Confessions of a publisher on agency gifting: ‘I’ll buy the $300 sunglasses. It doesn’t mean I think it’s OK.’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

The rise of digital was supposed to usher in an era of transparency and accountability, but in some ways, the buying of ad space hasn’t fundamentally changed. The three-hour lunch of the past that greased the media-buying wheels has been replaced by tacky grabs for luxury goods as media sellers look to gain favor with 20-something media buyers. And while many salespeople play along, they’re not necessarily happy about it. In our latest installment of our Confessions series, one publisher vented about the agency gifting practice.

How has the gifting practice changed since you got into the business?
We’re still a relationship-driven business, but the transactional nature of the digital economy has led to less face-to-face interaction. Business entertaining used to be around tickets or events or even, in a rare instance, trips. These could be cringeworthy through a moral lens. But the common denominator was that the salesperson was spending time with a client or a media buyer.

That relationship led to them having a familiarity with each other that would over time benefit the client. They have access to information and ideas earlier on because there’s a deeper set of relationships. The transactional nature of how business is done means the emergence of [giving out] jeans, sunglasses, sneakers. It’s, “If you were going to take me to a fancy dinner, could you just buy me fancy sneakers?”

Do you remember a certain moment when this began to take off?
I blame NikeiD. When they opened a store in Midtown, the agencies started having parties there. It went from going there to “Just get me the sneakers,” and the sense of entitlement.

I understand how agencies got there. The procurement effect has put agencies in places where they’re squeezed by clients. This has led to media agency people who haven’t been trained properly, who are overworked, who are underpaid, understaffed, and senior management looks the other way because it’s easier to have X site gift their employees as a perk of the job. It makes the job more attractive. And it doesn’t show up on their P and L. I don’t even necessarily blame these millennials. They’re just not being trained properly. They think this is genuinely part of their compensation package.

What’s your policy on going to jeans parties?
I don’t go, and I’m pretty militant about making my staff not participate. However, there are times when salespeople come to me and say, “If I don’t buy X, we will not get this business.” And faced with not getting this deal, more often than not I’ll buy the $300 sunglasses. I’m resigned. It doesn’t mean I think it’s OK.

Do you see a direct impact on buying decisions?
Without question. I think every smart salesperson knows who the people on their lists are that need to be gifted in order to grease the wheel. We call them media whores. When it’s known that unless you send gifts to a certain person you won’t get on the plan and you don’t send gifts, what are the chances that you’re going to be on that plan?

Is this going on everywhere?
This isn’t everyone. It’s just one of those things where it’s too frequent to be OK. It’s too widespread and too egregious for senior executives to not pay attention.

Where do the clients fit in — how aware are they that their agencies are doing this?
I think they think, “Not my client.” I think a lot of clients would be upset with how much this goes on. Ultimately, the client is trusting the agency to buy media for the client based on what’s best for their business. This is graft.

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