In medieval Latin, the word “transparency” means “shining through,” and in most modern contexts the word has a positive connotation, even in negative situations.
The wafer-thin intellect of a President, for example, by letting the light shine right through, reveals neither the madcap stratagems of a next-gen Richard Nixon, nor the hard outlines of a consistently pro-business ideology, but a vast and vacillating willfulness.
In this political context, transparency has exposed a yawning chasm between the actions of a national leader and the interests of his nation. We are watching the show we didn’t know we had bought tickets to, but is now revealing itself behind the curtain.
As the captain of the USS United States plows through the turbid seas of domestic and foreign policy like a blind-drunk Jack Sparrow, other nations are forced to watch the spectacle too, in all its jaw-dropping horror. But at least those countries (with the exception of Russia) can find some cold comfort in the fact that they did not elect him.
Transparency is topical not only in the political sphere, but also within the media business. As in politics, for media agencies, transparency is connected to alignment, to the responsibility of an appointed party (the agency) to always act in the best interests of the party it represents (the client).
In this sense, transparency is less a business tactic and more a fundamental expression of an
agency’s proper alignment with the interests of its clients.
When determining whether a particular business practice is or isn’t properly aligned, it’s easier to highlight the practices that don’t meet the criteria.
So true transparency and alignment are possible only when an agency avoids all of the following practices:
Marking up the cost of media to clients. Funneling programmatic buys through a trading desk at a fixed CPM, and adding costs to non-working media platform license fees are two ways to mark up the cost of media.
An agency can avoid these mistakes by buying all programmatic media directly with its own team using self-service platforms, and then passing that cost on to its clients with zero markup. An agency can also give its clients audit rights to all billing and invoice info related to their campaigns.
Accepting rebates from publishers. One year ago, the ANA published an independent study that found rebates and other non-transparent practices to be pervasive at many U.S. media agencies. These include cash rebates from media companies to agencies that are never passed on to the advertiser, as well as dual rate cards and non-cash rebates.
Every radically transparent agency welcomed this report for exposing a pervasive practice long in conflict with the agency’s duty to act in its clients’ best interests.
Basing its fee structure on media commissions.
When a media agency’s compensation is based on media commissions, that agency can’t help but be biased toward those media channels with the highest commissions. Better to base the fee on
the scope of work performed, especially as agencies provide non-media services like technology consulting and data management.
The best way to align an agency’s fee with the agency’s work is by charging a retainer. Everything else is mathematical Kabuki theater.
In any fiduciary relationship between two parties — President and populace, for example, or agency and client — transparency is the lens through which the alignment (or misalignment) of interests can be consistently gauged.
As misalignments are discovered, they get corrected, either through external pressure (client complains to agency; entire cities boycott the President) or internal pressure (agency proactively fixes something it realizes is broken; President suddenly becomes reflective, attentive, and self-aware). This assumes, of course, that both parties are more or less equally empowered to influence the relationship between them.
If there is a fundamental law of physics to be divined from any of this, here it is: All major misalignments get corrected over time. Said correction might be seamless and peaceful — the result of introspection, say — or it might be ugly and contentious, as one party, heedless to counsel and blind to all but its own needs, eventually collapses under the weight of its own incompetence.