And Nothing but the Truth: Why it’s Best to Disclose your Dark Side to your Agency

PushON | May 27th 2016

There are two people you should never lie to: your doctor and your lawyer. Both need to have a complete picture of your back story before they can recommend a course of action. What they don’t need is nasty surprises pouncing on them when they’re least able to cope with them (let’s say in the operating theatre or in court).

Despite doctors and lawyers being two professionals who are legally bound to keep whatever you say to them confidential, we must admit that we tend to sugar-coat our histories a little, even though those people might be the key to a brighter future. Most of us downplay our alcohol consumption when asked by a doctor, for example, and some taboos might not be raised in certain cultures for fear of ill-judgement by these pillars of the community.

With these future-enhancing professionals having to work their socks off to get a true picture, maybe the hapless marketer doesn’t stand a chance. But there is a strong case for businesses divulging the less flattering aspects of their pasts to the people they are paying to enhance their brand. Here’s why there are three people you shouldn’t lie to.

Due Diligence

Any organisation should take some time to ensure that the people they are doing business with are legit. Due diligence might seem like a pain at the time but it pays for itself if something is unearthed that makes one party doubt the veracity of the other’s stated position. Uncovered dodgy doings might not completely scupper a deal, but they will probably lead to at least a renegotiation of contracts and a healthy air of caginess with the client.

Far better would be for the hiring client to enter into full disclosure mode at a moment of trust in the relationship. Obviously, the company needs to ensure that business-sensitive information is not compromised, as the marketing agency doesn’t have the same legal requirement to maintain confidentiality as the medical and legal professions.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that any reputable marketing agency will not play fast and loose with sensitive information if they intend to stay in business for long. But for an extra layer of assurance, it’s wise for the company to put together a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that the agency and its employees will be bound by.

Once assurances are in place, the company can enter into full disclosure. It’s now that they can be completely upfront about any issues that would be problematic to the relationship and the contract.

Say they only have a patent pending on a product rather than a full patent; or that someone is suing them; or that a board member is a shareholder in a company that’s a direct competitor to the agency; or that the product they are selling has not been fully tested and might turn out to be toxic. These are details that are critical to the success of the relationship. From an operational point of view, they might affect the way in which the brand might be marketed. But perhaps more crucially, if they are unearthed during due diligence rather than by disclosure, it can put strain on the relationship.

When to disclose?

Deciding when to disclose can be a tricky choice.

Spilling all the beans to all agencies who pitch for a tender is dangerous. You’d be putting a lot of information out there that could be very useful to your competitors. With several agencies pitching, it could be difficult to trace where any leaks came from; a bit of gossip over a pint could end up in the wrong hands.

Disclosure after the contracts are signed could potentially void the contracts if they materially affect the assumed status of your company, and you could find yourself having to go through the tendering process all over again. This risk could be mitigated somewhat by informing the marketing agency that there are some sensitive details that cannot be disclosed until the contracts are signed, but if disclosure is waiting for a signature on the dotted line, perhaps a separate pre-contractual NDA would be better.

The only remaining opportunity is after the company has narrowed the options down to a first-choice agency, but before contracts are negotiated. With full (NDA-protected) disclosure of the company’s situation, the marketing agency is able to assess the position with all available intelligence and set its requirements and performance expectations accordingly.

Remember, if the hiring company has potential issues that could have an effect on its PR and marketing, this will affect the way the agency sets up its campaign. Firefighting and reactive marketing take time, and that will eat into the budget and project planning. But if those eventualities are factored into the agency’s offering at contract stage, there are less likely to be nasty surprises – only pleasant ones (if the worst doesn’t happen).

Being Upfront Reduces Upfront Costs

It pays to think of your marketing agency as an in-house department, to let them become absorbed into your culture and your story as much as possible. They do after all have a vested interest in your company’s success – what is good for you is good for them, as it will ensure bonuses, good reputation, awards and renewed contracts in the medium to long term. The more the agency knows about your company, the better the chances of success, but that rule applies to the good stuff as well as the bad.

Nobody’s asking you to disclose your secret chocolate brownie recipe or your hard-earned contact list. A business is built on its intangible assets as much as its bricks and mortar (much more in the case of purely digital businesses), and they are things that you should – and no doubt do – protect with the utmost care.

But when it comes to ensuring that your business partners are fully aware of anything that might be detrimental to the effectiveness and value for money of their efforts, it makes sense to share potentially painful or embarrassing information that has an effect on your corporate health, credibility and profitability.

So if you’re entering into a relationship with a marketing agency, don’t do what you do with your doctor. Tell the whole truth.