Commentary

'An Occasional Fruit Basket'

That's what the video said.

I was sitting next to my media supervisor at the time. Rich and I were the only two from media amongst a group of 15 or so employees sitting in a dimly lit room watching a VHS tape on business etiquette. We had both received the memo (remember them?) instructing us to attend a human resources meeting covering expected business behavior while employed at Young & Rubicam.

When the topic of the video slowly turned to how buyers representing Y&R should interact with vendors, our half-shut eyes widened, as did our smiles. A motherly voice-over informed the room buyers were not to accept gifts of any kind from vendors beyond “an occasional fruit basket.”

I turned to Rich and whispered, “How many fruit baskets are tonight’s Knicks-Bulls tickets worth?”

What if the video I watched back in memorandum times did not leave the door slightly ajar, but instead slammed it shut by explicitly stating the acceptance of a vendor’s gift of any value was strictly prohibited?

I have proposed this preposterous question to dozens of media buyers and sellers.

The buyers have all responded with polite disdain. “Are you kidding me?” is followed by a scripted pitch about how graft helps them develop better working relationships with their media partners all in an effort to further their client’s investment. Besides “the job would be no fun without the lunches and stuff.”

Sellers are open to the idea for at least a few seconds. The thought of not exerting all of that time and effort entertaining sounds appealing until their relaxed face contorts in preparation to launch a distrustful glance. “Not a chance” many have said, all because they could not trust that everyone would abide by this new rule.

Media sellers use graft to attract incremental attention from media buyers. Media buyers, who purchase consumer attention for clients from media sellers, accept graft as part of the benefits of doing the job.

That’s a lot of motivation flying around a term Webster defines as “an advantage gained or yielded by unscrupulous means.” 

Of course, there are checks and balances in place to prevent a rogue media buyer from purchasing 12 pages in his favorite surfer magazine in exchange for a brand new board. And all of the media buyers I have spoken to swear that the impact of going on a trip courtesy of a publication or attending a concert with a media sales rep has no bearing on their professional behavior (I would argue how can it not?).

There are, however, less checks and balances in place on the publishing side to prevent unscrupulous sales behavior. I will embarrassingly admit that I once signed an expense report that had buried within its purchases, two first-class airline tickets for a media buyer and her fiancée for their honeymoon. I know that is disgusting.

Which leads me back to my original and now hypocritical question: what would the media business be like without graft, and yet how can buyers and sellers still spend more time together to build better working relationships all in an effort to further advance the investment of their mutual clients?

What if the only time media sellers had access to media buyers outside the confines of an office meeting was at a client-determined destination. A destination that would help media buyers and media sellers absorb information needed to add value to the client’s marketing investment.

Client determined destinations could be a consumer focus group in Atlanta or a large retail location in New Jersey. Both would welcome media sellers and buyers to gather to see consumers interact with the client’s product. Or perhaps sellers and buyers can meet at the client’s manufacturing plant in Wilmington, Del. to watch their goods produced in an effort to learn more about the product’s virtues.

Sure, these proposed client-determined destinations sound ridiculous to media buyers and media sellers. The idea that media graft be removed from the media business is a ridiculous notion too.

But what sounds more ridiculous to our mutual clients and their respective shareholders; their buying agents touring a manufacturing plant courtesy of a media partner in a collective effort to gain greater understanding of their customer, or their buying agent being whisked away to Vail or another exotic destination miles away from their nearest customer, as a thank you accepted for spending their money.