Trust & Transparency: What Brands Need to Know About Agencies


If you think about it, what clients and agencies want isn’t transparency – they want trust. Yet, the buzz word and focus seems to be on transparency. Yet ironically, transparency doesn’t equate to trust.  

So what’s the difference between transparency and trust? Is it as big of a deal as we think, or is there an underlying issue that has defaulted to this buzzword? Some say transparency is the biggest hurdle facing programmatic advertising today. In all reality, it’s the biggest hurdle to achieving trust in the entire advertising ecosystem. 

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Where does my perspective come from? I’m assessing the ecosystem through the lens of a Digital Consulting Agency founder and owner. The concept of trust versus transparency is misunderstood by most, and a source of complaints by many. My belief is that transparency is a left-over product of an old digital world where there was a lot of mistrust along with some who took advantage of those who lacked understanding.

Transparency became a battle cry for clients wanting greater visibility into their marketing investments.  The reality is that trust should be part of the decision process that goes into selecting your agency in the first place. Unfortunately, the downward spiral of the agency selection process becoming a race to the bottom to underbid the work, followed by the challenge to find the most efficient way to service the contract. 

This model creates an inherent disconnect between what is good for the client and good for the agency. This disconnect in motivations is where the mistrust begins. Clients constantly need to ensure that nothing is being slipped past them and agencies constantly struggle with maintaining profitability on their accounts – this is not symbiotic.

A New Paradigm in Agency Selection

If instead of selecting agencies based on RFP’s and pitches and who can spin the best tale or sell the best story, what if clients treated the agency selection process like an internal hiring process? They would interview the key stake holders and speak with the people who would actually be working on their accounts. 

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What if the people who sat in the room to win the business were the same people who had to do the work to fulfill on the grand promises made? And what if compensation was tied to performance and agencies had the chance to increase their margins by doing better work? This would eliminate the culture of distrust and create a mutually beneficial relationship.  The agency has the flexibility to apply the best resources and the motivation to do so. The client can trust that the people working on their business are the ones they bought into during the pitch process. They can be assured that motivations are properly aligned for the people working on their business to do the best job they possibly can, not just look to cut profitability corners.

Treating an agency selection like you are hiring an extended marketing team or department, allows clients to look at the selection process in a new light and believe in the talent they are hiring. At the end of the day, this is the only thing that truly separates one agency from another anyway. 

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What separates one agency from another, boils down to the talent of the people doing the work.  At the end of the day, everyone has access to the same tools. Trust comes into play when determining which agency is actually going to put in the time, energy, and effort to use those tools properly on the client’s behalf.

If you trust and believe in the team you hired, and more importantly if motivations and accountability is aligned to drive meaningful business results; then transparency becomes less of an issue. You don’t need to know exactly how a Ferrari engine works to trust that a Ferrari is a great machine. You just have to sit in the driver’s seat and experience the impressive output of that engine to believe in it. 

Transparency issues are a result of a culture that has fostered dishonesty

Transparency issues are a result of a culture that has fostered dishonesty in the client agency relationship in the first place. Each felt a need to serve their own purposes instead of creating a mutually beneficial, win-win scenario.

Agencies do not have secret powers or special abilities or access to things that everyone else can’t access, at least nothing that really matters when it comes to running a successful campaign. The truth is that what makes the difference between bad campaigns, decent campaigns, good campaigns, and great campaigns; really comes down to a handful of talented people who make the meaningful impact on an account. It comes down to the people who have the talent, the experience, the passion, and the will to apply their skills to the success of a client’s business. 

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Agencies are not made up 100% of these people, in fact agencies are lucky to have a few of these talented and committed individuals that really stand out. The reality is these people tend to be paraded at the courtship of a relationship and slowly if not immediately fade out of touch with accounts as soon an account is won and campaigns are up and running. 

Commonly after an account is won, there tends to be a bait and switch with execution teams comprised of less-experienced talent or inexperienced people who are tasked with keeping the lights on eating up 90% of the hours going against an account. The more seasoned talent might get involved occasionally to check in, do a review, or maybe participate in a quarterly business review. They commonly put out a fire that flares up, and most often jump in if the account ever comes under threat of being lost or going up for review. Unfortunately, the real work ends up being done by lower cost employees who are assigned a fixed number of hours to get their tasks done and no more, a “don’t mess it up” mentality.

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This approach to account management exists in the industry, because agencies must manage profitability and be able to scale to service the increasing demands of bringing in new and bigger clients. Finding employees who can do the work and learn on the job well enough to “not mess things up” is easy. Finding highly experienced talent is difficult and expensive, which means that this is rarely the type of talent a client’s hours are going towards. 

When fees are fixed and not tied to meaningful business goals, an imbalance of motivations commonly occurs. When this happens, clients over time receive less and less quality attention and work until the relationship eventually dissolves. I have seen many instances where a sales pitch sounded like the greatest thing in the world and if you didn’t know any better you would think that agency X was the best thing since sliced bread. They may show amazing case studies, an amazing client roster, the whole works; but with a little digging (something no one does for some reason) you find a different picture. 

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You can even look at Glassdoor profiles where not just a few, but dozens or hundreds of people talk about how terrible the culture is; how they pass off work that isn’t theirs, how they use cheap freelance and outsource talent to fulfill and on and on. Being in the industry I’ve also seen just as many instances of friends and employees telling me how at current or previous employers, they couldn’t do half the things they wanted to do to improve campaigns. They were told they didn’t have the hours allocated or the time due to having too many clients overall. They were tasked with ensuring each account was profitable. Instead of ensuring a client was getting the best work, they got the most efficient work; something I doubt the client signed on for.

So, what brands really need to know about agencies is that they are only as good as their best people. Brands also need to know who is really going to be working on their account, not just talking about it. Brands also need to know that just because someone sells it in a pitch doesn’t mean they will actually do the work. The truth is, the long-term relationship is more important than the flashy courtship. Take time with the decision making so you’re not caught by surprise when the honeymoon phase wears off.

Kelly Maguire