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.