How Affiliate Platform Howl Fell Millions Behind on Payments

The affiliate network Howl, one of several technology platforms powering the $16 billion affiliate marketing industry, has struggled for years to consistently pay its publishing partners, racking up millions of dollars in delinquent payments and bottlenecking a key source of publisher revenue, according to interviews with executives at four commerce media operations.These overdue payments have stretched back up to eight months and range in amounts between $20,000 and $900,000, according to invoices, emails and accounting documents shared with Adweek. The executives who spoke with Adweek requested anonymity to discuss sensitive financial matters. The publishers they represent include some of the most prominent global commerce media operations. At least three other affected publishers declined to speak on the record.The overdue payments, dating back to at least 2019, have been particularly painful for publishers this year, as the media industry grapples with severe declines in traffic and revenue. They also threaten to erode trust in the affiliate marketing space, which has worked to repair its former reputation as a haven for bad actors.“The [affiliate] industry has cleaned up so much, and many of the bad actors have fallen by the wayside or been exposed,” said one executive. “These kinds of things give the industry a bad name and keep it underfunded.”Howl chief executive Li Haslett Chen acknowledged the overdue payments, adding that they impacted a small fraction of its business. “We acknowledge that we have had some delays in payments to publishers in the past,” Chen said. “We’ve addressed this, and Howl’s payments to its publishers are currently up-to-date.“In early 2024, Howl will be migrating our publisher partners to an updated, direct payment system with payment transparency at the brand level. We deeply value our relationships with our publishers, brands and creators, and will continue to focus on providing them with great service.”Delayed payments with little explanationWhile the amounts and dates vary, publishers working with Howl all shared a common experience: Months would pass without payment, during which time Howl would fail to communicate or sufficiently explain the delay, according to the executives.One publisher, in November 2020, had missing payments that stretched back to September 2019 and nearly reached a seven-figure total, according to documents reviewed by Adweek.In a separate instance, a payment more than seven months late grew to a total of more than $250,000. In another, a payment five months overdue reached a high six-figure amount. Howl has attributed its issues, at various times, to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, delayed upstream payments from merchants and a billing mishap prompted by its rebrand from Narrativ to Howl in 2022. Delayed payments of this length are atypical in the affiliate marketing industry, which generally maintains a net-90-day payment schedule from vendor to affiliate network to publisher, according to Michael McNerney, publisher of the Martech Record. “We work with between 15 and 20 affiliate networks,” said a second executive. “We have a massive commerce business. We don’t have these problems with any other network in any capacity.”Howl has also at times declined to make even partial payments on the sums it owed to publishers. “Most affiliate vendors pay the publisher as they get paid by the merchant,” said the first executive. “Howl claimed that it needed to be paid by every vendor before it could pay out even one publisher.”In September, when the company became aware of efforts to report on its payments, Howl paid several publishers in full and set up repayment plans with others. Chen claims that 98.6% of total payments in the past year have been on time.One publisher, still owed more than $50,000, ended its business with Howl in October. Another recently renegotiated its contract to include terms that terminate the relationship if Howl misses a payment. Going through Howl for Samsung and Best BuyPublishers with robust affiliate revenue businesses often work with around a dozen affiliate networks at any given time, according to McNerney. Howl, which is considered a smaller player in the space, initially attracted the business of publishers and merchants with the promise of an innovative new technology—auction-bidding on affiliate links, which has been discontinued—and an ability to tap into different budgets within brands, according to the executives.Its payment problems have since negated this appeal. “By 2021, our accounting and business development teams were telling us that, at any given time, Howl was late in paying us by anywhere from three to five months,” said one executive. “It got so bad that at one point our finance team asked us to stop working with them.”But two key merchants—Best Buy and Samsung—still work primarily with Howl, according to executives. In the affiliate space, advertisers pay to use the affiliate network of their choice, and publishers integrate with that network if they want to work with the advertiser, said McNerney. Because of the cost, most advertisers work with just one or two networks. Both Best Buy and Samsung have active accounts with one other affiliate network—Impact and Rakuten, respectively—but their rates are far lower, according to a third executive. “No publisher that actually wants to monetize Best Buy links would go through Impact given that the bigger budgets and rates are only provided through Howl,” they added.Both companies have been made aware of these issues but have declined to move their business, according to communications reviewed by Adweek. Neither company responded to a request for comment. If Best Buy and Samsung left, the publishers would stop working with Howl, according to the executives. “We are still working with them mostly because of Best Buy, but if we ever find ourselves in this situation again, we will walk away,” said a fourth executive. “The money we’re earning doesn’t matter if we’re not getting paid.”

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