Petty exaction in advertising went online this week when a Dentsu America media executive sent an email to publishers soliciting freebies -- specifically, tickets to the U.S. Open -- for its Canon client. Scott Daly, exec VP and executive media director, asked media outlets that had been the beneficiaries of Canon ad spend to furnish two to four tickets each for 10 different stages of the tournament. Tickets for those events range from $30 to $125.
"Thank you SO MUCH for considering this request," Daly wrote. "We greatly appreciate it -- and the excellent service that you provide to us throughout the year." He added a smiley face for emphasis.
According to Daly's email, the "urgent request" is not a new initiative, but actually a Dentsu . . . uhhh . . . tradition.
"For those of you that we've done business with over the past few years, you are probably aware of our annual request for U.S. Open tickets on behalf of our Canon client. For those of you that are new to the Canon business, surprise."
Surprise! Pony up!
Comps are, of course, a longtime skeazy staple of the media-buying business. Lowly media planners get paid pennies, but are seldom short of entertainment options. Were it not for Madison Avenue, Madison Square Garden might be a ghost town. Typically, however, broadcasters and publishers are, shall we say, proactive -- furnishing the gratuities unsolicited against the chance of winning a slice of the media pie. "Relationship building" is what they call it, because "graft" is such an ugly word. But at least one experienced publisher professed shock at the Dentsu email, which asked for a specific contribution for the honor of being a "partner."
Kind of like Groupon in reverse.
"I was irate when I got it," said that publisher, who asked not to be named for fear of losing an advertiser. "I've never seen something that was so blatant." This veteran of the ad-sales wars does not claim to be pure, readily acknowledging that sales people offer gifts -- "concert tickets, whatever" -- to curry favor with media planners. But the group-solicitation of tribute -- not to mention its meticulous spread-sheeting -- struck this recipient as at best obnoxious.
"If you choose to entertain a certain way, that 's your business. But this is someone coming to you and asking. There's so many things wrong with that email. It's not right. It's just not."
But not necessarily technically wrong. According to advertising lawyer Rick Kurnit, of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, there are circumstances in which a group solicitation for such an enterprise could be perfectly kosher: if the freebie is indeed going to the client (as opposed to other agency clients and prospects); if the value is deemed a rebate or make-good for audience underperformance; if the value is shared among the stockholders -- or, if not, if the value is reported by employer and the recipient employees as bonus income. The meticulous organization of a broad request-for-largess, he mused, could be a sign of corporate transparency.
But in extreme cases, depending on who is the beneficiary of the extra-contractual gifts, how the loot is distributed, how it is reported and whether it is deemed part of the official sales negotiation, scrounging swag-ola can run afoul of the law. Notoriously, Grey Global Group executive Mitchell Mosallem went to jail for his role in a kickback scheme in which vendors were pressured to supply tickets and other handouts in exchange for being steered business by Grey .
Obviously, the particulars here are quite different. For instance, in the Mosallem case, the gratuities were used by the agency in-house. Daly's request states the tickets will go to the client.
Calls to clarify these issues -- and to determine the number of recipients -- were put into Daly, Dentsu America and Canon USA, but no responses to questions about this issue were forthcoming.
If any of this triggers a sense of deja vu, that is because this is not the first time Canon, Dentsu, pro tennis and client entertainment have made news. Perhaps you recall the 2007 lawsuit by former senior VP-group creative director Steve Biegel, who allegedly was fired after complaining that he was forced by his employers into sexually-charged situations while on Canon business. This included, he claimed, a brothel visit and a Florida ad shoot featuring a widely passed-along crotch shot of spokeswoman Maria Sharapova.
Though Scott Daly ceased replying to emails once I told him what I was inquiring about, his Dentsu profile questionnaire offers a bit of irony. Asked to respond to "What is innovation to you?" he replied, "Liberation from conventional thinking and/or accepted truisms."
Fair enough, but truisms can be so, you know . . . true. "There is no free lunch," is one. And here, courtesy of Samuel Johnson, perfectly anticipating the email age, is another:
"To keep your secret is wisdom; but to expect others to keep it is folly."