Hey Marketing! The Department of Justice just LIKED us.

by Michael Kern

In case you missed it, the Department of Justice is eyeing up the Advertising Agency world. For reference, check out:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/justice-department-investigates-rigging-of-contracts-in-advertising-industry-1481046420

As the owner of a small agency in a small market doing work for large Fortune 500’s, the irony of the Department of Justice report on Advertising Agency price fixing is not lost on me in the least. Our team has experienced this abuse countless times, and oh yeah, we don’t make 30 second spots. Pssst, it’s happening in digital, probably more so.

Have we ever been asked to provide a “check bid?” Yes.

Have we ever been involved in a bid where there were more than three vendors? Yes.

Have we ever known that a producer was “collaborating” with a cost consultant? Yes.

Have we heard of people bribing producers at agencies with amazing Christmas gifts? Yes.

Did you know that the agencies internal production department was also bidding and secretly giving you the wrong numbers to put on your bid so they would win and the job would all of the sudden be killed? Are you making this elaborate shit up.

Is there ever anything we could have done about it? Nothing outside of passing on the job.

Historically, we were always told that this was just the way it was. The way the world worked, we were given no real choice when we started our agency. We loved the work, needed to put food on the table, and survived on the craft. Many of our peers were most likely ignorant of these facts, but not us and that makes us just a touch guilty, in a Stockholm syndrome kind of way. We were “bullied”, but we persevered and tried to find the good people to partner with. We would not be where we are today without the agencies that treated us right, and the direct clients that were willing to take a risk on a small company in Utah.

David and Goliath, not really, more like Hincapie and Armstrong. It’s no secret to those that know me that I love cycling, and I see a ton of similarities between the doping scandals of the 90’s and this price fixing. It’s tough to actually fight something that is so system wide. It’s akin to trying to race Lance Armstrong doping…. in the end it’s much easier to be on his team.


“It’s just the way it was, the drugs were fueling the whole sport of advertising, because the model is deeply and fundamentally flawed.”


We are also lying to ourselves if we think this same thing is not happening in our City Council working with real estate developers, in our government when they buy fighter planes, and at the local coffee shop. However, I am extremely optimistic that shining a light on any corruption is a good thing, and I truly believe that not every agency or department was guilty of this.

Credit: Welikesmall filming for the love of it at Colorado Offroad Extreme

When the dust settles from the Department of Justice investigation on Advertising Agency price fixing the real question is will anyone have noticed. Because, if I am a Director of Marketing for a large corporation, do I really have time to source new relationships, to organize all of my social media posts, to build my own internal team(that might just do the same thing)? We live in a business climate where speed and convenience reign, and craft is a dying art.

Our team is taking this opportunity to critically think about this word transparency today. We are considering building potential products that could give Marketing departments improved visibility minus the buzz words. We are trying hard to craft and create useful advertising. We are totally leaning in.

So this is our rallying cry to others to change. Tear down the systems, get educated, and love what you do. We still believe that advertising doesn’t have to be a dirty word, that’s always looking for an angle. It can cradle art, change perceptions, build relationships for good, it can be authentic.


This article is a part of our WLS. Talk series. Keep an eye out over the upcoming weeks as we rollout more content for your sweet, sweet eyeballs.


Michael Kern is an ECD & Partner at Welikesmall. I enjoy rad bikes, cameras, and making thingy things.
Welikesmall is a digital agency & maker of things. We believe in helping brands create through strategy, story-telling, digital products, and integrated experiences on web, mobile, and in the world. And you’re here, friends, because you also believe.
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