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The Trifecta of Transparency in the Ad Agency World

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September 12, 2019
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In a recent agency meeting, one leader challenged the team to become stronger business partners with our clients. To do this, she said, you need to know what keeps them up at night. To truly solve clients’ business problems, we need to have a deep understanding of what’s on the line. Everyone has something that keeps us up at least some of the time. Asking this question can help differentiate “sticky” strategies from the weak.

So, imagine my surprise when an employee turned the question around on me.

While I politely delayed my response to the next company meeting, I did, eventually, tell my team that this balancing act called life often keeps me up. My roles as CEO/Mom/Coach are filled with single parenthood challenges. And my passion for volunteer fundraising conflicts with the capitalistic realities of being a business owner. On top of that, every other week I owe a paycheck to the 21 people who work every day to move my agency and our clients’ businesses forward. Fortunately, we've weathered the economic bumps along the way, but there is no doubt in my mind that our success is due in part to our philosophy on transparency.

Transparency with Employees

You only get what you give (my theme song, by the New Radicals). Truer words have never been spoken than what I recently experienced when I found the courage to tell employees what keeps me staring at the ceiling in the wee hours of the morning. Somewhere along the road, blurring the lines between professional and personal at work became taboo, and while we certainly aren’t forcing hugs on people at Tipping Point, we aren’t emptily asking how your weekend was either.

It is my mission to foster a workplace in which people are motivated to work hard for two reasons: because they want to, and because they know what is at stake. At every agency meeting, we discuss AGI (adjusted gross income) and what it means to the financial statement. We explain how this well-oiled machine we call an agency makes its money, how profits are divided, and who gets what cut and why. I sleep better knowing that my employees understand the financial state of the agency, how they can contribute to improving profitability and, armed with this knowledge, they come in ready to work toward the same goal. No surprises. They can also make better personal and financial decisions for themselves.

Transparency with Clients

Taking this philosophy to another level, I recently showed a new client the P&L for their account. The report included how many hours our team worked on their account, how much we billed, and how much it cost to deliver the goods and service. Why would I do this? Because I wanted to demonstrate our investment in and commitment to their success, and that we are in this relationship for the long haul.

We work with clients who are interested in being true partners, who treat us as an extension of their team with mutual respect, who know that we are here to help them succeed. When they grow, we grow. Not the other way around. We hire people that I believe in, who understand that we are in business to provide a valuable service at a fair rate. 

Building a reputation on integrity and trust led my firm, Tipping Point Communications, to win the 2016 “Ethie” award from the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. Being recognized for how we conduct business has challenged me to become more transparent in how we work with our clients. I’m drafting a Client Bill of Rights that will be shared over the Thanksgiving holiday. Its contents include everything from our gift policy to transparency in fees and disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Transparency with Media Suppliers

Transparency in the media buying segment of the advertising industry is increasingly under fire. It came to light mainly due to questions around digital ad buying practices, but it could be argued that some of these trends started long before.

Because so many companies are involved in the execution of digital media buys (the publisher, exchanges, data partners, aggregators, media buying shops, ad servers, holding companies, etc.), markups are rarely disclosed or reported. Other media suppliers (outdoor, radio, TV, and print) have provided added value through research and rebates for years.

In my opinion, it is the agency’s fundamental responsibility to buy media based on its ability to deliver an audience with the least amount of waste, at best rate available that will actually clear (vs. being pre-empted or bumped to a lousy placement). At a minimum, customers should be made aware of how the agency uses added value, spot banks, donations, and supplier gifts. Then, clients and prospects can decide for themselves if the company passes their smell test.  

Everyone has the right to make a living. As a privately held, boutique media buying and PR firm, a key differentiator in doing business with us is that we make decisions locally and independently. We choose which suppliers align with our strategy and core values. We are also flexible in how to get compensated for the work we do. We are agile and can quickly respond when clients need to shift gears.

I’ve found that this “transparency trifecta” makes employees happier, clients see better results because more of their advertising dollars get spent on the media than on agency fees, and I sleep better at night. In the end, all we have to show is the impact of the work we do and our reputation in how we execute. Being authentic, collaborative and transparent makes for a stronger partnership.  


About the author: Michelle Ashby is the Founder and CEO of Tipping Point Communications, a certifiedWOSB & WBE in New York and recipient of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Award. She’s committed to helping clients solve their toughest business and marketing challenges. Michelle was named Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Council in 2014 in Rochester, NY, is a Forty Under 40 recipient, and was named Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser in 2016. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @mylifeMashUp.


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