The 10 commandments of the gift economy

Digiday has covered the gift economy of ad sales extensively. We invited a veteran ad seller to give his rules of the road for buyers and sellers navigating the gift economy.

People buy from sellers they like and trust. It’s a pillar of almost every sales transaction and is especially true in the world of digital media. The number of new publishers, networks and ad tech vendors has snowballed and when similar products crowd the marketplace, competition for advertising budgets becomes fierce.

While it’s not a new phenomenon, the practice of “gifting” as a shortcut to relationship building has never been more flagrant. Sellers are gifting bigger and more frequently, while buyers have come to expect meals, tickets and tangible goods as the perks of working in media.

With the growth of social channels and trade publications delivering real-time industry news, those who brazenly abuse the “gift economy” are quickly named and shamed. Whether or not you find the practice of gifting to be perfectly acceptable or the downfall of the modern media landscape, one thing is clear: The gift economy is here to stay. If you don’t learn to play by the rules, you risk being alienated by your potential customers or worse, your employer. With that being said, I bring you: The 10 Commandments of the Gift Economy

1. Thou shalt not carpet bomb gift offers or requests.
It’s commonplace for a sales rep to try and set up lunch with new prospects or for a media buyer to discretely ask a close partner if they have extra tickets to next week’s Yankees game. Great. Just don’t make these offers or requests by blind copying three dozen of your “best” agency partners or vendors. At best you look like an ass; at worst it gets forwarded around and you’re blackballed by the media community.

2. Honor the extent of thy relationship.
While it may be acceptable to send a box of cupcakes to that media planning team that has been hard to reach, inviting them on a helicopter ride to your company’s ski house for the weekend might be coming on a little strong. Conversely, if you’re a media planner and we’ve never done business together, please don’t invite me to donate to every walk-a-thon fundraiser you’re participating in this year.

3. Thou shalt not covet too much.
It’s the stuff of legends: the media buyer who invites their entire vendor list to help complete a bridal registry. Or the one who throws out the vibe on social media that they’d “really love it if somebody took them to Soul Cycle tonight.” Sellers, if you validate requests like these, you’re exacerbating the problem. And guess what, you probably still didn’t make the media plan.

4. Thou shalt not expect reciprocity.
So you’re a seller and you think you’ve endeared yourself to an agency by tossing out $200 worth of iTunes gift cards at Friday’s lunch and learn. Think again. All you’ve done is helped advance your clients a few extra boards in Candy Crush. Nobody is sending you an RFP because you tossed out cheap schwag. You might get a “thank you” email, but probably not. The very best you can hope for is that maybe you’ll be remembered favorably when the time comes.

5. Thou shalt not worship tangible goods.
Even with your best partners, the process of procuring sneakers, jeans and sunglasses for a media team can feel dirty. Always lead with the offer of meals, concerts, sporting events or classes. Sharing an experience together builds rapport much more effectively than subsidizing their wardrobe. I’m not saying there should be a firewall around the Nike ID studio – but use it sparingly, for top partners with whom there is already mutual respect.

6. Thou shalt not underestimate the power of booze.
Champagne for the team after you submit an RFP? Go for it. Bottles of brown liquor for the folks who just cut an IO? A little bit of alcohol goes a long way — as long as you’re reasonably sure nobody is carrying a 30-day chip. Sometimes they might even invite you over to imbibe with them.

7. Know thy audience.
Generally speaking, that guy who invites the all-girl team out to get mani pedi’s together just might be creeping them out. Same goes for jeans shopping. If you are a member of the opposite sex, it may be in your best interest to avoid situations where you’ll need to pull your pants down. Unless there are mashed potatoes involved of course. (If you don’t get this reference, don’t ask. Trust me.)

8. Thou shalt not be lured under false pretense.
Maybe they like you more than the regular schmucks they do business with, but when it comes time for a media agency to rent out the bar for a colleague’s going-away party, you were invited for a reason: to throw down your credit card. Swing by, have your drinks and schmooze a little, then bow out gracefully. Overstay your welcome and before you know it, you’re last man standing on a $600 bar tab.

9. Thou shall not stalk.
So you’ve decided to swing by a media agency’s office and drop off a few popcorn tins for the holidays. First of all, that’s what the post office is for. If you’re desperate to say three sentences to a prospective client in the agency lobby, they’ll somehow find themselves stuck in the midst of a six-hour plan-a-thon, unable to come out and accept. If you must do the physical drop-off, be brief, then make like a shepherd and get the flock out of there as soon as you’re done.

10. Thou shalt not party-crash.
Your sales team has convinced finance to hand over a small fortune so you can host a group of media folks at a cool venue for a few hours of open bar and passed hors d’oeuvres. Congratulations, you’re on your way to winning the hearts and minds of your A-list prospects. And then a group of account executives from an agency you’ve never heard of walks in the door. Followed by their accounting team. And oh look, is that the janitorial staff? Somebody blasted out your intimate gathering on the party-crasher megaphone! Unless the event has an open invitation policy, respect the fact that an invite is generally intended for you and no more than a +1.

When properly deployed, the gift economy can be one of the more enjoyable perks of working in the advertising industry. If we all use good judgment, it’s possible to build stronger relationships, get more business done and walk home in a fresh new pair of Nikes. Oh and when somebody puts a bowl of mashed potatoes in front of you, the proper utensil is a fork or spoon.

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