Media Buying Scandal Puts Global Spotlight on Corruption

Detention of Two Vivaki Executives Brings Unwelcome Attention to China's Media Industry

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BEIJING ( -- A scandal unfolding in China that involves kickbacks, money laundering and prostitution at a five-star hotel has brought to light a common practice that was relatively unknown outside the mainland.

Media owners and media buyers have unusual relationships that often foster media corruption in the country, one of the world's most promising ad markets. (A version of this story first ran in Advertising Age on Sept. 20).

Corruption is the "default mode" for the industry, said Alfonso "Pon" de Dios, a media consultant in Beijing who ran Procter & Gamble Co.'s media business in Greater China for eight years until May 2009.

Multinationals have rules and internal controls and everything is documented, not just at the company but at the agencies as well, he said. "What you're up against is an industry that has its own values. There are sophisticated methods of getting around the system and people are handling millions of dollars in budgets. Temptations overpower them."

The widespread practice of corruption in China's media industry has been publicized internationally, coming to light by accident through an investigation of Zheng Zhixiang, who works for media-brokerage firm Chongqing Huayu.

Mr. Zheng is accused of laundering money through a brothel in the basement bar of a Hilton Hotel in Chongqing. The raid on the brothel was part of a nationwide probe by the central government into tax evasion. Because Mr. Zheng was a broker for Publicis in Chongqing, a paper trail in a government investigation led to a pair of prominent agency executives: Vivaki's China CEO Warren Hui and his colleague, Ye Pengtao.

Hui and Ye have not been fired
In early September, government investigators detained Messrs. Hui and Ye for extensive questioning about their involvement with Mr. Zheng. The two execs have not been charged with anything and Mr. Zheng's Huayu media brokerage worked with other agencies too, not just Vivaki.

Vivaki Exchange buys media for Publicis Groupe's media divisions like Digitas, Starcom MediaVest Group and ZenithOptimedia, which was formerly called China Media Exchange (CMX). CMX was renamed Vivaki in January 2010. Other Vivaki executives are handling daily China operations, and contrary to local news reports, the two men have not been fired.

Former MTV China executive Yifei Li was hired one year ago to run Vivaki's Greater China operation.
Former MTV China executive Yifei Li was hired one year ago to run Vivaki's Greater China operation.
Vivaki's chairman for Greater China, Beijing-based Yifei Li, referred questions to the agency's PR firm in China, MS&L, another Publicis division.

"They are still with the company. We know there is a police investigation but when we try to get more information, we can't, because [Vivaki] is not directly involved," said Benjamin Tan, managing director, MS&L, Shanghai. "We don't know what happened, so we don't want to make a decision [about their future]."

On Sept. 26, another MS&L executive in Beijing, Senior Account Manager Ian Su, clarified that "two senior executives within [Vivaki] are currently working with the authorities on an investigation. We are trying to understand the situation, but because [Vivaki] is not directly involved, we have not been able to obtain further details."

Details aside, media corruption has been a not particularly well-kept secret in China for years, and companies, not just individuals, are involved. Industry execs estimate more than half of the revenue earned by multinational media agencies in China comes from media owners rather than clients' budgets. "That's corporate corruption, not personal corruption," said a media industry veteran in Shanghai.

In China most multinational media agencies buy media through sub-contractors (in this case, Mr. Zheng's Huayu) in a complicated system that resembles banks and commodities brokers who make money on margins. One of the perks of using brokers is their ability to store cash earned from rebates and discounts far from the prying eyes of industry auditors, tax authorities and clients.

An advertiser's media budget commonly gets chipped away at several points before it ends up with a TV station, outdoor media vendor or publisher, starting with the initial media negotiation, followed by a scheduling discussion and then the final deal for payment terms. Media buyers, brokers and owners often make private arrangements that are seldom reported back to the advertiser. Individuals and agencies pocket the difference.

"No one can stop these individual deals, because you can't be with people 24 hours per day and control what happens under the table, literally, at a restaurant after a deal is done," said a media expert in Shanghai.

The scandal Vivaki is embroiled in has placed an unwelcome spotlight on that practice and "is bad for the industry. It creates mistrust between agencies and clients," said Quinn Taw, a venture capitalist in Beijing who has worked at GroupM, Zenith Media and CMX.

"Advertisers will start looking at rebates and conducting quiet audits. They should look at their media business, but they should also look internally," Mr. Taw said. He, like many media agency executives, insists that media directors and brand managers at multinational companies across China are padding personal bank accounts as well.

"Comments about advertisers placing more focus internally are well directed," said the China managing director of a global media network in Shanghai.

Fighting corruption is getting tougher
As executives at multinational marketers get smarter about China and better understand the risks involved, they are putting in place checks and controls to regulate their media cash flow.

Some companies like P&G and Coca-Cola Co. "are taking strong initiatives to take efforts to prevent this by engaging in three-way negotiations," said Greg Paull, a Beijing-based principal at R3, a consultancy that specializes in agency-client relationships. "To be effective [as a client] you need to have a seat at the table." But marketers still find it hard to pull the plug on illicit trading deals for several reasons: China is becoming more competitive as well as more fragmented with the rise in digital media, driving buyers and sellers to further bend the rules. As there are more options for spending ad dollars, sellers get more creative about kickbacks and other incentives they can offer to agencies.

"These sorts of things didn't happen 20 years ago when there was only [state-owned national TV network] CCTV to deal with. The problem is that the media sector is getting bigger and more competitive, so there is more pressure on media vendors to look for competitive edges," said Mr. Paull.

Further, enormous amounts of money are pouring into Chinese media. Measured media spending in China will reach $45.1 billion in 2010, according to GroupM, a 16% increase over last year, and is likely to hit $49.9 billion in 2011

Alfonso "Pon" De Dios says marketers should be Credit: Normandy Madden
Finally, marketers are moving more deeply into China's harder-to-police second, third and fourth-tier cities, where transparency issues are even murkier than in Shanghai and Beijing. Chongqing, for instance, has a population of more than 5 million in the city itself and over 30 million in the greater urban area, and is considered a second-tier city.

"Advertisers are now spending more in poorly measured media, especially out-of-home but also digital, which have created a new breeding ground for corruption. There are no industry-wide compliance and delivery mechanisms in place," Mr. de Dios said. Fixing the system "is a matter of education and transparency, since a lot of people in China still do not see anything wrong with what's going on. The big companies and media agencies should be evangelists and not just preach what should and should not be done, but lead by example."

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