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March 24, 2011
Groupon, and Why Clients Don’t Get Their Trust On
Do agency-client relationships always need some tension?
This week, nearly two months after some controversial Super Bowl spots aired, Groupon’s CEO said in an AdAge article that he placed too much trust in his agency, and that his company “turned off the part of the brain where we should have made our own decisions.”
While I suspect plenty of us who work in advertising would love to find the client’s decision-making “off switch” so we can get away with something, the CEO’s quote is one of the more bizarre things I’ve heard lately – and I’ve watched all of Charlie Sheen’s interviews.
Let’s face it: Had an overwhelming number of people found the Groupon work truly funny, the CEO wouldn’t be abdicating responsibility for buying it. Successful ads have a thousand fathers. Offensive advertising is an orphan.
It’s worth noting that Groupon is a hot company on a huge upward trajectory, but very new to conventional marketing. The Super Bowl spots in question were some of, if not the first, pieces of traditional advertising the company had ever done. And by hiring Crispin Porter & Bogusky, an experienced agency known for its provocative work and “Hoopla,” the upstart may simply have been a little starstruck. However, that’s no excuse for writing a check to produce advertising it wasn’t comfortable with.
But let’s set Groupon aside for the moment, and consider the bigger picture. What’s the state of trust between agencies and clients? Does this latest, very public squabble mean that more clients will think twice before putting any trust in their agency partners?
As advertising professionals, we all wish that clients would place more trust in us. But that trust is hard to come by, and easy to lose.
Most of us truly believe in the work we present to our clients. We’re often driven by the belief that our solution is the correct one; it’ll work and make everyone rich and famous. Well, that’s the dream, at least. We don’t know for sure.
And while it’s true that some of advertising’s most convincing folks are the types who can sell the proverbial ice to Eskimos, there simply isn’t a Jedi Mind Trick-like device that’ll make a client turn off their decision-making abilities. Whoever writes the checks always has the ultimate veto power.
But emotions, positive and negative, always play a role in that decision-making. Advertising is one of the only businesses I can think of where there’s a common belief that in order to succeed, our work has to make clients nervous and a little uncomfortable. (Doctors, accountants, and pilots certainly don't think that way, right?) But that’s often the stated goal. It's not a natural state of mind for businesspeople, and clients have to understand that from the beginning. Otherwise, the client and agency won’t see things eye-to-eye, and the relationship is doomed.
As advertising and marketing people, we always have to keep in mind that we’re spending someone else’s money in an arbitrary fashion. Which is a responsibility not to be taken lightly, even if it’s in the name of a lowbrow humor ad campaign. We should also be prepared for the missteps we make. It’s not enough to say, “Well, the client approved it,” or lament the political correctness and prissiness of the general public. Sometimes advertising doesn’t produce results. Sometimes people get offended. We don’t have to like it, but we have to deal with it. That’s where a sense of professionalism serves us well.
I hope this latest fissure involving Groupon doesn’t cause more of a ripple effect. I fear that clients won’t place any trust in a provocative idea that might rub some people the wrong way. Marketers may also be wary of the instant social media blowback that many bad ads get these days, even if it is fleeting. We hear more of it now – and we hear about it faster. Very few marketers, or their ad agencies, have any sort of ready method for responding to criticism of their work, particularly when consumers find it offensive.
In Groupon’s case, the agency still stands behind the work and says it “produced the work that was agreed upon.” But the client clearly feels defensive, and is trying to deflect some of the blame it initially accepted. Fortunately, both client and agency will go on separately, both as very successful businesses in their own right.
But sooner or later, there’ll be another agency-client falling out to fill the gossip void -- It’s the nature of the business. Trust me.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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