Earlier in the month I read a Digiday article with delightful schadenfreude. The writer was lamenting that the belief the digital era had been supposed to usher in a new world of transparency and accountability. Instead it appeared that the transactional nature of much of digital buying had inhibited the development of relationships between buyers and sellers, writes Britta Reid.
Lunch was no longer on the agenda, but digital publishers were now facing an onslaught of “tacky grabs for luxury goods” from the Millennials staffing agency digital departments. The publishers were apparently required to dole out jeans, sneakers and $300 sunglasses in order to maintain their visibility and create some semblance of a connection with their buyers.
Generously, the confessing publisher suggested that the situation was not so much the fault of the overworked, undertrained and underpaid Millennials. Instead, the publisher laid the blame at feet of the perennial culprit, Client Procurement. Once again, it was suggested that Client Procurement was responsible for the failure of agencies to either staff appropriately or to remunerate their employees reasonably. Failure to educate the youngsters in basic guidelines of business integrity would presumably be the fault of overstretched management too.
It seemed to me that there was some comfort to be had that our South African media industry had not yet descended into such a grimy state. Media lunches may no longer routinely last all afternoon, but more circumspect occasions still occur. Media sponsored events, visits to shows and, even some international travel, are still part of our landscape. (Of course, reassuringly, if the recipient of such hospitality is an employee of one of the international networks, one can assume that the necessary approval will have been obtained from agency management, together with disclaimers from the media owner that there is any expectation that of receiving business in exchange for the occasion. The details will also be recorded for auditing purposes.) Such strenuous requirements have influenced some media owners to sensibly balance social outings with educational events.
But there is value in such socialising. For both the extender and the recipient of such hospitality, the reward is the opportunity to build relationships and broaden the understanding of each other’s businesses. For the recipient of the hospitality, it is not merely an occasion to be shamelessly ‘schmoozed’. From a media agency perspective, it is facilitates the building up of network on the media owner side. It often introduces one to specialists with whom one may not have day-to-day contact. It helps one navigate the channels to reach the person with the right resources or decision-making ability to solve problems or deliver sharply thought out proposals. Surely, I believed, we still understand the obligations that underlie the fun we have in the industry?
It was not long, however, before my complacency was exploded by a conversation with a consultant who had been working closely with a media owner. Apparently there are employees of media agencies who blatantly state that it is not their responsibility to interface with media owners! It is truly difficult to imagine how anyone employed in a media agency could seriously believe this. Even those people who work in ‘client service’ or ‘account handling’ rather than in strategy, implementation or buying, need to know what options are available to their clients. They need to have opinions on what is appropriate for their clients.
My disillusionment turned to outrage when I further learnt that it was not uncommon for the people, who did not choose to see media owners, to still believe they were entitled to request tickets for concerts, shows and other forms of hospitality. Indeed, not only were they comfortable with doing so, but some of them went to so far as to overtly stipulate that their attendance at the event would be on a purely social basis. No business discussions were to be entertained.
Of course, my immediate reaction was that the media owners should simply not cater to such unreasonable demands. If an agency employee recuses him or herself from media owner contact, the media owner is entitled to be informed who is the correct delegated person with decision-making authority on that business. Any failure to co-operate in this regard should be reported to agency management by the media owners. So too, should any threats of withholding business if favours are not provided.
It may, indeed, be time for agency management to clearly explain the point of hospitality, and gifting, to the newer wave of staff in the industry and to consider including the ethical maintenance of media owner relationship as stated a KPI for staff. The AMF certainly has a great deal on its plate at the moment, but it could consider developing appropriate guidelines for media agency interaction with their media owner colleagues.
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