Agency execs now less trusted than lawyers

Almost 40% of Canadians say trust in agencies has decreased due to scandal

Canadians now trust advertising agency executives less than lawyers, accountants and bankers, according to the most recent Strategy/Decima poll. In fact, almost 40% of Canadians say their trust in ad agencies has decreased somewhat or a lot in light of the recent federal sponsorship scandal – a phenomenon most pronounced in Quebec, where 51.4% of the population says trust has decreased somewhat or a lot.

The telephone omnibus polled Canadians on two queries. The first was a multiple-choice question asking which among the four professionals they trusted the least. Just over thirty-nine per cent chose advertising agency execs, followed by lawyers at 36.6%, bankers at 9.5%, and accountants at 4.8%.

In the second question, respondents were asked whether, in light of the recent federal government sponsorship scandal, their trust in advertising agencies had increased, decreased or stayed the same. (For a breakdown of the results, see charts, right.)

Mark Weisbarth, president of Due North Communications of Toronto, isn’t surprised that all ad agencies have been sullied by the controversy. What is unfortunate, says Weisbarth, is that the actions of a few people have affected the reputations of so many honest business people.

‘I don’t blame people for having less faith in advertising agencies. I think they should really have considerably less faith in the government, but we’re all really tarnished by this – and it really sucks.’

However, some industry pundits don’t think much has changed. Alan Kay, president of Toronto management consultancy The Glasgow Group, says that, for many Canadians, the scandal simply reinforces long-held suspicions about the intentions of advertising and consequently the ad agencies themselves.

However, ad shops shouldn’t be too concerned about what the public thinks of them; it’s much more important to make sure clients don’t share the same views, he says.

‘There’s a movement toward better governance and transparency in business relationships. [The scandal] is a reminder that this requirement is also important in the client-agency world, because advertising is a difficult, sometimes messy process and sometimes people [take] shortcuts to get things done,’ says Kay.

‘As a result, it can create opportunities for situations to happen such as the one in Quebec.’

Mike Macchiusi, senior consultant at Toronto-based Decima Research, adds that he expected ad execs and lawyers to be high on the distrust scale and found the results of the second question most interesting, particularly in Quebec where the highest percentage of respondents said agency trust had decreased.

Jack Bensimon, president of Bensimon*Byrne of Toronto, explains that the trust of agencies in Quebec had farther to drop because as a society they had much higher regard for the ad business than English Canadians to begin with.

He says the advertising profession in Quebec is held in fairly high regard, much the way it is in the U.K. He adds: ‘The English Canada model is more aligned to the way advertising executives are viewed in the U.S., where they are seen as sales people rather than in the creative context that the U.K. regards them.’

Now the question on the minds of many agency execs is just how long the fallout will last.

Rick Wolfe, president of PostStone Group, a Toronto-based business research and strategic planning company, would like to see the results of a similar survey taken one month from now and then in one year to better assess whether this is a permanent loss of confidence.

But he also points out that while the reputation of industries subjected to similar media scrutiny generally only suffer in the short-term, unfortunately for Canadian advertising, the involvement of the government could prolong the scandal as opposition leaders continue to add fuel to the fire.

Wolfe says the current climate will probably encourage the discipline to re-emphasize its credibility and value, and advertisers may have to change the way they address consumers.

‘[Advertisers] have to listen very carefully to consumers, make sure they are creating advertising that is meaningful and relevant and must also appeal to consumers and be respectful of their intelligence and capabilities,’ he says.

For his part, Bruce Philp, president of Toronto-based GWP Brand Engineering, isn’t sure that agencies will ever overcome the distrust issue because advertising is persuasion, an inherently manipulative process, so consumers are right to be on guard.

But Philp also believes how the public feels about ad agencies is quite separate from the way they view advertising.

‘We have a compact with society that says no matter how cynical we may be from one ad to the next, [consumers'] willingness to be persuaded by advertising is the fulcrum on which the entire system turns,’ he says. ‘The day we stop being willing to pay more for this beer than that, we’ve got bigger problems than the credibility of the ad executives.’

Decima conducted this poll on behalf of Strategy via its monthly telephone omnibus, for which data was collected from 2,000 consumers between March 11 and March 21. Each month a random sample is generated and quotas for each region are disproportionately allocated. The data is weighted in tabulation to replicate actual population distribution by age and sex within regions, according to census data. For more information, contact Decima Research at (416) 962-2013.

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