So we may get asked for our blunt opinion on: third-party ad serving solutions; rich-media providers; campaign management systems; bid management systems; campaign optimization solutions; cross-media management and measurement tools; data management platforms; analytics providers; social media buying options; social media monitoring dashboards; tag management whatchama-callits -- the list goes on and on.
While we may have affiliations and business models that require us to keep officially agnostic, we of course have opinions about all these very serious toys. Even though we survey options, or even provide short lists when asked about an array of vendors, we know that there are always a few best in-class players. We just may or may not be in a position to say so.
Given the sheer heft and complexity of our industry ecosystem today, it occurred to me recently that we may in fact be doing the asker a disservice by presenting such a broad, agnostic scope.
(Of course, if you are specifically engaged by a client to advise and vet solutions, investments and vendor choices, it's completely appropriate to deliver concise opinions, name some names, and effuse the merits of your favorites. But that's a different scenario.)
From an agnostic stance, as we remain wary of conflicts of interest, and the perils of perceived collusion, we'd do well to remember something else: the "recommendation" is only one express part of the need. Marketing, agency and buy-side decision makers come to you -- at a conference, in class, or through your network -- with some semblance of a strategy in hand. Suiting up to get digital right, they know that one huge part is having the right tools set. But they must also know how to integrate, operate and staff that tools set.
So, when asked for insight and recommendations -- even if you must provide a balanced list -- you do the inquirer a service by providing some guidance on how to move forward and fully adopt the right tools set. Sometimes this is as simple as suggesting the right questions to ask during vetting; what the few best hires would be to operate the tools; and that they make a commitment to solid vendor-provided training. Suggested questions to vendors usually center around:
- Precise company positioning
- Scope of services and options
- Pricing models and options
- Levels of service, account or client support
- Self-service options
- Reporting interface and output
- Relevant case history or anecdotal comparisons
- Training options available
If you cannot or do not want to fully speak your mind on who's best, give some guidance on how to vet. That's your best shot at moving things along.
If you're instead on the asking side, get recommendations from unbiased sources wherever possible, but don't be afraid to ask people who may have biases that are worthy of your consideration. Some biases are extremely helpful, as long as you know their root. And, throughout, organize your inquiries, have a game plan and get better and better at asking the questions above and many variations on them.
Agnosticism has always been a noble word. But, as a self-professed position, it should be implemented with care and thought. The stakes are usually high for people asking you for a candid opinion. So, when we can't be fully candid -- or would need to be compensated to do so -- it seems only right to at least recognize that the need is not satisfied with just a list. Lay out a few breadcrumbs, help teach a person or two to fish.
Don't forget to mention - too many choices is as bad as having no choices.
Sitting in the middle and just providing information and data doesn't do anything to inform the process. Winnowing out meaningful portions helps in the selection process.
'Agnostic' could be interpreted as 'having/showing no preferences.' Aren't clients coming to us primarily for our 'preferences'? Picking a supplier or program partner from a spread sheet can't compare with considering the 'softer' variables and experience we have working with different individuals and groups. Just because I prefer to work with a certain group 75% of the time doesn't mean I'm on the 'take.' Most often, it's because the project just turns out better.
Kendall, I think you'd agree it is important to differentiate between being 'agnostic' and being 'transparent.'