Global Audit Firms Take “Pay To Play” From Sponsored Content to Conferences

Last March I wrote about the Big Four, in particular Deloitte, infiltrating the news media by sponsoring paid content in publications like the Wall Street Journal. Now Deloitte, and PwC, are borrowing even more media credibility by co-hosting conferences with major news organizations.

If we can’t trust the journalists to sort out who’s telling the truth and who’s just selling you, who can we trust?

Deloitte will co-host the FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference: New Businesses, New Markets on December 3-4 2013 at the InterContinental Park Lane in London.

This is not just a typical major conference sponsorship with veto power, like the situation I went through with the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association Conference. This is a full-boat co-host deal that comes with the ability to drive the agenda, showcase your firm’s leadership, and lock competitors out of speaking slots. All of the big name pharmaceutical companies will speak as well as some global not-for-profits and government healthcare organizations. There are no speakers from the other Big Four public accounting/consulting firms or other consulting firms that compete with Deloitte. All of the Big Four firms did send attendees last year, however.

Talk about paying for prestige and the opportunity to speak to an audience on your own terms. This is a play by Deloitte Consulting not the audit practice, since Deloitte currently audits none of the top ten global pharmaceutical firms. (PwC wins the prize on that front, auditing five of top ten plus Bayer AG.)

Media organizations co-sponsoring for-profit conferences with companies and executives they cover, and the conflicts that arise, is a hot topic. The New York Times wrote about it on October 27, 2013.

In many ways media outlets are natural partners for live events, because they have access to prominent people in the fields they cover and can promote events through their products at almost no cost. The New Yorker and other publications like Fortune have had successful live events for more than a decade.

Yet when news companies had wide profit margins, many kept the event business at arm’s length, viewing it as an ethical minefield filled with potential conflicts of interest. Many of the headliner names that event planners rely on to drive ticket sales are the same people those journalists cover.

Since then, however, advertising has plummeted. Industrywide 2012 newspaper advertising revenue was $22.3 billion, down nearly 55 percent from 2006 levels, according to the Newspaper Association of America and Huber Research.

In that light, what was once perceived as a liability is now viewed as an advantage. Interviewing specialists onstage is now called “live journalism,” and conference centers are considered just another social platform with Twitter, Facebook and online video.

That’s also what the spokesman for the Financial Times said when I asked about its partnership with Deloitte for the December Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference. He emphasized that the conference is an FT event, held for more than thirty years. Deloitte has been the co-host for the last eight. In the past, he said, sponsors got a free ride. Now they have to pay for the privilege of being associated with the FT. Deloitte’s loyalty to the event has earned it an exclusivity clause. There will be no Deloitte competitors allowed as speakers or sponsors.

Typical sponsor packages for the FT industry conferences run from £37-60 thousand but Deloitte pays “quite a bit more” for the co-hosting privilege and that does not include the firm’s own internal costs. It’s a year-long event, culminating in the conference, that includes private dinners and activities geared towards providing Deloitte professionals with access to high level industry executives. Sponsorship benefits include moderation of panel debates by FT journalists and the fairly straightforward lend-lease of FT brand and access to FT editorial in exchange for money:

Annual Conferences sponsorship benefits

  • Affiliation with the Financial Times brand
  • Exposure through advertising in the FT newspaper (global circulation 449,187)
  • Coverage on (80,000 subscribers, 4.1million unique users)
  • Access to and interaction with senior business leaders and decision-makers

What could possibly go wrong? The New York Times, criticized by its own Public Editor for the cozy atmosphere between journalists and the CEOs it covers at its fairly new DealBook conferences, would know. From the October 27 piece, again.

Still, it is easy to get something wrong. The Washington Post faced a wave of criticism in 2009 when it invited lobbyists and industry groups to pay $25,000 or more to sponsor private “salons” at the publisher’s home with Post journalists and government officials. It issued a public apology, and a marketing executive at the center of the plan resigned.

Other blurry areas include who is selected to be on panels. “Sometimes we have the same companies on the list for sponsor and speakers, and sometimes those conversations get merged,” said Julie Hansen, president and chief operating officer of Business Insider, a digital publication, “but you can’t come to us with a fat checkbook and expect to buy your way into an event.”

Deloitte seems to be the Big Four firm most often taking advantage of media organizations hungry for revenue in exchange for abdicating control over content. Its deal with the Wall Street Journal is what got me going on this subject earlier this year. Deloitte was a also gold sponsor of a recent Fortune conference for “powerful women”.

But Deloitte is not the only Big Four firm buying access by sponsoring conferences with media organizations. PwC will co-sponsor the 8th annual Bermuda (Re)insurance Conference with Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services. S&P is a division of McGraw Hill which also runs S&P Dow Jones Indices, S&P Capital IQ (real-time data, research and analytics to all kinds of companies), Platts (a leading global provider of information and a premier source of benchmark price assessments for the energy, petrochemicals, metals and agriculture markets), and J.D. Power (a global marketing information services company operating in key business sectors including customer satisfaction research, market research, social media research, and performance improvement programs).

It’s a bit odd but maybe not that surprising many S&P employees are members of the Newspaper Guild, a union. Why do S&P employees belong to a newspaper union? The group’s Facebook page explains that, “Guild members at S&P include analysts, reporters, editors, researchers and administrative staff.”

S&P takes its journalistic connection so seriously the firm recently claimed in defense of a lawsuit that its ratings are an expressions of its First Amendment freedom of the press/free speech rights.

(Let’s hope the Big Four don’t get any crazy ideas. Wait, they already have!)

Standard & Poor’s is asking a California judge to rule that its credit ratings are opinions protected by a state law meant to block lawsuits filed by the powerful to intimidate the weak.

Facing a $1 billion lawsuit by California Attorney General Kamala Harris over its assessments of mortgage-backed securities, the New York-based unit of McGraw Hill Financial Inc. (MHFI) said in court filings that its ratings are similar to newspaper editorials and shielded by a 1992 California statute barring meritless lawsuits intended to bully targets.

“From a free speech perspective, there’s no more dangerous opponent than the state,” Floyd Abrams, S&P’s attorney, said at a hearing today in state court in San Francisco.

PwC also advertises on Forbes—PwC ads would often magically run alongside my columns criticizing its latest litigation— and with American Banker where paid content is mixed in as editorial-like videos.

The paid content debate, whether in print, online or live form, is not new. What’s fairly new, and limited to the two most aggressive Big Four firms, is the use of paid content and exclusive conference co-hosting by public accounting firms to position themselves as consultants again, muddying the waters of their primary role and responsibility and public duty.

Back in early 2009, Forbes launched Forbes Insight. described the initiative at the time:

We like this news story: Forbes has just launched “Forbes Insights,” a custom research practice under the Brand Intelligence Group, the group formed last year when the website and print edition merged their sales and marketing people. Forbes Insights, according to veep of marketingchief brand officer of the Brand Intelligence Group Bruce Rogers, is a way to “provide access to our audience”—lots of rich, powerful people read Forbes, and if you want to know what they’re thinking, now you can commission Forbes to do the research, surveys, and whatnot.

“This is a whole new revenue stream for us,” says Rogers. Even though companies interested in these surveys probably already advertise in Forbes, Forbes Insights offers the company a way to access dollars from a different line item on their clients’ budgets. “Often [the groups commissioning the studies] are sales groups that have their own budgets,” Rogers explains.

Deloitte LLP has been a very big user of this Forbes service, commissioning surveys and studies that have been re-reported by other media organizations. Although some media organizations attribute the Forbes Insight relationship to Deloitte Touche Tohmatshu, the international firm, the relationship is actually with Deloitte LLP, the umbrella US firm that houses separate but equal legal entities that are responsible for their own legal liability. The firms under Deloitte LLP are Deloitte & Touche LLP (audit firm), Deloitte Consulting LLP, Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP (the one banned by the NY DFS for its work on Standard Chartered) and Deloitte Tax LLP.

Forbes’ Bruce Rogers recently wrote a column featuring an interview with Deloitte’s Chairman without disclosing in the article that Deloitte pays the group he runs to publish its advertorials. In a triple media placement play that would give Mad Men tears of joy, Deloitte’s recent study on strategic risk “conducted on behalf of Deloitte by Forbes Insight” was “reported” on its sponsored page in the Wall Street Journal. Reuters also picked up the PR Newswire story.

Finally, it doesn’t get any more insinuating than this:

The Union by Deloitte

Deloitte has been announced as the new sponsor of the Cambridge Union Society

Both Deloitte employees and students attended the Deloitte sponsored Week four debate on the European Union

The Cambridge Union Society has entered into a sponsorship deal with professional services firm Deloitte.

Joanna Mobed, President of the Cambridge Union, and Vice-President Alex Porter said in a joint statement to Varsity: “The Cambridge Union Society is very happy to be starting a three-year collaboration with Deloitte, through which Deloitte will be providing the Union with a range of services, including the technical expertise that has already allowed us to overhaul our website and expand our wireless capabilities…

But some Union members have raised concerns about the possible negative effects of the Deloitte sponsorship agreement. Writing to Varsity, Union member Jack Pulman-Slater expressed his dismay at the presence of Deloitte employees at Week Four’s European Union debate. At the debate there was a lack of seating for Union members because of the many seats reserved for Deloitte employees, and there are some reports of disruptive behaviour on their part…

Further concerns have been raised about how the affiliation with Deloitte might affect the Union’s ability to uphold its identity as a society for the promotion of free speech. One Union member who wished to remain anonymous said: “I don’t see how this [the sponsorship affiliation] can’t fundamentally change the nature of the Cambridge Union.

“In any kind of corporate deal of this sort there are tacit understandings about what can and can’t be said about the other party. That just doesn’t bode well for a centuries-old debating society whose tagline has the words ‘free speech’ in it.”

The Union responded: “Deloitte will not be choosing the speakers or debate motions and the Union will remain a society dedicated to free speech, which prioritises its members’ interests.

5 replies
  1. bob
    bob says:

    Can’t any party sponsor these “not for profit” endeavors? Why criticize an accounting firm when anyone can step to the plate and provide a sponsorship? I think that it is commonplace for sponsors to be parties of interest, who are looking to get their name in view and generate business opportunities. Accountants still will need to deal with independence matters, regardless of sponsorships.

  2. Francine
    Francine says:


    So let me take apart your response.

    These endeavors are not “not-for-profit”. You have not seen the agreement but I’m sure the FT is in it to make money. Whether or not Deloitte gets a cut of the take is unknown. Pearson/FT is audited by PwC, so that firm could never sponsor (marketing/business alliances between auditor and client prohibited) and there would also be a danger of taking money and advocating for audit clients client the conference.
    I would be shocked if an audit firm was stupid enough to sponsor a conference with a media audit client. But nothing is out of realm when the firms get big enough, far-flung enough and can’t keep an eye on member firms and their aggressive marketing tactics.
    The primary set of conflicts is on the media organization. If you read further and see what has been said form that perspective, you will see why providing access and your brand credibility to companies and executives you cover is so problematic. Deloitte has been very much in the news, negatively, in the UK as auditor of Royal Bank of Scotland, auditor of HP acquisition Autonomy and for its recent regulator fine for conflicts of interest with auditing and advising MG Rover. I guess it’s worth it for Deloitte to suck up and pay big money to the FT given the paper’s necessary coverage of these negative stories. The public perception is that the FT may give Deloitte an extra call, benefit of the doubt, and a generous chance to respond as well as balance with positive stories just to be nice. But what would that say about the FT?

  3. Adam
    Adam says:

    So who is to blame here? The Big 4 firms or big media conglomerates? I don’t really see anything wrong with a professional services firm (or any other profit-seeking legal entity, for that matter) paying money to sponsor an event or conference. If that conference happens to be hosted by a media company, which represents itself to be a defender of truth and objectivity, then why is the media company not wholly to blame for putting itself in this position?

    Media companies are just as much for-profit as the Big 4 firms. A lot of that profit comes from the brand value that has been cultivated over years and years of publication. It’s the reason why someone looking for in-depth journalism walks past the New York Post and picks up a copy of the New York Times. If these media companies want to gamble with their brand equity by hosting conferences that are co-sponsored by other for-profit entities, so be it, that is their decision.

    If you want to take the media companies to task for this practice, I have absolutely no problem with that. But singling out the Big 4 firms and trying to paint them, once again, as evil purveyors of economic turmoil, only leads to me to further believe that your, “reporting,” is little more than a witch hunt from a jaded former employee.

  4. Francine
    Francine says:


    I’m going to ignore your last line in the interest of discussion.

    I am taking the media to task. If you count the media mentions, including two outlets that have been very kind and supportive to me, you should see that my focus is on the media and their potential lack of objectivity with the auditors. Their objectivity is something we can’t afford to lose.

    I write about the business of the audit firms. That’s my focus. So when I see them acting like any other corporate entity, out marketing and promoting their brand, I perk up and focus on whether those actions can compromise the public’s perception of the industry in its primary and public duty role as auditors. It’s my subject area and I am not going to apologize for honing in on it and peeling away the layers.

  5. Robert
    Robert says:

    BuzzFeed, with close to 10 million unique monthly visitors, has seen demand for sponsored content soar in recent months, and has ramped up hiring of writers and editorial staff to create articles and listicals for companies ranging from General Electric (GE) to BMW (BAMXY).

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