Transparency in the Agency/Client Relationship

A series of TV commercials for the Citi Double Cash Card uses the copy line, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone said what they meant?” In one commercial, an unscrupulous contractor tells excited homeowners how he is going to remove load-bearing walls to make the project cost as much time and money as possible. A refreshing breath of transparency. I have often wondered if the agency that created that spot is truly transparent with their client.

Which brings me to the issue of transparency in the agency-client relationship. This isn’t a new idea. Companies have been touting their transparency as a means of gaining customer trust for years.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we could establish more transparency in the agency-client relationship? Of course, this doesn’t mean eviscerating all etiquette and social discretion from all interactions. That would be too much for any relationship to handle. But we could start with areas of our relationship where murkiness and sleight of hand fester. These exist at all major stages of the time continuum.

The Beginning

It’s often hardest to be transparent at the beginning of a relationship (“the pitch” in our world), since you are just starting to get to know each other and it is natural to want to impress your “date” while covering up the blemishes. If you’re hiding something up front, you may get the second date, but nothing beyond that. As often as clients demand that agencies bring to their client presentations the team that will be working on the brand (always), equally often (also always) it’s the senior level talent who drive the presentation. Yet everyone knows these senior level staff won’t be doing the day-to-day work once the relationship is established.

A tip for clients: If these senior level folks do most (or all) of the talking, the staff that will actually be working with you is not ready for the assignment.

Another transparency “pitch-fall” lies in agencies’ propensity for telling clients that the agency has experience in a certain category or on a specific brand, when that expertise only resides within the agency’s archives. Most likely, the people who worked on that business years ago have moved on to other positions or agencies.

Instead, the agency should feature the strong capabilities its team members actually have, demonstrating how these talents will benefit the client. Similarly, clients should not be so concerned with the “agency experience,” but instead, should want to know and be open to the relevant, analogous experience the proposed agency team has—you’d be surprised what some fresh thinking from different perspectives can yield.

The Middle

As the relationship continues to evolve, agencies need to stay transparent. Don’t try to hide when people on the team move on. Life happens. Clients are accustomed to movement within an organization. Be open and honest about your changes as they are occurring.

Clients need to be open and honest with their agencies about key personnel changes on their side as well. Often, there will be a new sheriff in town, and suddenly everything that had been done previously under the old sheriff is being changed or second-guessed. There’s nothing wrong with some fresh thinking or a new perspective on an old challenge, but let’s not pretend there’s an imminent business need for change just because the lineup has changed.

Agencies also need to be willing to have the hard conversation. When the brand makes a decision that you know from experience is wrong, or adds the kitchen sink to a creative concept, you need to tell them. Back to our dating analogy—if your dates have food in their teeth, tell them. Also, be honest and transparent with clients about your agency capabilities. Don’t tell clients you can do something just because the increased revenue is too intoxicating. I guarantee, if you let them know someone else is better for the project, you will gain immeasurable goodwill and save yourself the inevitable issues when you struggle or fail.

The Breakup

Most agencies will eventually get fired from a brand. Here, it’s the client’s responsibility to be more transparent. Like any break-up, agencies have a good idea when it is happening, so clients are not doing anyone a favor by delaying the inevitable. Tell it like it is. Your agency is not going to desert the brand and leave you hanging, because frankly, there is still revenue to be made. If you don’t want to date anymore or you feel you want to date someone else, that’s okay. Just don’t string your agency along. And no, we can’t be friends (maybe there will come a time for that later).

And Finally—Financial Practices

Money, money, money: Certainly, that’s an explosive topic for all of us. Lack of transparency on the financial front is one of the quickest ways to ruin any relationship and lose the business. As it relates to the agency/client dynamic, we still have an issue.

In an effort to help rebuild trusting relationships, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) dropped a bomb when they published the K2 Media Transparency Report in 2016. The exposure was shameful for many agencies and troubling to all who champion transparency in agency/client relationships. The report frequently used the term “non-transparent” to explain behavior, which was embarrassing enough, but when it characterized industry practices as “pervasive,” “mandated,” and “agency conduct concealed,” it became cringe-worthy. You could almost hear the collective gasp as people read through this final summary point, as follows.

“K2 found evidence of a fundamental disconnect in the advertising industry regarding the basic nature of the advertiser-agency relationship. In general, advertisers expressed a belief that their agencies were duty-bound to act in their best interest. They also believed that this obligation—essentially, in their view, a fiduciary duty—extends beyond the stated terms in their agency contracts. Some sources further noted that their obligations to their respective Agency Holding Companies were sometimes in conflict with the interests of their clients.”

A more recent report issued by the ANA on “Production Transparency in the U.S. Advertising Industry” was released in August 2017. This report shed light on the lack of transparency in the production ecosystem of network agencies and the resultant issues it raises for clients. The report found:

  • Transparency concerns exist at multiple agencies and holding companies. Eleven of the 12 subject matter experts support this conclusion.
  • The use of agency in-house production resources is not always transparent to the advertiser.
  • Production business processes marked by agency control of the bidding system—where the agency also competes for the business—is sometimes dysfunctional and conflicted because the buyer can also be the seller of the services.
  • Non-transparent agency-controlled bidding can lead to costly, inefficient, and sub-optimal advertiser business decisions. The financial impact to marketers can be significant.
  • Where non-transparent practices exist, the competitive production and editing landscape becomes potentially compromised and unreliable. Such situations may jeopardize the health and well-being of competitors in the production and editing ecosystem.
  • The state commercial production incentive system is often not transparent to advertisers, and therefore advertisers may not be receiving the financial benefits they are due.

You can read the full report at

It is one thing if customers don’t feel they are getting value for a product they receive, but when they can’t trust you to spend their money fairly on their behalf, you’ve got a trust issue created by a massive lack of transparency.

I’m sure there are many more areas in which agencies can strive to be more transparent, e.g., work flow, agency vs. client objectives, conflicts of interest, etc. In order to create and maintain better long-lasting agency/client relationships, we both need to establish common goals that benefit everyone. That latter point is key because there will undoubtedly be a surge in agencies touting their “transparency” in all matters—and clients doing the same, right from the first paragraph of their enigmatic RFPs. This reminds me of the person who feels compelled to say, “You can trust me.” Translation: Look out.

It’s just not enough to say it. There needs to be specifics: An overall definition and agreement of what mutual transparency means, and then tangible, measurable dimensions—KPIs (key performance indicators), if you will—to be regularly visited and evaluated at specific intervals in the relationship.

Southwest Airlines and their agency defined the term “transfarency.” It’s a brilliant execution in keeping with the company’s culture and promise to customers. It seems to me to be abundantly clear how they define “transfarency.” Less apparent is exactly how customers can measure it. What are the tangible measures and proof that they have delivered on it? I’m not suggesting they do not have and/or provide that proof. Rather, I’m using it to remind all of us that transparency is more than a belief. It’s a system.

One last thought: I wonder if the agency that developed this incredibly clever campaign actually practices what it preaches?


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