What Publishers Really Think of Agencies

Publishers have it rough. The supply-demand imbalance has given agencies the upper hand in negotiations. Add in the challenge of programmatic ad buying, and you’ve got some bruised feelings on the sell side.

Digiday spoke with several premium publishers, on the condition of anonymity to encourage honesty, to find out where the biggest frictions are — and how to fix them.

What’s your biggest source of conflict with agencies?
Both sides — publisher and agency — sometimes forget that we’re in the advertising business, not the buying and selling business. The focus falls on generic RFPs, eCPMs, CPAs, and we wind up forgetting what we’re all doing here in the first place. Frankly, this is a talent issue. Sellers should be incentivized to address their clients’ business objectives, not just sling banners. Buyers should be thinking about deep partnerships with brands that make sense for their clients, not just rate reduction. It’s a different, more sophisticated skill set, and the talent just hasn’t fully caught up yet. Some publishers and agencies are recognizing this shift and putting personnel as a higher priority, but right now there are a lot of mediocre buyers and sellers out there, and that drags the rest of us down. — Publisher X

Just the very nature of having agencies as intermediaries between publishers and clients produces friction. There still could be more done for agencies to integrate themselves. The biggest challenge is for people selling into agencies: if you used to have one, three, five competitors, now agencies are being approached by hundreds of organizations that can do the thing you do. It’s a big burden for agencies. There’s a question of whether there are enough hours in the day to organize and sift through that in an intelligent way and in a way to bring best solutions to clients. Also, an agency needs to have more expertise in the breadth of digital product offering than any other player in the business. — Publisher Y

Biggest complaint is when they don’t serve their clients well. It might be because they are lazy or ill-informed about the client’s business or mistreated by the client or all of the above, but it happens more than it should, and it’s a huge shame. More run-of-the-mill complaints: the RFP with a three-hour turnaround, the request for a “never before done” idea when you know they and the client are timid as mice and will never do anything new, the turnover, the rudeness, the willingness to be bought (jeans parties, Southampton parties, concert tickets, whatever), the organizational ineptitude when it comes to basic operations like ad tags and billing (varies greatly by agency), and the poor creative executions. — Publisher Z

What about the rudeness?
[They] don’t return calls, don’t give meaningful feedback, [arrive] late to meetings, [act] unprofessional, abuse relationships by asking for stuff that far exceeds reasonable T&E spending. — Publisher Z

Turnover seems to be a big point of contention for publishers.
Turnover on both sides of the business — but particularly at agencies — is frustrating for publishers. It happens more at the plan or buy before details get put together. It’s hard to finally get aligned to sell something and then they change people. It’s a big issue. As the landscape broadens, people don’t stay long enough and that presents a problem. — Publisher Y

It’s a problem because you have to, in a way, teach the new folks about your publication — Publisher Z

How big of a problem is the “gift economy?”
I think there’s less of the gift economy; not saying there isn’t one. It’s direct and more directed, which is good. Agencies have gotten better at only doing stuff with people they’re doing business with, which makes it harder on our side to get to know people better. — Publisher Y

What’s the optimist’s take on the state of agencies?
We’re in this golden age of the agency; of work, of what they can do, of what they can be asked to do. It’s almost like a golden age of intelligence around what is required of them. The work has changed so much in a decade; even if you look at the last two to three years, agencies have gone back to functioning in a better way. There was more to gripe about last year than today. Agencies, like publishers, have become more integrated in their approach because they had to. We got there first. In becoming that, they have to bring more intelligence to solve problems than they have had to before. Because of that, we’re facing off with more intelligence. I deal with people at high levels, don’t know if that can be said across the board, at shops that are digitally, socially native or where they have lead-dog status, the people are incredibly intelligent and tip of spear in how tech can be used to solve marketers’ problem. It’s made my job more enjoyable. — Publisher Y

Image via Shutterstock