Universal McCann

Taking a Stand.

I’ve been extremely vocal in this blog about the unregulated culture of gifting and entertainment within our industry’s buyer/seller dynamic.  And apparently I’m not the only one for whom this issue touches a nerve.  My posts of this past March (“The Week of the Agency”) and March 2011 (“Buy Me a Couch!”) garnered more comments and tweets than any other topic I’ve discussed.  The more recent post elicited responses from some top agency people – and a couple of very unique invitations.

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Jacki Kelley, Global CEO of Universal McCann, wrote to say that she was personally “cringing on many levels.”  Acknowledging the difficulty of translating agency principles to the grass roots – and also calling sellers on the carpet for doing the necessary homework – she puts her thoughts into very plain English:  “Media owners are central partners. They deserve to have the calls/emails returned and to know why they are/are not on a plan… They do not have to buy anyone sneakers for that right!”  You can read the entire reply, which illuminates UM policies and philosophy and ends with a pretty remarkable offer.  “And if you see examples where UM is acting in a way that is totally inconsistent with this, flag me. I will never out you but I will continue to push to ensure we are the agency that is creating a very different experience for you (the seller).”

Underscore Marketing President Tom Hespos then invited me to actually sit in on an internal agency meeting where “vendor protocols” were going to be discussed.  I can be a pretty tough critic, but I was impressed by the depth, conviction and sensitivity that Tom and his management team brought to the table on this issue.  Couple of key thoughts and observations:

  • They connected their policies to the sustainability of their business.  One slide stated clearly that “Underscore’s ethical behavior and business demeanor are a differentiator and a source of agency pride.”  This is actually something that can set the agency apart from potential competitors in a pitch, and give its own employees a sense of the place. “Everything ladders up to how we present ourselves to current and future clients.”
  • On both vendor gifts and interaction with suppliers outside the office, their presentation included clear “OK” and “Not OK” examples.
  • While inviting team members to come to management for clarification, they also made it clear that the rules and policies were firmly attached to the company culture and future and were not open for debate.

I’ve written extensively about bad behavior on both sides of the desk, and I know that to some in the agency world my critiques can seem pretty tough.  I’m happy to take a moment to acknowledge the messy, challenging  nature of running an agency today, and to celebrate the steps that a few leaders are taking to align their shops with a better future.  A tip of the white hat to you both.

The Negotiation That Matters.

This week I was forwarded a promotional e-mail from a sales rep at Undertone who offers his client the “Standout Brand Guarantee” — a promise that if a pre-discussed brand metric is not met on a campaign then Undertone will hand back up to $50,000.  Last year we heard a similar pledge from Meredith Corporation:  Its “Engagement Dividend” would use Nielsen Homescan data to show that ad campaigns run across its magazine properties would actually lift product sales.  And then there’s Universal McCann, the agency that’s leading the way in negotiating pay-for-performance compensation deals with its clients:  UM actually wants to get paid based on the effect of its work in driving agreed upon measurement for clients – rather than fees, commissions or both.  Whether any of these three actions ends up being the harbinger for a new model, I’m not sure:  there is bound to be pushback and hairsplitting around all of them.  But they are all tied to a critical sales lesson.

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Historically terms like pay-for-performance and guarantee have been non-starters for digital sales organizations, it’s usually been because some brain-dead click-based metric was being imposed on them by a disingenuous buyer.   It wasn’t about having skin in the game… it was all about getting skinned.   But while sales leaders and reps have bitched about lowest-common denominator metrics and payment, few have offered any alternatives.  In each scenario the seller (Undertone, Meredith, UM – it is ‘selling’ its services to marketers) is taking charge of the conversation about ROI very early in the process.   By agreeing to own an outcome, they are putting themselves in position to decide what that outcome should be and how it will be measured.  I think you’ll see more companies taking steps like this in the immediate future, if only because the alternatives – getting paid in bulk for page views/impressions and arguing over click rates – are so unpalatable.

But to localize the idea even more, I encourage every digital sales person to begin proactively negotiating the nature and measurement of campaign outcomes at the very earliest stages of the sales discussion.  If you wait for the RFP (never a good idea, by the way) to tell you what’s being measured and how, you’re already screwed.   For the past 17 years we’ve left the definition of ROI up to the direct-response oriented ad buyer, and look where it’s gotten us.   Truth is, most clients don’t have the background or the vision to really say how digital marketing can help them.  Helping them define and rank the potential outcomes is something we owe them.

Take a stand.  Get creative.   Seek to drive the ROI conversation early and you’ll naturally occupy a stronger and more valuable place in your customer’s esteem.  And you’ll find you’ve built a more sustainable base of business for yourself at the same time.

The New PIN Code.

If you’re like me, when you’re in need of cash in the middle of a busy day you’re not all that picky about where you get it.  My eyes scan the horizon for three simple letters:  A-T-M.  I don’t much care about the brand and color scheme that surround the cash machine:  whether it’s Chase or Bank of America or People’s Bank or HSBC doesn’t really concern me.  All I know is, when I punch in the right set of numbers, money comes out and I’m on my way.  And while this cavalier approach to personal bank interaction works out pretty well, it also provides an unflattering metaphor about the relationship most of us have with ad agencies.

Often during my workshops, I’ll quiz a group of digital sellers about the agencies they call on regularly.  I ask about the agency’s mission, the key selling points on which it pitches new business.  I ask about its operating principles and values.  And I’m also curious about the quality and duration of its relationships with key accounts:  are they fresh?  healthy?  aging?  troubled?  Most of the time these questions are met with embarrassed silence and averted eyes.   Because far too often the agency is nothing more to us than an anonymous ATM machine.  Pay no attention to the brand or the color palette:  just punch in your numbers and wait for your cash.

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The truth is that when you call on an ad agency, you are really selling to two businesses.  Yes, it’s ultimately the client’s money that’s being spent, but it’s foolish to overlook the business objectives of the customer’s agent — the agency.  The shops you call on are businesses in and of themselves; they struggle with self-identity, strive to build brand cultures, try to motivate their people, and look for competitive advantage over their other agencies.  But do we take any of that into account as we’re considering our approach?  Or are we just punching buttons?

Here’s a simple quiz to underscore my point.  Consider five top agencies:  Starcom, Digitas, Universal McCann, PhD and OMD.   In their mission statements, one talks about “smart analytics combined with world class technology;”  another points to “a culture of thought leadership, creativity and innovation;”  one is all about “curiosity;”  one says “experience design is the future;” and the final one says it is “an integrated agency with a brand core.”   Could the members of your sales team collectively match each agency to its statement of values?  In this blog, I’ve taken agencies to task for not stressing their own values enough.  But I have to think that with just a little digging — with a little curiosity of his own — a given seller could know far more about the shops he calls on, increasing his own value and personal brand at the same time.

The most common complaint I hear from sellers about agencies is their tendency to commoditize the sales offerings, to take a simplistic, one-dimensional view of what sellers have to offer.  The shoe may not feel especially comfortable on the other foot, but there’s little doubt that it fits.