The Great Agency Con Job (That Didn't Quite Work)

It's Unbelievable What Some Businesses Try to Get Away With

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I heard this story from our business development team last Friday night over beers. No criminal act took place. Rather this is a story about walking the grey ethical line, not exactly wrong, but bordering on the sleazy. It's about a deception that represents all the business practices and low values I abhor. Names have been dropped to protect the guilty.

The set up. We get a call from a search consultant in the Midwest. It is conducting a search for a global technology client and wants to learn about our capabilities. The fact that it won't name its client means that we don't take it very seriously, but we've got no problems sharing our story and work with someone who's interested. The rep is also vague about budget, so that's another red flag.

Still, the search consultant kept the conversation going. Slowly it becomes clear that he's doing a bait and switch. He's not representing a client, or at least one that he will identify. He's a sales guy trying to sell agency-consulting services. It may not be quite up there with the classics like Three-card Monte or Spanish Prisoner, but it's a con nonetheless.

Here's how it was supposed to work. The sales guy gets you engaged with the promise of a potential client and feeds you a lot of crap about how well positioned you are to win the business. When you pry a little deeper, in order to be part of the pitch, if there is one, he encourages you to sign up as a "roster" agency for the modest sum of $1,000. No pressure, but the mystery client gives its "roster" agencies preference. The sales guy just also encourages you to hire his firm to improve your pitch process and increase your odds of winning. Then, my absolute favorite part: If you win the business, his firm takes 10% of the fees for the first year.

I have a better idea. Just shoot me and take my money.

It took a New York minute to end the conversation once we understood the proposition. Are they kidding? Are they morons? Does this stuff even work? What bothers me most was the guy's audacity and the assumption that we would pay to play.

My friend Murray runs a successful business and he once said something that has always stuck. We were talking about trust and he told me that he liked doing business with honest people and he doesn't mind doing business with dishonest people. It was all the people in between that bothered him. That's exactly where I would put this search consultant.

Imagine if he would have taken a different tack. Imagine he called us and said, "Listen I want to sign you on as a customer and help you with your pitch process. I might even be able to get you into some reviews, but I want to be up front, I take 10% of your fee for the first year." We still would have said no, but I would at least respect the guy for being a straight shooter.

Lest anyone thinks I'm attacking search or agency consultants, we work with a couple that I hold in high regard for their talent and the way they conduct themselves. If you ever run into Brian Martin from Source Martin or Brent Hodgins from Mirren Business Development, you can be confident of their honesty and integrity.

I'm big on the old-fashioned values. Play fair. Be honest. Work hard. Help out your competitors when it makes sense. Never sacrifice a relationship for a quick buck.

And don't mess with us. It won't end well.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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