Why AOL Needs an Agency Relations Director

A lot has been written lately about AOL's elimination of its agency relations director position. A number of agencies have expressed concern publicly. A petition is even being circulated by Mass Transit Interactive president Jason Burnham to urge AOL to solidify its commitment to agencies.

Wisely, AOL has commented that agency relationships are a critical part of everyone's job at AOL. But some agency folks aren't buying it. In a recent article from IAR, a few media professionals including Mediasmith's Dave Smith and Zentropy's Mark Redetzke were critical of AOL's approach to agency relations.

In the interest of disclosure, I've known John Messina, who until recently held the agency relations position at AOL, for years. And I think he's done a great job. I've asked Mr. Burnham to add my name to his position, but not for the reasons that others might think.

My most recent dealings with AOL involved working on a multi-million dollar deal that my agency inherited when a client who had formerly been dealing with AOL directly handed off duties to Underscore. And you know, the transition actually went terrifically well. Sure, there was some extra work to do, but by and large, the transition went very well. I'd attribute this to the familiarity the AOL rep, Michael Hirshoren, had with the folks working here and the way we do business. However, for every such good experience, I have a handful of bad experiences I've contended with. (I'm not speaking specifically of AOL here, but rather of the interactive media sales landscape in general.)



When sales reps have direct relationships with clients, they tend to want to preserve them, even when an agency is introduced into the relationship. Countless times, I've had clients tell their sales reps to call the agency directly, but some sales reps persist and attempt to maintain the direct relationship instead of letting me do my job. This is frustrating as hell, and it's just one of the reasons why I think eliminating an agency relations director position in this climate is not such a great idea.

With the elimination of said position, I bet many agency media people are asking questions, especially:

  1. Who will lead AOL's internal effort to make sure AOL's practices are compatible with those of the agency community? Many of us have had problems seeing eye to eye on Terms and Conditions with AOL. In addition to T&Cs, there are a bunch of annoying little process issues that need to be addressed on a continual basis: ad specs, rich media, measurement, ad serving, trafficking and inventory management, just to name a few. Seems to me that a full-time person addressing just these issues would really help to grease the wheels with respect to a publisher working with the agency community.
  2. Who will represent AOL's point of view at industry summits and conferences? We get together several times a year to move various industry initiatives forward. From MediaPost's Forecast conferences, to the iMedia Summits, to Ad:Tech, we have plenty of public forums where we press forward on industry issues. John Messina was always in attendance. Who will provide AOL's input at these functions now? And what about industry committees that help to establish standards?
  3. Will there be an upfront or not? With certain types of inventory becoming indispensable to certain clients, year-long commitments are certainly feasible. Will commitments be handled on an ad-hoc basis or will AOL move toward a traditional upfront model?
  4. Is AOL really committed? While AOL has been vocal about the fact that agency relations is everyone's business, the timing of this move couldn't have been worse. We're just entering into a new cycle and a renaissance for interactive media. I would suspect that some media people who heard about the elimination of the agency relations position were left wondering whether AOL intends to go around agencies again and negotiate directly with clients. Again, it's probably just a case of poor timing, but if I ran AOL, I'd want to do everything I possibly could to make sure that no agency people are questioning commitment at the beginning of an upswing.

I think agency relations is a much bigger job than AOL might have thought. And it's important for AOL to be reaffirming its commitment to agencies at this critical stage in the game. That's why my name will appear on Burnham's petition.

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