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.   


5 replies
  1. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    Wow, do I have a reaction to this! I’m in the design game, and I totally sympathise with Ignited on this. In almost no other sector do clients get to see all the work done first, and then say that they’ll pay for it. Would it be fair for me to go to 100 restaurants and ask them to each cook a meal, and I’ll pay for one of them? Or ask 100 trademen to lay my driveway/paint my house/cut my lawn… then pay the "best" one?  I think not.

    The creative sector is massively abused by clients who think they can get most of their strategic thinking work done for free by agencies made to scramble for their dollar. Its a scene which is hugely exploitive, for agency owners, and their staff, who often need to put in unpaid evenings and weekends on these pitches.

    Ignited have every reason to feel that they were not given a decent shake by Zappo’s if their work was not even properly looked at. The deal is this:  You ask me to pitch my services, at NO cost or liaibility to you… you at least PROPERLY review my offering and at the very least, offer a fair reason why you’ve declined me.

    100 rfp’s out is nuts.  The worst that I’ve heard.  But often we get invited to pitch, and we don’t know how many others there are, who they and if we’re just making up the numbers to satisfy some injunction to ‘survey the market’.  In no other sector is this fair or reasonable.

    It should be a long time before Ignited does work for Zappo’s.  It should be a long time before anyone good does any work for Zappo’s.  They’re bastards if this is how they work, and they don’t deserve good suppliers.

    And Charles… mate if you think we’re selling air, then with all due respect, yours is hot air.  We’re selling our time, our expertise, our services, and years of experience and mostly, we’re selling the business outcomes the client is aiming for.  That ain’t air.  And the team of professionals I maintain … they don’t live on air either. Just like Ignited.

  2. David Maister
    David Maister says:

    This post and Michael Holt’s comment stimulate a number of thoughts:

    Mr. Holt is correct that historical convention in marketing communications services (and architectural, by the way) has developed some brutally costly traditions in requiring providers to invest and give away for free more than just a little even to be considered. The only way out of this I have seen is to already have developed such a reputation (for excellence, client service, industry knowledge, etc.)that buyers excuse you from their normal buying process. I know that’s no help to new entrants, but many new agencies have become the "hot hand" doing it this way. If you have to go into ANY proposal process (in any profession) as just one among many possible candidates, the opportunity to distinguish yourself is minimal. (Not impossible, just really, really difficult.) So, providers need to be incredibly selective on what they bid on. As a rule, bid on fewer, more highly selected opportunties. This may seem obvious, but many providers are so "desparate" they bid on way too many things in their pursuit of a winner. With this reasoning, Zappo may not have passed the test for an opportunity worth pursuing. (Cl;ients may not "owe" us anything, but there are such things as "bad" clients one should avoid.)

    Also, Charlie, you did let your guard down for the "hot air" comeback. We consultants ought to be careful about charcaterizing what other professionals provide – we’re too open to critique ourselves.


  3. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    I’m certainly with Michael Holt on this one, but I think there’s another take on this story: "Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD."  In this case, just because Zappo’s could send out 100 RFPs online doesn’t mean they should have sent out 100 RFPs.  The ease of electronic sending made it facile for them to (1) blanket the world with the RFP, (2) avoid doing their homework to think through what they wanted and who could best provide it, and finally (3) forget that there would be real people at the other end, probably several hundred, putting together responses.

    Our electronic marketplace is marvelous for lots of things — blogging and selling shoes, for example — but that doesn’t mean its indiscriminate use is right for everything.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Fascinating.  And thanks to all who responded.

    First, I have decided I have to change my use of the word "air" to desribe intangibles.  I use it all the time to describe what I do–you can’t touch, taste or smell it, it’s intangible.

    Unfortunately, it also has the meaning that both Michael and David ascribe to it–a derogatory term denoting lack of substance.  My fault, Michael, sorry for that imputation.

    I urge all readers here to click on the link to the Advertising Age original blog (first line, first sentence in my blogpost).  There you will find (as of Saturday 11:30AM EST) 85 comments, many of them very articulate. 

    Of the 80% or so of comments that clearly take sides, the preponderance runs about 4:1 in favor of Zappo’s. 

    Pro Zappo’s, there are comments like, "It took Ignited 25 pages to prove their unremarkability, and Zappo’s only 5 pages to figure it out," or "Imagine GM whining about someone who bought a BMW after only one test drive of the GM car," or "once again we get to see the ego of the agency on display, trying to justify their value not through creating something truly great, but instead simply expecting everyone to believe you are special simply because you say you are.

    Pro Ignited, there are comments like, "This is like a cattle call, the sign of someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for and is willing to waste everyone’s time," or "Clearly, they do not have a firm vision of what they are looking for from an agency. Sounds like they could benefit from a consultant to help steer the process."

    There are also a considerable number of comments taking a more meta- point of view, taking a synthesized or overview perspective, somewhat in the vein David Maister does above.

    I read them all, and found it a very lively and articulate dialogue; I recommend it to all readers.

    My own POV?  I’m persuaded that this industry, like a few others, has spiralled down into the efficiency-impersonality-purchasing-agent-reverse-auction mentality.  Both sides bear some culpability. 

    But looking at the blog comments criticizing Wolfsohn’s public whining about a client who didn’t love him back, I’m yet more persuaded that the burden must weigh more heavily on the agency than on the customer.  An agency is supposed to be good at creating impressions for their clients; if Ignited couldn’t manage to do that for itself in a venue in which it chose to participate (the RFP), it is just not good business to complain about the result.


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