Franchise Advertising Funds: A Blueprint for Success and Pitfall Prevention
Nearly every franchise system includes a franchise marketing and promotion fund, often referred to as an “ad fund.” Typically, an ad fund operates as follows: individual units are obliged to contribute a specific percentage of their revenue to the ad fund, and the franchisor utilizes these funds for advertising and promotional activities to benefit the overall system and brand.
Ad funds serve as a potent tool for fostering system growth and expansion. They create a pool of funds for promotional endeavours that might otherwise be financially burdensome for either the franchisor or individual franchisees to undertake independently. In addition, initiatives funded by the ad fund contribute to maintaining consistent and brand-aligned messaging, as they are centrally coordinated by the franchisor.
However, ad funds can also become a focal point for discontented and divisive franchisees to unite around. Dissatisfied franchisees may join forces to raise concerns – real or “strategic” – regarding the management or administration of the ad fund. Even if these grievances lack merit, they can consume valuable time and resources for franchisors. Moreover, they can sow discord within the franchise system and among franchisees. In the most extreme scenarios, franchisees may unite and utilize their collective resources to initiate and maintain vexatious lawsuits concerning the ad fund, which can result in significant expenses and protracted legal battles for the franchisor.
This article aims to provide guidance on ad fund best practices and to highlight essential considerations for franchisors in creating and managing their ad funds. Implementing these practices and thinking about these issues can help franchisors avoid the most common potential ad fund pitfalls.
- Consider what geographic area the advertising fund will cover, and whether franchisees will have additional local marketing obligations
Prior to establishing its ad fund, a franchisor should think carefully about the geographic area the fund will cover. Should the ad fund be national in scope, and responsible for promoting the brand across the country, or should there be multiple regional funds to account for Canada’s size and the distinctness of its many regions? Or should there be both a national fund and various regional funds? A franchisor should consider these questions in light of the nature of its brand and operations and the current market conditions. Are there important local or regional differences that the franchisor wants to address in its marketing efforts? Or is it better to focus on a single advertising strategy Canada-wide?
A franchisor should also determine whether franchisees will be required to invest in a local ad fund geared towards promoting their local markets (over and above their obligation to contribute to the franchisor’s national fund), and/or whether they must individually meet certain self-directed local marketing spend minimums. Making advertising a joint responsibility, by requiring individual unit spend minimums, can be an effective way to preempt complaints about the franchisor’s advertising strategy and decisions. As discussed in more detail, below, franchisors that opt to require franchisees to participate in marketing should ensure there is appropriate franchisor oversight over the content of such marketing initiatives. Franchisors should implement a tracking, approval, and reporting system to ensure that franchisees’ marketing efforts align with system standards, and that individual franchisees achieve minimum marketing spend requirements.
- Management and reporting considerations: creating a special purpose “ad fund” entity, preserving the right records, and reporting to the franchisees
With very few exceptions, it’s generally advisable that the franchisor set up and manage the ad fund as a separate entity within the franchise system. A general best practice is to incorporate a separate corporate entity whose sole purpose is to be responsible for all matters relating to the ad fund. Ad fund contributions should not generally be co-mingled with other funds. Instead, they should be maintained in a separate account in the name of the special-purpose entity that the franchisor has created for management of the ad fund. While it is technically not improper to deposit ad fund monies into a mixed purpose account, such practice can create significant practical difficulties relating to tracing funds in the event the franchisor receives a demand to account for its use of ad fund monies. To that end, any transfers in or out of the ad fund account should be properly memorialized. Original source documentation relating to ad fund expenditures (for instance, invoices from third party marketing services providers) should be organized and preserved for a reasonable period, in accordance with the franchisor’s document retention policies.
A franchisor should maintain accurate financial records detailing contributions to and expenses drawn from the ad fund. Such financial records should be distinct from those kept by the franchisor as part of its overall business operations.
A franchisor should consider whether it will provide franchisees with some degree of financial reporting relating to the revenue and expenses of the ad fund. For example, will the franchisor provide regular financial reports to the franchisees about the ad fund? Or will such reports be provided only in response to franchisee requests? In any case, a franchisor should make sure it adheres to whatever reporting requirements it may put in place, as failure to do so can provide a pretext for disgruntled franchisees to stir up trouble.
The franchisor will also want to carefully consider the type of financial information it wants to make available to the franchisees in relation to the ad fund. Will the franchisor provide financial statements, which may require the franchisor to engage external accountants to prepare? Or, more commonly, will the franchisor provide only a statement of income and expenses, summarizing the revenue and expenses of the ad fund in a particular fiscal period? In either case, it is generally recommended that franchisors provide such summary financial information to franchisees, rather than access to all source documents relating to the ad fund (for instance, general ledgers, invoices and other information relating to the financial activities of the ad fund).
- Consider whether all franchisees will benefit equally from, and contribute equally to, the advertising fund, and specify if that is not the case
As a fundamental matter, a franchisor should carefully consider which entities will contribute to the ad fund, how the quantum of such contributions shall be calculated, and what use may be made of the funds. For instance, is there any obligation for the franchisor to make ad fund contributions and, if not but the franchisor nonetheless contributes to the ad fund, how will such contributions be accounted for and used? Will corporate and franchisor-owned stores be required to contribute? What about stores that operate seasonally, or operate in a format that is different from the majority of stores in the system (kiosks, food trucks, special venue stores, ghost kitchens, etc.) Will all franchisees contribute equally to the ad fund in accordance with a prescribed formula?
Is it fair for all units to pay the same ad fund fees if some units are only operating for a portion of the year? The answer to this question is not always clear or straightforward. Sometimes, units with reduced hours or seasonal units are in a prominent location, for instance, major sporting venues or pop-ups during special events, and have the potential to greatly increase brand awareness and attract new customers to existing units operating in traditional formats in the future. Are these special location units creating goodwill for other franchisees to enjoy, or are they trading off the goodwill that other franchisees have created?
In addition to these considerations, a franchisor should specifically outline whether rebates, marketing allowances, and other amounts received by the franchisor will be contributed to the ad fund or retained by the franchisor for its own use.
Addressing these matters clearly, in both the franchise disclosure document and in the franchise agreement, can help to ensure that the ad fund is administered in a manner that franchisees perceive as transparent and fair.
- Clearly define the key terms of the ad fund, including how much franchisees are required to contribute, the mediums and content of advertising that are permissible, whether the ad fund will be administered internally and/or externally, and who will pay for ad fund’s administrative expenses
While franchisors generally have a great deal of discretion as to how ad fund monies should be spent, it is important that the scope of this discretion is clearly communicated to the franchisees to avoid accusations of “unfairness” later. It’s important to preserve the franchisor’s ability to spend the ad fund as it sees fit. This might mean applying ad fund monies towards assisting troubled regions, or towards initiatives that seek to have the system enter new markets.
A franchisor should consider how the monies it collects for the ad fund will be apportioned, and whether franchisees can expect the ad fund to devote a proportional amount of the collected funds to specific markets or regions. Many franchisors will explicitly state in their franchise agreement that the ad fund has been created for the benefit of the system as a whole, and that franchisees should not expect that ad fund spend will benefit individual units on a proportionate or equal basis relative to their contributions or other franchisees.
To avoid potential disputes, a franchisor should address in specific detail the following considerations when structuring its ad fund:
- What amounts will franchisees be required to contribute? The franchisor should clearly define the amount that franchisees will be required to pay into the ad fund, the frequency with which they will contribute to the fund, and how the contribution will be paid to the franchisor. A franchisor should consider whether the franchisees will be required to make payments in pre-determined amounts, or whether their ongoing contributions will be determined by way of a formula based on their gross revenues or another metric.
- What media and content may the ad fund employ? A franchisor should ensure it reserves the right to employ any and all types of content and mediums of advertising (including television, radio, online, social media, etc.) for the fund as part of its activities.
- Will the ad fund rely on third-party advertising agencies, an in-house advertising department, or a combination of both to carry out its activities? A franchisor should consider whether the ad fund will be administered internally or externally, or through a combination of both. Expenses incurred by a franchisor in directly administering the fund, including direct expenses such as printing and ad placement, and indirect expenses such as salaries and head office rent, may be properly chargeable to the ad fund. When considering what and how much to charge to the ad fund, a franchisor should make a commonsense determination as to whether there is a nexus between the expenses it has incurred and whether these expenses furthered the objectives of the ad fund. Additionally, the quantum of the allocation should be proportional to the expense incurred by the franchisor and assessed reasonably. For instance, if one quarter of the franchisor’s head office space is dedicated to offices for internal marketing personnel, it may be appropriate to charge one quarter of the franchisor’s head office occupancy costs to the ad fund.
- Will the ad fund be used for purposes other than traditional marketing of the system and brand? There are a variety of promotional-related activities in which franchisors are increasingly required to engage. For instance, increased reliance on social media means that, sometimes, a franchisor must engage in reputational “damage control” or respond to negative comments on social media. What about the cost of administering customer surveys across all or part of the system? Franchisors should consider whether the ad fund provisions of their franchise agreements permit them to charge the cost of these activities to the ad fund. Ultimately, the franchisor should thoughtfully consider all uses or potential uses of the ad fund monies.
Finally, a franchisor should reserve the right to change and amend the rules relating to its use of ad fund monies, as necessary, to keep up with new advertising mediums and technologies, and to ensure the best possible use is being made of ad fund dollars.
- Decide who will manage the fund, who will be responsible for its decision making, and whether there will be a franchisee advisory council.
Prior to forming the ad fund, a franchisor should carefully consider who will operate and administer the fund, and whether an advisory committee should be established to oversee and make suggestions as to the ad fund’s activities. In a majority of cases, the franchisor (or an affiliate of the franchisor) will be responsible for administering the fund and crafting the message and media to be employed in its advertising. Such centralized leadership allows the franchisor to broadcast a consistent message to potential consumers regarding its brand and products.
Some franchisors also establish franchisee advertising and marketing advisory councils, which bring together franchisees to make recommendations as to how the ad fund should carry out its activities. Most such councils are limited to making only non-binding recommendations. However, engaging franchisees can allow franchisors to tap into franchisees’ valuable on-the-ground knowledge. In addition, involving franchisees in the operations of the ad fund heightens transparency which can, in turn, preempt potential ad fund disputes.
- Consider how much leeway individual franchisees will have to undertake their own advertising
One of the key advantages of franchising is establishing a common brand which can provide customers with a consistent experience. In establishing an ad fund, a franchisor can ensure that all advertising it produces is consistent with the brand’s policies, standards and image. A franchisor should carefully consider whether there is a place in its system for individual franchisees to undertake their own advertising at a local level, and whether there should be controls on the form and content of such local advertising. A franchisor should consider whether local advertising directed by individual franchisees would complement or conflict with national and regional advertising undertaken by the system’s ad fund.
A franchisor should be especially wary when it comes to a franchisee’s use of social media to promote its franchised business. Social media content and messages can spread quickly and easily. A franchisor should be sure to clearly delineate the system’s policies on social media usage and content. Franchisors should also ensure they have effective mechanisms to step in when and if a franchisee’s advertising is inappropriate or inconsistent with the brand.
- Consider how the franchisor’s disclosure will be affected by the establishment of, or the reservation of the right to establish, an advertising fund
A franchisor should ensure that its franchise disclosure document fully discloses the material specifics of the ad fund it has established and its use of funds, as required by franchise legislation.
If particular franchisees are required to contribute different amounts to the ad fund, the franchisor should consider how widespread these variations are across its system, and whether knowledge of these variations is information that would be material to a decision by a prospective franchisee to acquire a franchise.
A well-managed ad fund, which pools contributions from franchisees, can be a valuable asset and a competitive advantage for a franchise system. However, the process of developing and administering such a fund can be complex. It is important to engage professional advisors throughout all stages of the ad fund’s lifecycle to ensure legal compliance and alignment with the system’s best interests.
At Sotos LLP, we specialize in assisting both emerging and established franchisors in navigating these complexities. Our expertise includes designing systems that adhere to best practices and crafting agreements and disclosure documents tailored to each franchise system’s unique needs. We also have substantial experience in defending against ad fund-related claims. No matter the system or the issue, Sotos LLP is here to support and guide franchisors in optimizing their ad funds for success.
Adrienne Boudreau, Sotos LLP
Adrienne is a partner with Sotos LLP in Toronto, Canada’s leading franchise law firm. He has been recognized by Chambers Canada, LEXPERT, Who’s Who Legal, and Best Lawyers in Canada as a leading Canadian franchise law practitioner. Adrienne can be reached directly at 416.572.7321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Yiokaris, Sotos LLP
John Yiokaris is a partner with Sotos LLP in Toronto, Canada’s leading franchise law firm. He has been recognized by Chambers Canada, LEXPERT, Who’s Who Legal, Lexology, and Best Lawyers in Canada as a leading Canadian franchise law practitioner. John can be reached directly at 416.977.3998 or email@example.com.
Jason Brisebois, Sotos LLP
Jason Brisebois is a senior associate with Sotos LLP in Toronto, Canada’s leading franchise law firm. He has been recognized by Best Lawyers in Canada in the Ones to Watch category. Jason can be reached directly at 416.572.7323 or firstname.lastname@example.org.