Hire a lawyer, and it’s their ethical and moral responsibility to act in your best interest. Hire a financial advisor, and it’s their job to safeguard your assets for the fee you agreed to.
It’s called fiduciary duty, and when you hire an agency to spend media dollars on your behalf, it shouldn’t be any different: a financial agreement structured on the moral, ethical responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. The bulk of your spend goes toward the best mix of investments for your brand, a set margin of that spend goes toward the good custodianship of your business by the agency, and all’s right with the world.
But by the nature of the business, and agencies’ monstrous buying power, media agencies will always encounter the opportunity to create added benefit along the way, and this brings us to a crossroads. Some agencies chase down that savings for their partners (great). Others pursue it for themselves (fine, if disclosed). But a few go on to break trust by reserving that take and failing to disclose it. And that, in technical terms, is called lying. See also: stealing.
That opportunity emerges (or is created) in a lot of different ways. It could take the shape of added, undisclosed fees associated with use of agency-run trading desks. Or agency kickbacks from media partners for reaching set spending goals. Or agencies might push clients to invest in media channels where the agency gets to pocket a bigger fee.
As long as such practices aren’t being disclosed, even in a minority of cases, no amount of "radical transparency" will fix it. Because it’s not something that needs to be marketed away. It’s not even radical. It’s simple. It’s that lying/stealing thing again.
While the onus is on media agencies as a unit to manage the integrity of the industry—when you guys do this, we all look bad—brand-side folks are the ones holding the keys. And there are a few ways to be sure you’re voting with your dollars for partners who answer to these basic standards.
1. Make sure you know (and trust) who you’re doing business with.
You have a lot of options, so ask a lot of questions. What outcomes can you expect? What are your partner’s company values? When making a commitment, vet your options thoroughly to be sure you’re choosing a partner with trustworthy practices.
2. Know what you’re paying for and communicate your expectations about it.
Don’t assume anything. Explain outright that you expect partners to act in good faith, and explain what that means: anytime a dollar goes into their pocket out of contract, you should be made aware of it. And make sure your contracts echo that.
3. Make success a shared, high-value effort.
When you have a partner you trust, create a healthy ecosystem that works for both of you. A profit sharing arrangement is one way to signal that you trust and value your partner’s work while actively rewarding their creativity and ingenuity.
All media agencies need to be concerned with the basic standard of moral and ethical practice in our industry. Not nine times out of ten, but every single time. And in the meantime, always be voting down the bad actors in their preferred language: money. Now that would be radical.
David Eisenman is the CEO and co-founder of Madwell.