Transparency. We see this word everywhere. And we’re a big fan of it ourselves. But what is it, exactly? Of course, it's more than a buzzword thrown around to make agencies feel good about themselves. The Oxford Dictionary defines being transparent as “allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen” or “open to public scrutiny.” But what do we genuinely mean when we say transparency?
It’s about giving access to otherwise hidden information - processes, fees, whatever it may be. It’s a behavior: actions guided by access to straightforward and candid information. Transparency is a decision that an agency makes to prioritize a relationship with a brand over a paycheck.
So, why is this so hard to do in our industry? There’s a lack of sophisticated media buyers in the ad ecosystem that can lead to vendors getting away with pretty much anything, according to Machine Zone’s Gabe Leydon. At NOM, we see it all the time. Historically, the standard for transparency is so low, that even now, just calling oneself transparent and slapping it on your website seems to suffice for most companies.
We think that attitude is dangerous, and here’s why. Transparency debt is real. Accountability is real. In programming, technical debt is a word used to describe sloppy coding - something you’ll have to go back later and fix, and ultimately something that jeopardizes the stability of the whole project. We can apply that same thinking here. Transparency debt is where the industry is now, where agencies have been operating for a long time. It’s like driving on “E,” sooner or later your car will run out of gas, whether it’s in one mile, five, or fifteen. And sooner or later advertisers will start demanding more accountability, which is what we call “the reckoning.” And guess what? It’s already happening.
To be fair, we don’t think companies become opaque on purpose. In the past, short of losing a client, there was just no incentive to be transparent or to find a reliable, open vendor. Agencies are stakeholders, so they’re making money on a client’s maximum spend, regardless of how the ad performs. Once they’ve called in a third party vendor to manage buys, they set the account on autopilot and move on to the next client.
Vendors can be the least transparent of the whole chain. How a vendor handles media can make or break a campaign. If mismanaged, vendors are even capable of committing the greatest of ad sins — jeopardizing consumer trust with a brand.
NOM is a vendor, so we get it. We’re in the business of making money, just like all businesses. We have to keep our doors open, and we have mouths to feed. But. We also care about this subject very profoundly because we believe we’re able to have both. Transparency is the backbone of our bottom line. It’s what drives us and our policies, and our culture of honesty and openness reverberates through every aspect of our business. Our clients appreciate it, too.
Advertisers need to demand more transparency from agencies and vendors. But ultimately, even with pressure from advertisers, agencies and vendors need to want to be transparent for change to happen. And for all parties involved, we strongly advise you to step up and do the right thing, or you’ll find yourself in transparency debt before you know it.