Thursday, June 17

Renting White Guys: The Art Of Deception


“Bring a computer," said Ken, a young Canadian of Taiwanese extraction, told Mitch Moxley. "You can watch movies all day.”

At least, that is how Ken described the quality control expert job to Moxley. In reality, the job was to serve as a "stand in" executive to create the illusion of a bigger international American company. The only skill set required was to look good in a suit and shake a few hands.

As good as the "Rent a White Guy" story is, the comments are amusing too. Some attribute it to the predisposed notion that all Chinese businesses are shady. Others, bemused, ask where they can apply. Most never consider that the phenomenon isn't exclusive to China.

"We didn't get the account," one agency principal recently told me. "We won the pitch, but a small majority of the decision makers wanted a bigger agency."

Never mind that the agency awarded the account had inflated the numbers, counting entire vendor companies as part of its staff. And never mind that once the agency was awarded what it considered a very small account, it fully intended to assign it to a team consisting of one junior executive and possibly an intern to do the bulk of the work. All that seemed to matter to a simple majority of decision makers was that the company they chose had a staff of 80 people.

It happens all the time in this market and others too. It's not uncommon for agencies and public relations firms vying to look bigger than everyone else on a ranking list to start counting second cousins as part of the team. Others submit their firms to both ad agency and public relations firm lists, even when the they might only staff two people on the public relations side of their full-service agency. They still come up on top.

Go ahead. Count the cleaning staff. They work for the firm too. Numbers are important. Location is too.

When we subleased offices on the 14th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Las Vegas (which was extremely prestigious at the time), I was always surprised by the number of companies that "rented" the address but not the space. Most would show up just now and again. And the front desk would put on a good show, as if these hourly tenants came in daily.

After awhile, however, nothing much surprised me. I've met with financial advisors who named their company after the building they subleased to create the illusion they owned it. I know several "board members" that do nothing more than lend their picture for the lobby wall. And several years ago, I used to have six different sets of business cards for a few clients who were uncomfortable with introducing me as a subconsultant. (I wasn't rented in name only, mind you. I did the work.)

Our rules were always simple enough. Agency clients could call me and my team members who directly worked on an account anything they wanted. They could even add us to proposals, assuming it was an account we'd work on. They could print business cards. And, in one case, a publication I worked for set up an in-house voice mail.

There were limits, however. They couldn't count us as staff. We certainly wouldn't lie. And if a client ever asked, we'd make it clear what our relationship was with the firm. We worked with them, but not for them.

There are several others who don't have limits. We know a few of them. There are even some politicians who play the game. They may as well place "in name only" on their business cards. The extent of their relationships with some companies is merely meant to lend an illusion of credibility and connections to a firm, bank, or hospital. In exchange, they receive a retainer. (Please keep in mind, we also know many who are very active in the businesses they work for.)

Of course, all of this works the other way too. I've pitched entire organizational boards despite the decision resting solely on the discretion of the executive director. I've been introduced to "business advisors" who only appear at the first meeting. And I have learned, on more than one occasion, that some "managing partners" are only partners with themselves.

None of it really matters, but some people like to pretend.

Since mid 1990s, I became too visible for agencies to introduce me as anything but a consultant or an extension of their teams. (Google will do that.) So it doesn't come up anymore. It hasn't for a long time. I only have one business card (but am sometimes asked not to hand it out).

Instead, I have found a different role for the friends we work with. When they lose an account because of another firm's fictitious numbers, I casually remind them that the account wasn't worth winning. The potential client obviously has deficient decision making skills.

I learned this years ago too. It stuck with me after spending a few hours with a sitting judge who was considering a run for a more perceptually prestigious elected position. I learned it when he walked me out to my car.

At first, I thought he walked me out because we had really hit it off. He told me that wasn't the case. He walked me out because the entire basis of which firm he would hire was based on transportation.

"If you drove a Porsche, I'd know you overcharge," he explained, looking over the red Volkswagen that I drove at the time. "And if you drove a Yugo, you must not be very good. This is a nice, well-kept practical car. I like it."

"Oh," I said. "I could have saved you the trouble of walking out. I decline consideration."

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