Seller’s Remorse in the Marketing Business

Courtesy of Advertising Age,  a peek into a catfight; a domestic squabble; a business story right out of a Hollywood fanzine.  Famous buyer vs. aggrieved seller.

The Famous One here is Zappo’s, beloved by the online set and poster child du jour for customer service.  The aggrieved party (picture them throwing a pair of stiletto high heels at Zappo’s head) is marketing agency Ignited.

With what crime does Ignited accuse Zappo’s?  Disrespect, it would seem. The disrespect of a seller by a buyer. 

The horror.

When Buyers Disrespect Sellers

Seems that Zappo’s sent out an online RFP to some 100 or so of their closest-friend ad agencies, asking for first-round pitches.

Of course, Ignited didn’t make the first cut. Ah, but they had a trick up their sleeve.  Using Google Analytics allowed them to see how much time the reviewer—Zappo’s—had actually spent reviewing Ignited’s proposal.

Zappo’s had reviewed only 20% of the pages, about 15 seconds per page, before relegating Ignited’s work to the digital circular file.  Whereupon Ignited went public with its “gotcha,” announcing the horrible 15-second truth to the world.

Unfair! said Ignited. They didn’t even look at our brilliant methodology, insights, testimonials.  How dare they! And then–as if it were the clincher in an argument–Ignited’s Wolfsohn says, “they never clicked on the page that outlined our approach to measurement. Which may explain why they didn’t know we’d be monitoring how much time they spent looking at our proposal."  Gracious me.

What’s wrong here?  Where to begin…

The Customer Owes You Nothing

If you click on someone’s personal ad in an online dating service–what do they owe you in return?  Bupkus.  Zip.  Nada.  The same is true of a seller whose sole connection to the buyer is an online response to a 100-company RFP.

(Why Zappo’s would run a 100-company RFP is another question.  Maybe to screen out those who respond to mass RFPs?  Or those who can’t manage to get ‘round them?  Hey, maybe Zappo’s is clueless (though I wouldn’t put big money on that hypothesis)).

But that’s irrelevant to Ignited.  Or should have been. 

I know what I’d do with 100 first-round sections on qualifications, methodologies, and testimonials.  I’d ignore them completely until I’d seen if they had anything interesting, original, provocative, value-adding to say about me–the customer/client. 

If they do have something to say about me, then I’d go back and check the testimonials to see if I knew anyone.  I might or might not look at the qualifications or methodologies at all.

And if there was nothing in it about me in this first-pass attempt to impress me, the customer?  Then it’d take me, oh, I don’t know, maybe 15 seconds to conclude this act was not going on to Hollywood. Simon may get there faster than Paula, but they both end up at the same conclusion.  And purchasing people can make Simon look indecisive.

And from all that I have seen, my response is the rule, not the exception, on this one. 

Buyers Buy from Trust

One of the biggest fallacies sellers make is that buyers buy based on their own stated rational criteria.  The truth is, a dose of trust overwhelms rational data like methodologies—(which are, frankly, more similar than sellers like to think).

What sells best is a sense that the seller cares about the buyer—cares enough to actually distinguish this buyer from another, to take a risk and make a client-specific suggestion, to focus on the client rather than on oneself–to say something that is of value and that makes the buyer feel heard, seen, recognized, understood.  A sample of your wares, please, customized to me.

Earth to Ignited, a little multiple choice: every client’s favorite subject is:

a.    Ignited
b.    themselves

Think carefully now…

You can recognize sellers who don’t get this.  They confuse sample selling with theft of intellectual property.  Says Ignited’s Wolfsohn: “When I go to my mechanic, he won’t do work on spec. We’re a very rare industry that is willing to give stuff away for free, and it escalates to a point where it’s self-defeating to the industry that we’re all in." 

Maybe that’s true–if you’re a mechanic. (Though I’d love to hear from insulted mechanics who disagree with Wolfsohn).  It’s not true, however, in services businesses like marketing. You’re selling air, for heaven’s sake; give a little away to let them feel you.

Zappo’s response, incidentally—to publicly engage in a dialogue about the event—strikes me as incredibly gracious. 

Yet I suspect it’ll be a long time before Ignited does marketing work for Zappo’s.