It was just seven months ago that former industry executive Jon Mandel accused media companies of providing rebates, kickbacks and other incentives to agencies, acting against the best interests of both clients and the industry. Mandel claimed his private study, conducted among unnamed industry executives on behalf of the ANA Media Transparency Task Force, uncovered behavior among media agencies that "cross the line of acceptable conduct in a partnership. They are not transparent about their actions. They recommend or implement media that is off strategy or off target if it works for their financial gain." Mandel's comments are considered, in part, to have contributed to a wave of media agency reviews that are redefining our business. As ANA members and guests gather later this month at the annual Masters of Marketing Conference, Mandel's accusations remain a dark cloud over an industry that is increasingly defined by alleged non-transparency, bot fraud, kickbacks, and other forms of alleged malfeasance and alleged illegal behavior in the advertising value chain from agencies to media sellers to advertisers.
The word "allegedly" is used deliberately. Questionable ethics and borderline business practices are rampant across almost every industry. We can debate which media agencies and holding companies are doing what to whom. Mandel's accusations ignited a flurry of trade press coverage built on innuendo, and in some ways the industry has come to define itself by those innuendos. We can debate the specifics at the individual company or sector level but the fact is that no agency has 'outed' another on the rebate issue; no media seller has openly accused a competitor of benefitting from fraud; no two ad tech companies have questioned the quality of each other's inventory; no advertiser has leapt on the 'misfortune' of another. There is no Justice Department or SEC investigation, as there are in so many industries. No senior executives are under criminal indictment.
Mandel and the ANA tried to convince marketers that where there is smoke there is certainly fire. And for the past seven months, the industry has been suffocating from the smoke rather than coming together to defend and protect itself – to actively try to put out the fire. It's sad that innuendo and sanctimony have become a source of competitive advantage to say nothing of a stick to wield. Mandel's attack, unsupported by any facts either before or since, has become an insidious infection that is undermining our collective purpose. That purpose is to create profitable business growth for brands and businesses that enhance (or least do not damage) the human condition.
Perhaps it's time to put up or shut up. Let's talk openly about the alleged cases. A client has yet to take a transparency-based breach-of-contract action against an agency. No advertiser or agency has instituted a class action against a media seller based on fraudulent ad impressions. No media seller has actually been specifically accused of engaging in an unfair, unethical, immoral or illegal rebate practice. Instead, the industry has almost uniformly accepted innuendo and assumption as reality. And that perceived reality is unhealthy for every sector of our business.
Yet, at the upcoming ANA Conference, there is not one speaker nor any panel designated to defend the industry's integrity or provide detailed follow-up to Mandel's ANA-funded report that questioned it. The issues raised by Mandel should not be left hanging as a cloud over a whole industry. And if bot fraud is to redefine the value of an industry sector, let's surface the perpetrators who are guilty and weed them out.
What's happening within our industry in the past seven months is not a witch hunt. It's death by drip torture, assumed guilt with no proof, and silence in response to open and unsupported attacks. If there are illegalities, let's come together as an industry, identify them, and either prosecute or stop doing business with the perpetrators. Otherwise, let's start promoting the legal, moral, ethical, important and profitable values our industry delivers to marketers, to the greater business world, and to society. The waves of media agency reviews will inevitably continue, which is unfortunate. They, spurred on by the failure to either defend against or react to Mandel's accusations, are the cancer that is eroding the health of our industry and that is demoralizing those in it.
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