When to Turn and Run: Suspect-Supplier Tip-Offs

Every now and then, I encounter a media supplier who makes me want to turn and run — or at least do everything in my power to avoid handing over my marketing dollars. Any ad campaign is only as good as its media placement (your poster promoting life insurance may win awards, but would it deliver results in a video game arcade?).

This pertains not only to audience selection but also to the competence of the media seller and the quality of service you receive. Choosing to work with an inexperienced or ambiguous vendor sets up your campaign for disaster. Knowing how to spot the warning signs is critical.

Cues are usually visible from the beginning, during the research phase of media planning. It starts when you discover just getting in touch with that new site or network — the one you never heard of that actively sought you out as a sales lead — is practically impossible. As a colleague of mine so frequently (and irately) points out, this must be the only industry in existence, with the possible exception of the auction world, in which the buyer literally has to beg the seller to accept her money. Occasionally, the reason behind this is valid. The seller may simply be too busy servicing truckloads of other satisfied clients to get back to you in a timely fashion. Usually, it’s the calling card of a disorganized company. If you can’t get in touch with the rep from day one, what’s in store when your campaign goes live and you need to access stats? Will someone be available if you encounter problems or your placements need to be optimized? As in any good relationship, mutual trust is a must. If you’ve got misgivings from the start, chances are it will end in heartbreak.

Just as the way in which a supplier treats you can be a yardstick by which you can measure his competence and professionalism, his performance during the planning process of your first campaign is a precursor of things to come. To make a campaign work, the buyer and the seller must be on the same page and understand campaign objectives equally well. Exceptionally well-performing or specialty inventory may be limited, but we buyers aren’t so destitute we’ll deliberately bind our client to a vendor who’s clueless about our market.

Be advised, such vendors are plentiful. I recently requested some counts from an email supplier for engineering consultants in a handful of specific fields. What I received was astounding: a list of available email names in every specialty group under the sun, save the one I was looking for. The list included names of government workers and doctors mixed in with consumers who had opted in to receive information about jewelry and antiquities. Accompanied by the plea, “Can you use any of these?” the proposal underscored not only this vendor’s inexperience but also his indifference to my needs and utter apathy toward trying to understand them.

Let’s assume you’re kindhearted enough to give a company a second chance (after all, media envoys don’t always accurately represent the integrity of their organizations). Another sure sign of potential trouble is a lack of sufficient sales materials or, in some cases, anysales materials. I find it so strange salespeople go out of their way to contact me without having a comprehensive kit to offer. Many are eager to summarize their services in an email.

Media buyers share information, and colleagues exchange media kits. Not only is an email summary or telephone explanation inconvenient for the buyer, the seller does herself a disservice by not leaving something more complete behind. Most buyers have both an electronic and a physical library of materials we consult when planning campaigns. Having information on file saves a lot of research time. The chances we’ll happen on a sales email from months back, then go through the trouble of investigating its source (not knowing whether it’s even remotely relevant) are slim. The fact the vendor didn’t have professional materials to begin with is yet another strike against her and a reason for the buyer to be on the alert.

We all have favored media suppliers we return to repeatedly. With wide-ranging campaign objectives and thousands of vendors to choose from, we also frequently venture into new territory. Learning a few survival skills and carrying a map can’t hurt.

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