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Badvertising: 4 Horror Stories That Will Make You Rethink Your Marketing Agency Relationship

By Kevin Simonson, CEO at Metric Digital

There are typically two types of ad agency heartaches.

First, there’s the unavoidable and understandable.

Your company gets trapped in an unproductive or even unhealthy agency relationship because of operational or bureaucratic reasons. It’s simply an inefficiency in the market. You’re fully aware that your company could do performance marketing better with another agency, but there are just too many hurdles in your way.

Maybe it’s the faulty technology that a vendor sold to your company before you started working there.

Maybe it’s the cumbersome twelve month agency contract that’s complicated and expensive to get out of.

Maybe it’s an ego thing where your boss’s decision has already been made and cannot be redacted, otherwise they will look bad. Even though that decision would probably result in a better outcome for the company the long run.

These heartaches are painful, but understandable. 

But then there are the second type of heartaches. 

Toxic agency client relationships in which unethical, unprofessional and unacceptable business practices end up wasting millions of company dollars. Not to mention, drive marketing departments crazy.

We’ve even coined a term for it: Badvertising.

We know this is a real thing. We've been in the digital marketing business since digital marketing has even been a business. And believe it or not, our clients average working with 2.5 other agencies before working with us. 

We don’t want that to happen to you.

In the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing a growing body of work about how the modern advertising landscape is shifting. You can read our deep dive mastermind, our list of agency red flags here, and our agencies are dead, long live agencies post.

Continuing that conversation, today we’re going to share four advertising horror stories that will make you rethink your agency relationship. Not to mention, several tips on how to protect your company going forward.

Badvertising Story #1: 
Client retention through data obfuscation

Years ago, my employer hired a marketing agency. We had a really solid and friendly relationship. We all got along with each other, and it was healthy from that perspective.

But there was a large amount of smoke and mirrors going on. Which is something that happens all throughout the industry. Problem was, our company did not have a significant monthly ad spend. And so, the agency started to obfuscate information. We would get these inconsistent, incoherent reports delivered to our team each week. Mostly to avoid the slight elephant in the room, which was the fact that our budget was tiny.

Meanwhile, we were in a place of mutual likability with this agency. We worked well together, but there was clearly one problem that was not being resolved:

Our company wasn’t making any progress.

Now, our assumption was that if we would have just spent more money, everything would've been fine. But the agency knew that we didn't have the budget to spend, but still wanted to keep us as clients. Their obscuring was a client retention strategy. They kept showing us different reports, which ended up driving us crazy. Eventually we had to end the relationship.

The irony is, the whole reason why we hired them in the first place was because we simply didn't have time to do everything. We thought it would make us more efficient. But every time we handed off work to our agency account managers, they’d return it to us done poorly. The results were bad. And it didn't end up saving us anytime at all. It probably cost us more.

Badvertising Story #2:
Pulling the wool over the client’s eyes

Here’s another example from my first agency job. I worked for a firm that has now been acquired by a bigger company. Our project was essentially a local takeover for an alcohol brand. At the time, the brand was bidding on Bloody Mary recipes for $18 a click, because they simply had to get through their budget. Otherwise it wouldn’t get awarded the following year.

But there was no good reason for them to be paying that much for one click on such a product. My thought was, wait, that doesn't make sense.

And so, when I brought it up to them, they shrugged it off and told me to just put it into the report.

It doesn't matter, they said.

But that should matter. And it really bothered me. That was the first instance of an agency obscuring data from what was truly happening. They wanted to see how many people they were reaching, not how much it cost per reach. 

Come on! That’s basic performance marketing knowledge every professional should have.

Badvertising Story #3:
Attribution, schmattribution

Ten years ago, when I started working in marketing, attribution wasn't really a thing. It was whatever the vendor told people. And clients believed it. It’s an example of how the data transparency issue not only applies to marketing agencies, but also to adtech vendors and other providers.

Here’s how it worked at this company. We would drop a 30 day cookie on people's machines, and if they made a purchase from their machine, within a certain number of days, the email would get the credit. But it many cases, this process would double count the number of users. Even if that person made a purchase three weeks later. Essentially, the vendor was being overly generous with themselves. And reporting numbers back to clients inaccurately.

Now, that’s not a super egregious example. Because at the time, there wasn't a standard for transparency. Nobody really had the vocabulary to understand what was going on. 

Badvertising Story #4:
About as transparent as a black hole

I once spoke to a guy who audited programmatic advertising for a major corporation. The client budget was over $30,000,000 for programmatic for the year. Which is huge, but fairly common.

The hilarious part was, the brand was marketing a female product. And they did a programmatic buy. But when my colleague audited the buying platform, turns out that $100,000 of a $200,000 test served ads on Grindr. For those not familiar, that's the popular networking app for gay men. Naturally, the ads for a female product were unusable for that audience.

The client from the corporation was incredibly upset about this, and sure enough, ended the contract with that programmatic platform.

Crazy part is, some of those vendors actually got sued for fraud because they were reporting attribution unethically. And when the courts asked the adtech vendors to open up their actual reporting, instead of putting up a fight, they just settled out of court. They knew they were lying.

Sadly, not everyone is as proactive as my friend is. There’s a lag to figuring out how bad this transparency issue really is. And so, the good news is that it’s happening, I just wish it was happening faster.

# # #

Sorry to scare you. Badavertising can be tough to swallow.

But let’s remember, all fear is there for a reason. It’s an evolutionary mechanism that aided us in our survival. And in the world of marketing, fear can be a useful tool to make sure your professional relationships are ethical and profitable.

To wrap up, we want to offer additional tips to help your company stay protected, take back control, and take your brand to the next level. 

The right way.

1. Data without access is just information. By far the most common agency discrepancy is lack of access to the buying platforms a client is using. Make sure you set clear expectations on not only owning your data, but always having access to it.

2. Automate the science, humanize the art. When it comes to black and white hard truths, automate it. Save time and money. But remember that it takes a human being to understand why audiences are responding to ads the way they are. That takes empathy and actual human labor. You can't automate a beating heart.

3. Know enough to be dangerous. Do your research, but also ask for help. Allow your advertising agency to help make you more confident and intelligent about topics like performance marketing and digital advertising. Help them help you help your company.

Badvertising is unfortunate, and uncommon. But that doesn't make it okay.

There is a reckoning going on right now. However, the more bad actors that get caught, the easier it is for Metric Digital to do great work, and for your company to drive greater revenue.

Do you have an advertising agency horror story? We'd love to connect. Give us a shot and we can talk more about the evolving digital marketing landscape.

Get our tips straight to your inbox, and start driving revenue today.


Kevin Simonson CEO & Co-Founder, Metric Digital The Metric Digital Blog A Blog on All Things Digital Marketing