Self Interest and Responsibility in Agency Land

A couple of days ago I had one of those moments when you just think: ‘why couldn’t I have said that?’ The moment came when reading The AdContrarian blog (by far and away the best blog on advertising anywhere), where I came across the following: “Self-interest has come into conflict with responsibility. Guess what’s winning?”

Most of you probably know that the AdContrarian is Bob Hoffman, an agency man with considerable experience in the USA. Bob is I believe a copywriter by trade; I am a media man, which explains why he can say in less than a dozen words what it takes me 2000 or more, across several posts to express nothing like as well.

Media agencies (in fact all agencies) have a responsibility to do the best job for their clients. That’s why they’re there. The most objective plans, bought at the best price, and fuelled by learnings from past activities. It’s not an easy job – in fact these days it’s pretty complicated – but you would have thought the principle was quite straightforward.

But apparently not. The problem comes when what the English comic actress Joyce Grenfell used to refer to as ‘the sordid business of coin’ comes into the equation. Agencies are paid by their clients to handle millions of the stuff on their behalf; so what’s wrong with them ensuring that some of it sticks to them as it finds its way from advertiser to media owner? Well, a lot, in my opinion.

You can complicate the matter all you like, introduce all sorts of largely irrelevant arguments about agent versus principle, or transparency versus full-disclosure, or even plead poverty (have you seen the holding companies’ profits?) but the fact remains that agencies shouldn’t put self-interest ahead of what’s best for their client when they come to allocate and spend their clients’ budgets. This is becoming a story.

“Mindshare Becomes Buyer and Seller” screeched AdAge this week with news that the media agency has entered the mainstream TV production business. Actually, I’m on Mindshare’s side on this one. Why shouldn’t the agency diversify into production and no doubt offer their clients an inside track on extension ideas around the TV series – as long as they don’t (and there is no suggestion that they are even thinking of such a thing) push their clients unknowingly into supporting the show.

“No buying entity should be in a position to buy from itself” screeched The Cog Blog (alright, me), on 4th February when I discussed Xaxis and the incorporation into that organisation of the publisher network 24/7. Unlike the Mindshare example I do have a problem with Xaxis (even after they most generously spent several hours recently explaining to me the detail of what they do; something many of the other holding company trading desks have declined an invitation to do).

The issue is one of knowledge and intent. If as a client you choose to use Xaxis you’re buying into their model, which basically means you cannot know the detail of where your money is being spent. All you know is the aggregated audience reached. For all you know (and of course I’m exaggerating to make the point) the whole lot could find its way to 24/7, to the greater benefit of WPP, Xaxis’ parent.

Why does that matter? Well, of course it might not to some advertisers some of the time, but the point is the client should have the right to know how their money is being spent, and to be involved  fully in those decisions.

As a client you may choose to abdicate all responsibility to your agency (good luck explaining to your Board when your ad finishes up somewhere textually inappropriate, as happened with the Australian state Government of Queensland who immediately decided that MediaCom were surplus to requirements), or you may decide to immerse yourself in the detail of how your money is spent.

It’s no longer good enough to assume that your agency will always act responsibly towards you the advertiser. Sometimes self-interest gets in the way. And when that happens guess which wins?

There, that’s 700-odd words to say what Bob said in 11. Another example of a media person not being much good when it comes to the craft of creating messages.