We've all heard rumors of agencies receiving gifts, incentives, or straight-up bribes from vendors courting their business. It's difficult to quantify just how much this goes on in the digital marketing industry, but the results of this article certainly suggest the practice is still alive and kicking.
Geoffrey Handley, co-founder of MXM Hyperfactory, spent many years working in Asia, where bribing agencies is even more common, still to this day. According to Handley, traditionally this was standard practice in Asia. It was part of the culture. Today, company policies have shifted to include more regulations on the subject, particularly at U.S. agencies. But there is still a healthy amount of "under the table" gift-giving going on in advertising, even in the States.
Nine professionals from agencies across the country shared their stories with iMedia Connection. Some responses are shocking, while others are hilarious, just plain odd -- or even kind of cute.
Cold hard cash
Geoffrey Handley, co-founder, MXM Hyperfactory, worked for years in China and Hong Kong, where exorbitant gifts are still common. Here's a list of bribe stories he amassed during his time in Asia:
- Cartier watches
- Rolex watches
- A Ducati motorbike
- Montblanc pens (often left behind after signing a deal)
- Box seats for the Olympics
- Regular holidays to the Philippines, Malaysia, etc.
- Cold, hard cash -- and lots of it in real bills!
Handley's father also worked in the industry in China, but during the '70s -- when he once put a client's children through school as part of a business deal.
3 tiny helicopters
David Clarke, CEO and co-founder of BGT Partners, shares this story:
"An outsourced creative shop would call me often and go multi-channel on me. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, phone -- you name it. Solicitations were hitting me from everywhere. One day, a radio-controlled helicopter shows up in the mail with a message, 'Let's take off together!' I sent a thank-you note that said right now was not the right time to 'take off together.' The helicopter was distributed to the office. Three months later, another helicopter arrives with a note, 'Are you ready for lift off?' That helicopter was distributed to the office. Six months go by, and another helicopter shows up. China must have had a sale on these things. I just returned to sender."
An amiable escort
When asked about his most interesting bribe story, Sean X, digital strategy director at Amazon Advertising, had this to say:
"I am sure you will get countless expensive dinner stories, spa treatments, baseball/football tickets, strippers, etc. But not many 'escort' stories.
"When I was running marketing globally for Ask.com, I was at a conference vendor party. (The vendor throwing the party was not a vendor of mine.) I had a woman approach me at the restaurant/bar the party was at. She whispered in my ear that she was a gift from a 'special friend.' However, there were four vendors of mine who were attending the party (all female ad reps at ad networks I was buying significant media from), so I could not determine who had sent her over. For obvious reasons she would not divulge, and maybe the vendor thought they were the only person there I was buying media from. Maybe it was not even a current vendor. Maybe they asked the wrong person at the bar. To this day, I do not know. Anyway, I have to assume one of them, or all of them, were my 'special friend.'
"I never asked any of these vendors, and none of them ever said anything to me about it. First ask yourself, if I did not know who was supplying the gift, would it be ethical for me to accept it? Actually, first disregard the illegality and the morality of the situation, then ask yourself that question. Now, if you know me, the next question to ask yourself is, 'What did I say? And how the heck would a vendor expense this?'"
Test-driving luxury cars in Napa
Joseph Dumont, a partner at Questus, shares this story:
"Here's my only and favorite courting attempt by a vendor. The effort of this brand to garner time with our team was simply brilliant. The rep in this case knows that I am a car guy. Meaning, I own a stupid, fast car. And I long for additional stupid, fast cars in my future. Sad, but true.
"So this astute rep set up 'Car Day For Questus' in the Napa Valley. Car Day consisted of a driving tour through the Napa Valley in five exquisite automobiles that included an Audi R8, a Ferrari 430, a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Corvette ZR1, and an Aston Martin DB9. Needless to say, our team had the time of their lives. Not only did they drive the finest engineered automobiles in the world, they were treated to a catered lunch at a beautiful vineyard in the valley.
"Our entire team was literally buzzing with endorphins by the end of the day. The only bummer? I got called away on another client need out of town and missed the whole experience. And I actually almost wept. Moral to the story? Know your customer."
Alicia Houselog, senior media planner, space150, shares this story:
"We've seen it all at space150, but a highlight in 'odd things reps do to acquire business' came from someone repping a large blogger network. One day we received 10 large assortment packages from a prominent condom company. Turned out the rep had also worked with them and had inventory left over and decided it would be a good idea to send that product to his prospects. Outright bizarre, but made for a good laugh and story."
David Murdico, executive creative director and managing partner at Supercool Creative, says:
"At the end of last year, a company called Parse3 sent us a box with a bonsai in it. We put it on a desk and waited, but it just sits there. We give it coffee, and the interns take it for walks. We're thinking of trying electroshock."
A single oar
Theo Fanning, executive creative director at Traction, says:
"I'm a creative director, not a media director, so nobody really bribes me. Printers used to try to wine and dine me, but nobody spends any money on printing anymore. Still, many vendors think that it is a good idea to inundate me with useless crap based on bad puns -- because, as we all know, the pun is the basis of all great creative."
Among these pieces of bad-pun crap, Fanning has recently received:
- A giant fake diamond: "I am a diamond in the rough."
- Shot glasses: "Give us a shot."
- Socks: "Here is a new pair, 'cause I will knock your socks off."
- Cookies: "We are a sweet surprise!"
- An actual canoe paddle: "With us, you won't be up a creek without one."
"The last one is my personal favorite," Fanning says.
The beloved Shake Weight
Jonathan Hills, founder and president of DOMANI, says:
"We've received some odd ones over the years -- a Shake Weight. It came wrapped like a gift with the vendor's logo printed on the thing."
A weeklong beach house vacation
Jason Sutterfield, chief operating officer at Campfire, says:
"I had such a terrible and rocky relationship in the past with a rich media provider that it paid for me and my family to take a trip to the Outer Banks to stay at a house right on the beach for an entire week. All of this was done 'under the table.'"
Chloe Della Costa is an editor at iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"Smoking gangster holding brown envelope," "Hand-drawn vector illustration of a red devil," "money," "flying helicopter," "portrait of young attractive woman in night club," "front view of a young man driving his convertible car," "background of colorful condoms," "single bonsai tree," "oar and waterdrops," and "the cape lookout lighthouse" images via Shutterstock.