According to a recent Gallup poll, “advertising practitioners” ranked in the bottom four of least ethical and honest professionals, just slightly ahead of congressmen, lobbyists and car salesmen. In an industry where digital and tech have accelerated speed to market and ability to reach people, brand safety continues to be a concern. As advertising professionals, trust and transparency are the two most important qualities we need to uphold for our clients and their consumers.
Clients stick with agencies they trust. Trust saves time in the near term, strengthens partnerships for the long term and unlocks mutual opportunities all along the way.
How, then, does an agency ensure trustworthiness? The key is to understand the two components of trust: character (intent, integrity) and competence (capability, results). Here are several ways to ingrain both into the corporate culture.
- Lead by example. As with most things, it has to start at the top. The first step in institutionalizing integrity is to make sure your leaders exhibit it regularly. This could be in the form of defining philosophical approaches, such as data policies or unwavering opposition to media rebates. It’s also found in individual actions. Do what you say. Give yes or no answers to yes or no questions -- without couching or equivocation -- even when you know the answer might not be popular. State clear intentions and own your mistakes.
- Define your terms. “Transparency” is the buzzword of the moment in media but there’s actually little agreement on exactly what it means. Does it mean an agency discloses in excruciating detail every individual component of its entire operation? We believe we must clearly disclose when and where we could be making an additional revenue or profit -- if, say, we take on additional investment risk -- and then clearly outline the tradeoffs and give the client an unambiguous choice to opt in to that approach, or not. Transparency at heart means honesty, clarity, fairness and choice.
- Live by a clear code. While most agencies have a code of conduct in place, many barely scratch the surface of ethical direction. A good code should cover basics such as conflicts of interest, confidentiality, and financial and diversity practices, but should also provide a foundation for both larger cultural values and practical behavior. The agency’s code should provide specific guidance on grey areas such as vendor negotiations, acceptance of gifts and data policies. At our agency, for instance, our policy is that clients own their data, regardless of whether they use our technology platforms to analyze and activate. That’s a clear policy that both agency employees and clients can uniformly understand and embrace.
- Make actions match words. Both employees and clients look, whether consciously or not, to ensure stated values and practices match behavior. Make that a measurable goal. Our agency’s leadership training survey, for example, includes the question, “Does this person lead in a way that is consistent with our values?” Little things matter, too. A colleague recently pointed out that something as common as bcc’ing someone on an email is a breach of trust. If you claim to be open and honest, why not keep everything above board?
- Respect but inspect. Be it this twist on an old Army phrase, or a variation on “trust but verify,” agencies -- and brands/clients -- need to be prepared to monitor, measure and enforce adherence to agreed upon policies and approaches via audits or other mechanisms. While the process was a little like dental surgery, I recently sat in an audit results meeting in which a third-party told the client we had saved them more than $30 million. The validation that we had been accurate and truthful was (mostly) worth the proverbial root canal.
Nobody’s perfect and we can only do our best to live by these standards. But by applying principled leadership, agencies can improve the respect of the industry and enhance client partnerships, behaving in a way that is consistent with values of trust and honesty.
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