Woe the Digital Sale: Let Me Entertain You

I'm a media buyer at a very large agency and I was recently given two high-profile clients with healthy media budgets. So as you'd expect, I get asked to go out very often by my reps; lunches, drinks, dinners, shows, ball games, etc.  I have experienced a bit of that before, but never at this level. I am starting to feel weird about it. I know the people taking me out expect my business in return. Do I have to give it to them -- or should I decline their extravagant offers?

Jason says: You must be one of those people who actually "leave a penny" at the cashier counter. Should you accept those Knicks tickets? I think it depends on whose team you are on. Do you think you should spend your clients' money on the website or network that really matters to them, the one that can deliver the most important audience? Or, as has been suggested here, is it all about "building relationships"?



I happen to be shooting for content over concert, ability over ball games, and... one more, let's see...dollars over dinners. However, we all know that there is an incredibly overcrowded vendor marketplace right now. There are so many products and services that are similar, each looking to distinguish itself from the crowd. Sellers are asking, with so many proposals in play, all pitching the same business, how they one can stand out? The final impression a salesperson wants to leave is not merely a single price on a media buyers' spreadsheet. I get it.

We are living in an increasingly fluid transactional world while trying to jam a relationship in the middle. There are horror stories (which I won't repeat) littering the media world of client entertainment snafus. Well, maybe just one. There was a media supervisor who pleaded with a vendor to get the big boss onto one of the most exclusive golf courses in the world. The vendor pulled a rabbit out of her hat, and 18 spectacular holes were played. Then, the same media supervisor tried to cut the budget on that vendor. OK, one more. There was this VP of Media who asked for front row seats to an A-list concert for himself and his friends. After dancing the night away and hanging out backstage, said VP quit the agency -- and left the vendor to try and drum up a relationship with the rocker's replacement all over again.

Sellers, buck up. If this is the game you are asked to play, then you have little choice but to play it. Tell the loved ones you will be home late, call early for reservations to the hottest restaurants in town, find some tickets to a great concert or sporting event and ply your way into some RFP's! (For my mom, that's "Request for Proposal.") If it makes you feel better, I have been on the purchasing side of plenty of VIP tickets, extravagant spa trips and chartered jets, all toward the grand cause of booking business. We all want to have our ethical compass pointing true north, but we also do not want our bank balance going south.

Amy, I think we should get together for caviar and beer pong to discuss this. Are you, your friends and your staff free? I trust that you, as my friend, will ignore what I just said and give me the budget.

Amy says: Jason, I wish it were that easy to say just give me the IO and I'll sign it because we are friends and have a relationship.  But relationships are a delicate thing in the online space because our relationship won't make your site perform better than another. 

Building relationships is the cornerstone of good selling.  So it is important for buyers and sellers to spend time together outside of the office.  Please note that I said "SPEND TIME TOGETHER" -- not that sellers should finance buyers' social lives.  Media agencies have different cultural mores about what is acceptable in receiving gifts, trips and tickets.  (Although I can tell you in most agency human resources handbooks, it is pretty much prohibited.)  A good rule of thumb is basically if you are offered something, you can take it -- but it is bad form to be sending out ridiculous requests. 

In our young industry, this is a historic problem that originated in the dot-com heyday.  Everyone partied like it was 1999 and the media folks who started their careers during that time figured that they were the kings and queens and sellers were the court jesters, around only to satisfy our every whim.  Sellers were so eager to get any penny they could, they would do anything to get it.  Hence the "media whoring" mentality is alive and well today.

Sellers will constantly struggle to get in touch with the buyers.  And buyers will constantly feel overwhelmed and that they can't keep up with everything.  I have spoken to TV sellers who complain that their buyers never call them back, either.  Maybe we need to change our definition of how selling is relevant in our transactional-based business.  Or maybe sellers should just go on strike, and buyers will realize how much they really do need sellers to perform their own jobs effectively.

The reality is that media buyers may not feel any value in, or ownership of, seller relationships because so much decision-making is based on campaign results.  I may have gone to your wedding -- but when your site's cost-per-click is $80 and the campaign average is $2.50, it's impossible for me to convince my client to keep your site on the plan.  I also agree that part of it is generational with the Millennials -- but how much longer are we going to let them use this excuse?

So for this media buyer with a soul, I would say: Share the wealth.  Let your vendors know that you are grateful for their generosity.  Give the vendor a chance to meet some of your other team members by inviting them along when you go out for drinks or dinner.  Pass on the really good stuff to your senior agency leaders to gain some points with them.  Above all, be honest about what is going on with you, your campaigns, and any future career moves that may affect the investment the vendor is making in the relationship with you.  If we can all work on our communication skills and honesty, good relationships will follow naturally.

6 comments about "Woe the Digital Sale: Let Me Entertain You ".
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  1. Greg D'abate from Qponomics, May 6, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    I am new to the advertising industry after 22 years in the mortgage industry. The relationship described above sounds eerily similar to mortgage brokers (buyers) and their wholesale lender "partners" (sellers). In 2008 the Sellers imploded and now the buyers market share has dropped from 60%+ of the mortgage origination market to less then 25%. No small contributer to that mess was the buyers' willingness to arbitrage their relationships rather then build them.

    I hope, for the long term health of this industry that a lesson can be learned.

  2. Mario Tota from The Tota Consulting Group, May 6, 2010 at 3:45 p.m.

    Finally, a sane approach to the business. The quality of a relationship is based on equity in morale values, not entertainment vs. IO value. So the bottom line is if you can offer the best value for/to the client, you're buying equity. Keep buying it this way and soon you'll have a true relationship. If your product fails, don't count on those smiley-faced icons in all of those emails to pay your commission check.

  3. Carol Lewis from Riverton Media, May 6, 2010 at 4:21 p.m.

    Some good points; but this issue has been around as long as there have been media buyers - whether digital or traditional. It's funny to hear it positioned as a dot-com era problem. When I started in the business in LA in the early 80's, there were stories of old-school media buyers who used to get cars and TVs in addition to tickets and meals from reps back in the "old days" of the 70's. The thing that buyers and vendors need to keep in mind is that the buyer has a fiduciary responsibility to his/her client that completely transcends any friendship or favor provided by a vendor. No matter how much he likes a vendor, getting results for his client is his job. Any buyer who pays a higher cost-per-click - or CPM or cost-per-unit or whatever - because of a friendship is violating the ethics of his position big-time - and agency people have actually done prison time for doing it for things like printing. Relationships are beneficial in building credibility and trust so the buyer knows his client will get the value for the money, and to help make the best decision for the client in the case of a toss-up. But vendors need to understand it absolutely cannot be quid pro quo. The media supervisor who "tried" to cut the budget of the vendor who provided the golf tickets couldn't do otherwise if faced with a budget cut -the tickets for the big boss had nothing to do with the client's budgeting and the supervisor had to make the best decision for the client...and client's shareholders/ stakeholders.

  4. Steven Comfort from Namo Media, May 6, 2010 at 10:15 p.m.

    Most people in this industry know me as a seller, but I was a buyer at DMB&B (now MediaVest) and Messner Vetere (now EURO) in the late 80s and early 90s -- and I worked on big pieces of business at both shops. I had a simple policy on accepting invitations from sellers: if we were doing business together I'd accept; if not, I'd decline.

    That policy allowed me to strengthen the most important relationships (with our key vendors) and leave me objective to evaluate potential new vendors.

  5. Harvey Gamm from Buzz Media, May 7, 2010 at 12:54 p.m.

    Old school TV Network salesmen would joke that 2 Ranger tickets equaled a 10 rating. That world is long gone. The best relationship is based upon performance and service.
    If both are top notch, the relationship will grow organically since the seller is making the planner look good to their management and client. A salesperson would be naive to think that agency folks can justify any site simply based upon receiving premium tickets. That said, there is nothing wrong with offering something of value as a "thank you" for an order already received.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 24, 2010 at 4:33 p.m.

    The ol' payola game is new? Goes back decades with stations and their goody closets. BIG NOTE: This is how agencies get away with limited buyer training and paying poorly. It's been long overdue for agencies to limit gift acceptance and pay their employees to the level of their competence and responsibility.

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