by the marketer and issued by Advantage Media, which bills itself as a "media stewardship company" that does analytical work on agency capabilities. In a "Media Efficiency Review" section of the RFP obtained by Advertising Age, agencies were asked for "supporting documentation," described in this manner: "To substantiate the efficacy of your data entries, we need to receive (in an Excel file) a listing of the vendor invoice data, including your posted target-audience impressions for each commercial unit you accessed within your database to derive your data entries." The request was made for both national TV and print buying.

Though the next paragraph states that Levi's "absolutely" did not want any information that could identify the clients those vendor invoices were for, a number of industry professionals said that could be figured out from the data Levi's required. A typical vendor invoice will include the date, time and program during which a commercial ran, as well as the name of the client and the unit price.

One media-agency executive said there are many ways to do pricing exercises that do not involve release of sensitive documentation such as invoices. "There are times when you have to supply cost information," the executive said. "And we will do it in an Excel spreadsheet, tell you we can buy a spot in a program at a given rate and make you a promise we can buy that. We don't send invoices."

It's not possible to determine whether any of the participating agencies did send invoices; indeed, media-agency executives said they deny certain requests made within RFPs all the time.

Omnicom Group's OMD, which won the account, referred calls to Levi's, as did the other finalist, Zenith, and the incumbent on Dockers, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. Advantage Media also directed calls to Levi's. A spokesman at the marketer, Jeff Beckman, said, "Any review process is proprietary, and we wouldn't comment on the details of an RFP that we use in a review."

Depending on whom you talk to, when a client's name is blacked out, it's either easy or a Herculean task to determine the identity of the client from a vendor invoice and public information from TNS Media Intelligence.

But a senior TNS executive said if an agency supplied a date, network and "most importantly, a transmission time, it would be very, very easy to do a reverse look-up in our database and find out what brand advertised at that moment in time on that date on that channel." Those specifics act as filters. "They narrow the search, and you can home in on [the marketer] very quickly."

Beyond the pale
Lee Doyle, CEO of Mediaedge:cia, said he has not encountered such a request but would have some serious concerns about providing vendor invoices, especially since it could breach client confidentiality. "We want to be as open and transparent as we can with [potential] clients," Mr. Doyle said. "But we have to respect individual client confidentiality, and I think this [request] is pushing that envelope."

Other media-agency CEOs said the request was over-the-top -- but, in a sign of these trying times, requested anonymity so as to not preclude them from participating in other reviews. "We would never supply that information," said one CEO. "It's an extremely rare request and certainly one we would steer away from," said another.

"That kind of thing is not done, and it's because of the cloak-and-dagger nature of how rates are decided in this industry," said a third CEO. "Clients do not share their rates, and if they found out an agency was sharing their rates, that would be it."

The advantage to Levi's: With another client's name and the rate it paid, the marketer could use the information as leverage to wring a similar pricing deal from a network. "There's this notion that if you have an advantage in CPM pricing, that's halfway to winning the war," said one of the media-agency CEOs.

Yet, others said "pricing is very often specific to the client," and what one marketer may get in terms of pricing from a network is not in any way representative of what another can get from the same network -- no matter how much competitive intelligence that marketer may have.

The fact is that advertisers have always sought to get the best possible prices for their media, and a factor may be clients not trusting agencies to state what prices they can actually get. But the bottom line is that in a down economy, rock-bottom pricing becomes even more crucial. "Maybe," said one agency CEO, "it's just a reflection of the times."

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