I'm Bad, You're Bad -- How About An Agency-Brand Amnesty?

So who's the villain -- big brand advertisers or agencies? That's the intriguing question to come out of AdWeek Europe -- while two days ago we had agencies telling the world that fighting click fraud was everyone's duty, prompting me to blog about how they really should be taking a lead. Then yesterday, the agencies both fought back and were chastised in equal measure. On the other hand, Peter Oborne stopped slating The Telegraphlong enough to call ad men and women 'snake oil salesmen' and then, on the other, the Marketing Agencies Association (MMA) called for an end to bad practices among large advertisers.

I think the MMA might not be too surprised to find the world's smallest violin playing as agencies with hundreds of millions in billings between them asked big the big guys to play fair. However, there are some pretty sinister practices going on. One mega brand recently dared pitching agencies to see how far they would go beyond a 120-day payment deal, and there is widespread talk of agencies being forced to give back billings to the brand's CSR efforts as well as getting multiple agencies in a room to beat down their rate cards until the cheapest is left standing.

This does not sound like a great practice -- but if you are on the brand side, I wonder if you have ever come across agencies flexing their muscle? Who, as a brand marketer, has not found themselves bound by a contract a top bod has signed that ties them into using a large agency group's sister companies. With no recourse to pitches and bartering, an expensive provider is wheeled in at an agency catch-up and a brand marketer is told this that this is who will be performing the task of the day -- whether it is Web design, shooting a video or moving a campaign's message into outdoor. 

The MMA might find that its call yesterday for ISBA, the "voice" of the British advertiser, to join in its crusade against bad practice would probably only get a provisional and conditional thumbs-up. I can't speak for ISBA, obviously, but if I were representing advertisers I think I'd like to point out that nothing was done about viewability in display campaigns until very recently. I would also point out that auditors and whistleblowers have revealed that up to half of what an agency pays for disappears in click fraud and fees. I'd probably also mention that contracts, which tie brands into sister agencies, are not exactly the most transparent, flexible way of doing business.

So rather than a conversation of "you're bad -- no, you're worse," how about coming clean? What about an amnesty? It could start as simply as: we promise to put the latest click-fraud protection on your display, and we also promise to bill you transparently with a breakdown of who has taken what in fees. We also wouldn't even ever think of using data learned through your campaigns to better inform your rivals who also use our group's trading desk. In return, we think a 30-day payment cycle is fair and we have our own CSR venture, so we'll put x% in that on your behalf or perhaps we can agree on a project to co-fund and put both our names to?

It might not exactly be a treaty to end all wars, but it's not a bad starting point. When there's bad practice on both sides, it couldn't hurt to move beyond mudslinging to work together on what is fair.

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