About that Couch I Wanted....

I just finished reading "The 10 Commandments of the Gift Economy" on Digiday, an anonymously written primer on the dos and don'ts of agency/seller extortion/bribery. I'm usually a huge fan of Digiday's buyer/seller coverage, but this one left me scratching my head. They say there's no right way to do the wrong thing...much less 10 commandments to guide the effort. But since the issue's cropped up, let me dust off this post from March 2011, which is to-date the most tweeted, commented upon and liked piece I've ever written. So put that credit card away and enjoy.

So I heard this story the other day.... Sales VP and a rep walk into an agency, ready to take the planning team out for lunch. They're hoping to get to know these folks a little better and improve their odds of getting on the next campaign. But into the lobby walks not the planning team, but only it's most junior member — let's call her Caitlin. "Everybody else was too busy to get away today," she says without a hint of genuine regret. "So they said that with the money you guys would have spent on lunch you should just take me shopping instead."

Put Caitlin in a sitcom and she's maybe an outrageously funny, over the top character. But put her in a real life agency (this story, I'm told, is quite true) and she becomes the agent of our demise.

Only the inimitable Lewis Black could conjure up the sputtering sense of outrage I feel about Caitlin. She epitomizes what is wrong and broken in the relationship between buyers and sellers, and she's a ticking time bomb where it concerns the future of the agency planning business. But Caitlin's not evil; she's just a product of a system that may be rotting from within.

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Taking clients to concerts and basketball games and plying them with food and drink are, of course, institutional norms. But somewhere we crossed a line and it became commonplace for buyers to start expecting actual merchandise. A meal is with you for a day. But a trip to Ikea....NOW you're talkin! While Caitlin may have been more transparent and brazen about the practice, it's out in the marketplace in many forms. Like the Jeans Party, where a sales rep drops a few thousand dollars having buyers outfitted with custom made jeans....or the Sneaker Party, where ill-shod planners can get set up with $300 custom Nikes...or the conference presenter who promises new iPads to the first planning team who will take a meeting with him after the event. Heck, little Cait probably thought she was doing her reps a favor by designing a more efficient delivery system!

To sellers who may be tempted to go down this path, it's not worth your time. You may think you're currying favor and building relationships, but you're really only the latest sucker to pick up the check. I hope that the sales leaders who read this will start to mentor their teams on what is and isn't moral and effective. Share a great experience with your clients; spend your T&E money thoughtfully and imaginatively. But don't be the iron claw machine.

To agency leaders: at a time when clients are turning the lens of procurement on the buying process and holding their own executives to ever-higher standards of conduct, do you really want this kind of exposure? How about some hard and fast policies that shut these troubling merch-fests down before they start?

I'm not sure what tipped me on this issue, and I'm sure my moralizing won't be welcomed by a great many. And maybe I'm just naive, but when I imagine the future of this profession, I see more than a third-world country rife with "la mordida." I guess I'll only know from the comments that come in below whether I'm right. Sellers, have you felt strong-armed lately? Buyers, am I overstating this? Are there indeed policies in place to keep this stuff from happening? Please....tell me. I'll be sitting over here waiting on my new couch.