Beyond the Black Box: Reimagining Trust & Transparency in the Ad Industry


By: John Wallace        February 16th, 2024        6 minute reading

“The goal is not to do business with people who need what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” – Simon Sinek

A few weeks ago, two things happened within the span of 24 hours, seemingly coincidentally, that sparked a moment of clarity. I had stayed up late to finish Walter Isaacson’s renowned (and thoroughly compelling) biography of Steve Jobs, and later that same morning, I received a four-word text message with a link from an old friend and colleague: “An oldie, but goodie!” it read. When I was able to slip away for a few minutes for lunch, I pulled up my friend’s message and clicked to find the video of Simon Sinek’s 2009 TEDx Talk on the “Golden Circle” and the importance of “Why.” I watched it and listened.

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

I was already reflecting (more like fixating) on the singularity of Jobs’s laser focus on the union of art and technology and his unyielding pursuit of simplicity and beauty, when I opened up Sinek’s talk. As I revisited that grainy footage and the power of its message, everything seemed to crystallize, and I realized that we needed to unpack, understand, and better articulate what it is that drives Octerra and everyone here.

I challenged our team to look within; myself, specifically, to explore the ethos of our company - not to formulate some grand vision or mission statement, but to boil everything we do, why we do it, why it matters and why we care so much, down to its purest form - something that articulates our vision, our mission, our why, and our passion all at once.

Remarkably, thankfully, it became clear quite quickly: TRUST.

It's a matter of trust

No doubt, “trust” has become a cliché in the business world these days – a buzzword thrown around so often, so fast that it’s easy to discount its meaning. Nonetheless, for all businesses and relationships between companies and individuals, there is no escaping that it is an important component. For the marketing and advertising industry, in particular, trust is essential, and yet, it is the industry where trust has possibly taken the biggest hit.

“You may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?” – David Byrne

Let’s rewind 10 years...

Marketing Week’s headline from 2014’s Cannes Lions Festival was: “Client/agency trust issues still threaten marketing’s success.”

In 2016, within months of each other, the ANA released its bombshell report on media transparency that uncovered a myriad of non-transparent business practices, and the Department of Justice launched an investigation into production bidding practices for commercial advertising jobs. A one-two punch that dealt a massive blow to a relationship dynamic that was already balancing on a razor’s edge.

In 2017, spurred by the DOJ investigation, the ANA released its own report on “Production Transparency in the U.S. Advertising Industry.” with the key finding of the report being transparency concerns across multiple agencies and holding companies.

The industry was flooded with articles about the decline of trust in the agency-client relationship. Transparency and trust were hot button issues. The trust gap widened and deepened. According to a study conducted in 2018, trust in partnerships with their agency declined by almost 40% between the years of 2016 to 2018. It was a true crisis in confidence.

All of a sudden, transparency was the buzzword that everyone was talking about: how agencies can be more transparent and how agencies can use transparency to win more clients.

So, where are we now?

It’s been 10 years since the article from the 2014 Cannes Lions Festival, six years since the ANA's Media Transparency report and five years since their Production Transparency report. Has anything changed?

The short answer is: not really.

Anecdotally, you could make the argument that client and agency trust is on the mend. There haven’t been any major industry reports or investigations that have brought the issue to the fore. And in general, there is less noise in the marketplace. But, to declare victory over the conflict, would be a mistake. Today’s relative peace and quiet betrays a palpable unease between clients and their agencies.

Courtesy of ProcureCon Marketing Connect

At a recent industry event where senior marketing procurement professionals were asked to rank priorities by highest to lowest perceived value with respect to their agency relationships, attendees selected “Increased Transparency/Trust” as the second highest out of 5 options – above “Best Talent on Account,” “Agency Buy-in to Brand’s Strategic Goals,” and “Progressive and Fair Compensation Models” (only “Higher Quality Output” ranked higher).

In that same survey the group was asked, “How do you think your agencies are doing as stewards of your pass-through marketing production spending?” Thirty-five percent (35%) indicated “a bad job” or that they “didn’t have enough information to say.” Zero percent (0%) said they thought their agencies did “a good job.” Zero.

Solving the unsolvable

The reality is that trust is the most critical element to a healthy advertising ecosystem. Creativity stands at the core of this delicate ecosystem, simultaneously as its driving force and its most sought-after end product, but trust forms the foundation upon which everything is built – trust between clients and their agencies, agencies and their clients, vendors and both parties, and even internally between finance, procurement, and marketing departments. Trust is more important than ever. And clearly, there is an opportunity here to improve. The critical question is how?

“Trust but verify.” – Ronald Reagan quoting a Russian proverb

That’s where we felt there was an opportunity for innovation to play a major role. Advancements in camera technology, AR, VR, and design software have revolutionized the way ads are produced. Similarly, the rise of programmatic advertising and new digital, social and connected TV media platforms have reshaped the delivery landscape. Yet, the process of sourcing creative and production services has remained almost completely untouched – highly manual, disorganized, and slow – with critical information completely fragmented and inaccessible. It’s a black box consisting of various texts, emails and spreadsheets. And black boxes by their very nature undermine trust in the process. We believed that technology could be used to provide a platform like Octerra where all stakeholders could collaborate quickly and easily allowing critical data to be captured in a central repository. Such a platform would naturally provide a level of transparency that would engender trust simply by its use.

Don’t misunderstand, we’re not trying to claim that software is a silver bullet that will instantly establish an unbreakable bond of trust between the diverse stakeholders it serves. We understand that trust is ultimately achieved through people’s individual relationships with each other. What Octerra and other similar platforms offer though is a seamless backdrop upon which trust is established organically without the need for disruptive, time-consuming audits and intrusions. Stakeholders can quickly and confidently collaborate to source, bid, evaluate, select, and procure the best resources for their campaigns on a common, shared platform, ensuring accountability and transparency. Octerra creates an environment where trust can flourish, underpinning the critical interactions and relationships necessary for successful business engagements and laying a foundation for lasting industry transformation.

"Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships." – Stephen Covey


By John Wallace


Production and technology provide the foundation for John's current role at Octerra. With 12+ years of experience as Head of Production at StudioNow and AOL, he has created video content alongside some of the world's top brands & agencies.

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