Reputations are a funny thing. It usually takes years to develop a great one, but they can be destroyed virtually overnight… just ask BP or JP Morgan. Frequently, when a company’s reputation (or an individual’s reputation) is tarnished, there is collateral fallout that impacts other companies in that sector, even if they are not culpable. Sometimes there is redemption… either because we are a forgiving nation, or we don’t have enough Irishmen. But it usually takes years to re-build a reputation, once it has been sullied.

In my early days at BBDO and for many years thereafter there was one particular industry that curated a horrible reputation within the media community. The Corporate Trading business (or “Barter” as we disdainfully called it) was universally despised by those of us in the media buying business. Stories of their illicit business practices and shoddy dealings were dissected with great glee by the agency community and then embellished as they were passed along to future generations of media buyers. The reputation of Barter companies was initially damaged when a couple of them declared bankruptcy under suspicious circumstances. We hated them because we believed they were bamboozling OUR clients. (Obviously they were hiding something because they wouldn’t disclose unit rates). We hated them because they were badgering OUR clients and trying to steal OUR business. (No self-respecting agency person would solicit prospects with cold-calls!) And since none of the media buying elite would work for one of those companies, how could they possibly negotiate media as effectively as us? Humph! Sniff! And, to add further insult, they were taking buying commissions out of OUR pockets!

My direct exposure to these companies was limited until the late ‘90’s. While there were some bad actors in the Barter Business, there were also some good ones whose reputations suffered from the actions of the degenerate few.

There are still some in the advertising community who resent the major Trading companies, but I believe they have done an excellent job of resurrecting and re-building the reputation of this industry. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then every agency holding company has paid them a compliment. ALL major holding companies have recognized both the financial value and the validity of their service by creating their own Corporate Trade units.* And it’s ironic that they now employ some of the same business practices (i.e. non-disclosed rates) that the industry was so critical of 20 years ago.

I did a double-take recently after meeting with the two largest Corporate Trading companies (Active, International and ICON, International). I walked away from those encounters very impressed. Having worked with ICON through my many years at Omnicom, I had always respected their team, but it seems they have stepped up their game

Both ICON and Active have hired some great talent with respected media reputations. The entrepreneurial spirit which has been wrenched out of so many agency and media company cultures is alive and well at Active and ICON. They embrace new concepts and develop monetization plans for them. They understand the importance and use of emerging media. But what impressed me most was their focus on seeking out BUSINESS and FINANCIAL solutions for their clients. That’s a very different mindset from most agencies and media companies, who are generally offering their clients MEDIA or ADVERTISING solutions. It’s this mindset that opens so many important doors for them with top Marketers.

Both ICON and Active give back to their communities and the media industry. ICON supports the Boys & Girls Club, the Breast Cancer Center in Greenwich, CT, a dozen or so other local charities in the Stamford, CT area, and they support several NYC media community charitable efforts. ICON was also voted one of the top 10 best places to work in Connecticut (thus attracting some great talent). Active, on behalf of its employees, supports more than 600 charities nationwide. They have helped fund the Good Samaritan Cardio Vascular Center near their home town of Pearl River. Also, they are annually among the top contributors to the IRTS, one of the most important and respected charitable organizations in the media business.

For those of you who haven’t yet recognized the extent to which the top Trading companies have re-engineered their business… and their reputations, I suggest you take a second look

*Omnicom purchased ICON in the early 2000’s.

Steve Grubbs is President and founder of Second Act Media consultancy. Second Act Media is anSteve Grubbs advisor to companies working in the media, marketing, entertainment and sports industries. Steve can be reached at steve.grubbs@secondactmedia.com.

Read all Steve’s MediaBizBloggers commentaries at My Second Act.

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