Woe The Digital Sale: When A Vendor Goes Directly To Your Client

I've been working with a salesperson at a branded Web site over the past two months or so about an upcoming campaign.  The process has been going OK, but the approvals for creative have been slow, so the launch date is a moving target.  My client gave me a call, asking me about why I haven't included the site on the plan, after he got a visit from said branded Web site about how perfect their site is for our plan.  I already knew that.  I just needed to confirm the details.  Why do sites feel it necessary to go straight to the client?

Amy says: In my salad days, I loved my clients so much, I didn't want to share them with anyone.  When they needed something, they called me.  When there was something important or new that my client needed to know, I was the one who was supposed to tell him.  It was heartbreaking when I found out that my client had a life outside of me, when he was lured away by the siren song of the ambitious salesperson.  Someone I thought I was in a committed relationship with, too!  It was like everyone was plotting against me.



 As I grew to understand the online ad business, I realized that my clients were everyone's clients.  Sure it caused me a bit of inconvenience when my client met with a site I had already met.  And I had to write a formal POV on the pros and cons on the site -- and how we should or shouldn't incorporate it into our online advertising efforts.  And how I had to take another meeting with the site, just so I could comply with my client's request.  And how I had to make note of said meeting on the status sheet so I could mark it as complete and move on with my life.

 Relationships between clients and vendors are a necessary part of the media business, and a helpful part -- if you don't look it as tantamount to adultery or the biggest pain in the behind since billing reconciliation.  Once a client meets with a site, he increases his awareness, which should make it easier for you to sell through on your plan.  Also, clients get a look at the business from a different perspective, which helps them learn and potentially be more collaborative. 

And let's face it, it almost never happens that a client says a site MUST be on a plan or takes from an agency budget to buy a specific site.  So in the end, its's pretty harmless, although slightly annoying, when sites go straight to clients.  The best we can hope for is that we know in advance and be prepared for any questions.  I don't think Web sites do it to be malicious; it's just business, after all. 

Jason, what's the real story here?  Why do salespeople go directly to the client?

 Jason says: Ever go to a car dealership and try to just browse? Before you can even step out of your trade-in, they are swarming like teenagers on a Jonas brother. As one of them pounces like a tiger and "claims" you, you half expect him to pee on you because don't even think about asking another salesperson a question or there will be dirty looks and disappointment on the face of your new best friend car salesman. I, for one, have never felt more like a steak. Well, in this industry, the client is the steak. And great salespeople are tigers. "Tenacious," "high-energy," "professional," "self-starter" are adjectives you will see on a sales job spec. Words you won't see: "passive," "introvert," "follower," "un-tenacious" (OK, whatever the opposite of tenacious is).

Here are a few reasons that a salesperson may feel the need to go directly to the client:

1. Steak is perishable: This stuff that we sell called advertising has a limited shelf life. Magazine editions close every week or every month. TV shows are airing nightly and weekly. A Web site's delivery audience is 24x7x365. Once that audience impression is delivered, so is that chance to make money. If an agency is dragging its feet, that chance goes right out the window.

2. A "steak" through the heart: How do we know you are being truthful with us? Unfortunately, sellers can often get feedback from an agency that is less than truthful. All you need is to have been burned once by getting bogus information and seeing that media buy go to your competitor and it's on -- forever. Sometimes information is best received from the person who is ultimately responsible: the client.

3. "Meat" in the middle: Let's face it, whose client is it anyway? The agency is the middleman, and agency/client relationships are more tenuous than ever these days. If the client is going to change agencies any time soon, with whom would you rather build a relationship?

4. Steak a la carte: When a salesperson sells an agency on an idea, that seller controls the process and he (or she) believes in his individual skill and technique. Once the agency person has to turn around and try to sell it to the client, then the seller has lost control. If there isn't the utmost trust there, the seller will likely feel that he can do a better job selling that client himself.

5. "Steaking" your claim: Sellers have heard many times that they are on the recommendation to the client. Then, weeks later, they find out that they did not make the buy. What happened? I have heard more than once that, if a powerful client questions an agency recommendation, that agency can fold quicker than a 3-card monty table. If you have a relationship with the client directly, you are more apt to hold on to the plan.

So if you are a media seller who likes to (or feels you have to) go to the client, follow this advice: Always, ALWAYS tell the agency contact that you are going to call the client directly before doing so. It is not underhanded, nor is it out of line. This way, you are not a cheater. You merely have an "open" relationship. As Michael Corleone said, "It's not personal... it's just business."

8 comments about "Woe The Digital Sale: When A Vendor Goes Directly To Your Client".
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  1. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, March 11, 2010 at 11:14 a.m.

    We work frequently with other agencies, providing the web production services for their client campaigns. As a matter of course, we NEVER go directly to their clients, without their prior knowledge and consent. In many cases, we act as if we are part of their firms. The restrictions and controls on client contact are written into our agreements with the agencies.

    Granted, it is too much to expect the same of web publishers, whose business model is different. Nevertheless, Jason's last point is on the mark - the vendor should clear issues with the agency before going direct, unless it is understood that such contact is acceptable without prior notice to the agency.

    Vendors need trusting, positive relationships with both the agencies and the marketers. Keep everyone in the loop.

  2. Walter Sabo from SABO media, March 11, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    The agency must look deep into its nature and ask..."Why are we so bad at relating to this vendor that they are forced to the client? Are we so out of synch with something new and exciting that we feel weak and economically threatened?" Of course you do.

    When a vendor says they are going to the client, embrace that vendor, sell them in and make an exclusive deal with them, they are the one you want.

  3. Janet Nabring-stager from C.TRAC, March 11, 2010 at 11:23 a.m.

    Great article about an important lesson to learn in the online media space. Henry is dead on with "Keep everyone in the loop" because then the site doesn't lose out on other opportunities with the agency's other clients.

    I did have to laugh at one statement in the article: "And let's face it, it almost never happens that a client says a site MUST be on a plan or takes from an agency budget to buy a specific site."

    What?! That's happened to me numerous times. Of course, this did tend to come from the account side (via the client), so you never know how true it was.

  4. Steven Fisher from, March 11, 2010 at 3:10 p.m.

    Well said Amy. This is one of the best responses I have ever read on an age old topic that unfortunately will never change.

    Having been on all sides of the desk both in print and online, here is what I can add. A seller (vendor) is under tremendous pressure from his management to deliver. Additionally, a good seller thinks that his/her product is the cure for cancer and will push it that way. An agency on the other hand is paid to evaluate opportunities from hundreds of sellers that also think they have a cure for cancer.

    From a sellers point of view, there is always a fear of being lost in "pile" or not being represented properly. That is why it makes sense to go directly to the client. What Amy said about "agencies folding sometimes like 3 card monty when a client raises an objection" is right on target.

    If one of my sellers does not cover both the agency and client, they won't be working for me for very long. As long as everyone is kept in the loop, there shouldn't be a problem.

    Just keep in mind that as long as vendors and clients have more product knowledge than a less experienced agency person or that perception, this will always be the case. I see reps and clients at every single trade show, I rarely see anyone from the agency unless it is a very large show.

    If someone at an agency wants to develop more credibility, then it is incumbent on them to gain product knowledge, not just about media opportunities, but about every bit of their client's business. The agencies that do this will keep their client's forever.

  5. Gerald Himmel from Himmel Consulting, March 11, 2010 at 3:14 p.m.

    This is good stuff for those new to the business. Client contact has been a focus for major broadcast and cable firms for twenty plus years

    Good lesson to share with others that have never had the need, or did not know the importance of the client side work.

    The development of that partnership with the client is priceless,providing you don't jeopardize the relationship at the agency.( You can actually use the effort at the client to help foster your relationship and credibility at the agency.)

    Good luck with the effort.

  6. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, March 11, 2010 at 3:39 p.m.

    Great topic we all need to talk more about. Clients, if you are reading, please chime in. Your opinion is paramount on this debate.

    Here's my perspective on the question "why did the publisher go right to the client?":
    ".... because that's where the money is..." (same answer Willy Sutton gave when they asked him why he robbed banks).

    The bottom line is it is a salesperson's job to win the business. They can and will attempt to do so in the most expeditious way possible. But if an agency doesn't include them on the plan, they can't just quit - they still have a goal to hit and they still have to land the business.

    Anyone who has called on clients directly, and had this conversation about "appropriateness of communication" has also had a client put their arm around them at one point or another and say something like, "I want you to come to me directly...if you are concerned about the agency relationship, BCC me... I've got my own concerns about my agency filtering too much information... you've presented me with capabilities I never knew you had.... I didn't cut you, I never even saw you in the initial media plan... etc...".

    Agency relationships can be great, and they can be wonderful partners - provided they have the business, but if/when they lose the business (and the churn rate is high) it's best to have a relationship with the brand. If you do, we can be of even better service to the new agency since we have the history and the relationship...

    I do wish agencies did not feel they "owned" their client. That mentality is counter-productive to acting in the best interest of the client.

    The irony here is that digital agencies can be the "most" concerned about this, and I think it is due to the history of digital agencies (in the early days) not holding the direct relationship but often being a customer of the larger traditional shops (who often did not give them a seat at the table). Now that digital shops have and hold a seat at the big table, they are often very defensive about anyone approaching their client directly.

    Can't we all just get along?

  7. Wally Holdsworth from W. G. Holdsworth & Assoc., Inc., March 12, 2010 at 12:15 p.m.

    Having been in this business for 41 years now, mostly in B-B print sales, and then in last 7 or so years with online also, the story and dynamics are not new and will never go away. The seller is charged with sales, and that target is constantly moving and changing. One day it's a great agency that is in your corner, and the next it's the client who has the bucks and the final say. That sales person has to know where the power is behind the budget and when those decisions are made. And the other complication, agency media people do not typically promote websites they haven't had experience with. So the question for the seller is, who is going to add you to the budget? More times than not, it is the client, not the agency, in my experience. But, do let the agency know you are talking to the client, and always cc them on follow up notes/emails to client.

  8. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., March 19, 2010 at 7:02 p.m.

    In large measure, it depends on who the person doing the selling cares about. If we truly care about what is best for the client, not what is best for us, it shouldn't be hard for us to get into accord. Trouble we see is that some vendors have no compunction about thinking only about what is best for themselves and using whatever manipulative tricks they can muster to get what's best for themselves. Sometimes, they get the client so "sold" that the client insists we have to go along. For our part, we will tell the client we disagree, but they do have the final say. This often has a sobering influence on the smitten client.

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