Precluding Plausible Deniability

“Pax Acronymana.” My colleague Jim Meskauskas can be hysterically funny at times, particularly when he’s ranting against the MSNs and AOLs of the world. If you’ve never gone for an after-work drink with Jim, I highly recommend it.

Jim’s last article raises some pretty interesting points about how some of the larger sales companies are structuring themselves these days. The two-team structure, with one team dealing with agencies and the other dealing directly with clients, seems to be gaining favor among the AOLs, MSNs, and Yahoos of the world these days. Such a structure represents a challenge for a lot of agencies.

Many online planners have experienced that sinking feeling when they call the client and find out that a meeting took place between a media vendor and the client without the benefit of the agency’s counsel. With the two-team structure in place, it’s easier for your sales rep to be able to say, “I didn’t know what was going on. It was the direct-to-client team that set up the meeting.” In my Politics 101 class in college, that was called “plausible deniability.”

These days, in the Wild West of the Internet advertising landscape, you really can’t get upset with media vendors for trying to drum up business by going directly to clients. It’s just business. You can get upset, though, if your client gets distracted from the strategy you’ve crafted for them, or if a deal gets signed that is clearly off-strategy. As a planner at an agency hired to steward a client’s ad strategy, you should do everything in your power to prevent things like this from happening. But you don’t do it by threatening media vendors with retaliation if they try to circumvent the agency. You preempt off-strategy media deals by setting expectations with your client.

In a good agency-client relationship, the client will consult with the agency on any online media-related proposal. When the agency pitches a piece of business, this expectation should be set. Clients should know that the agency is going to develop a media strategy to chart the course for the client over time and that all media proposals need to be evaluated against this strategy to determine whether they make sense to execute. Clients need to know that this evaluation process applies to each and every media vendor, including the ones that approach them with huge multimillion-dollar deals.

With this expectation set, the agency needs to drive the point home by showcasing the value it delivers through evaluating proposals and negotiating contracts with media vendors. The client needs to understand that there’s a heck of a lot more to negotiation than simply getting the best price. In addition to negotiating favorable pricing, agencies also do the following:

  • Reserve rights for both the client and the agency concerning payment, cancellation, makegoods, optimization, and much, much more
  • Contribute strategies and tactics for tracking the results of online media packages and gauging success
  • Structure the deal within the appropriate legal framework
  • Leverage their expertise and experience to address issues that tend to be overlooked by clients (what to do in the event of shortfalls, how to define metrics, how to manage creative allocations, etc.)
  • Manage the campaign over time, ensuring the best media value for the client’s dollar

If you work at an agency, your client should be well aware of the value brought to the table by your agency’s online media department. When they know what’s involved in the negotiation, execution, and maintenance of a large online media deal, they will be more likely to say to approaching media vendors, “Speak to my agency.”

Clear delineation of the business value brought to the table by agencies should be enough to convince your client that large proposals from the likes of AOL, MSN, and Yahoo are best evaluated by the agency. But if for some reason that isn’t enough, make sure that the client knows where the loyalties of the media salespeople lie.

Though some may be approaching clients as “marketing partners,” the client needs to fully understand that sales reps are hired to generate revenue for their publishers. Whenever the best course of action for your client comes into conflict with the publisher’s interests (which happens often), you can be sure the sales rep will always side with the publisher. Someone with such a conflict of interest can never be as good a marketing partner as an agency. And your client should know that.

Ensure that your clients understand the value that your agency media department brings to the table, and you’ll never have to deal with the “media sales end-around” ever again.

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