Federal prosecutors in the US are reported to have opened an investigation into media-buying malpractice in the advertising industry, with Vivendi-owned Havas coming under the spotlight along with other “big six” holding companies.

According to the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed people “familiar with the matter”, subpoenas have been issued as part of the probe and Havas is one company that is under scrutiny.

Havas declined to comment on the Journal’s report – along with representatives for Dentsu, Publicis, Interpublic and WPP – although Omnicom said it had not received a subpoena from federal authorities at the time the Journal’s report was published last week.

The Journal’s sources further revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been interviewing people in the advertising industry over the past few months about ad-buying practices.

Campaign first reported about rumours of an official probe in June, although there was not much specific detail, but now it appears FBI investigators are indeed including in their inquiry a report carried out by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in 2016.

The ANA report carried a stark warning that transparency concerns exist at multiple agencies and holding companies and, among the issues raised, was agencies receiving cash receipts from media sellers for reaching spending thresholds and then not returning those funds to clients.

Agencies denied any wrongdoing when the 2016 study was released, but it prompted a deterioration of relations between agencies and their clients that has taken time to heal.

The latest news about the FBI stepping up its investigation with subpoenas suggests relations between agencies and clients could now face more bumps in the road.

However, according to the Journal’s sources, at this stage in the federal inquiry the ANA has not yet met with prosecutors to go through the details.

Sourced from Wall Street Journal; additional content by WARC staff