Purpose, Commitment, & Transparency: Steve Parker Jr., Levelwing


Charleston, United States
See Profile

Did Cannes meet your expectations this year? Was there anything you found disappointing?

Our Cannes experience this year was extremely fruitful. I’ve heard mixed reviews from many, but we came in with an intentional plan and pre-set meetings; therefore making it a useful, engaged time with clients, media partners and press. It also allowed us the opportunity to take part in many conversations on a wide variety of topics including diversity, data targeting, agency leadership and more, including participating on a panel at the Goals House on the topic of Defining a Culture of Digital Change along with SAP and WarnerMedia.  

My only disappointment was that the coverage of Ethics and Transparency was not covered more thoroughly. Every session or event I was able to attend that remotely touched on this topic breezed past the reality of the issue. For transparency, the topics briefly introduced the lack of data transparency and non-viewable impressions, but never touched on the topic of agency and client fees and media dollars. Given the focus on this in the press of late, I would have enjoyed a deeper discussion on this issue overall. 


What was your greatest take-away from this year’s festival?

In 2019, technology still can’t out perform in-person time and discussions. Nothing beats  this focused time without disruption. Aside from that, there was a huge focus this year on “purpose” and “diversity.” I think those are great as long as there is intentional reasoning and action behind the talk that carries with it subantance and impact long after the industry leaves France.  


There has been a lot of conversations around ‘Brands with purpose’ topic at this year’s festival. How do you think the agencies can take this beyond talk and make an actual difference in the world?

I believe agencies can only make a true difference with brands, if brands are truly committed to their own purpose and put budget behind it. Many of us in the industry see brands “posing for purpose” if and when it suits them based on the “hot cause” of the moment. I see this every year with things like Breast Cancer Awareness and Pride month. Lot’s of color, but also a lot of brands approaching these causes with lack of intention, and little depth to the work that they do for them. For agencies to be true stewards of the brands and causes they represent, they need to discuss this with their clients on a regular basis. For a brand to have purpose, it needs to have focus. No brand - no individual - no agency, can support everything. Make a choice, show commitment and do it well.  

We heard quotes like “The new heroes of the industry are not the creative anymore but the CMO’s”, what do you think of this?

That’s the age-old story right? Who’s the hero? Look, I’d much prefer to be the sage that leads the hero to a win in battle. Frankly, I never thought  the creatives were the heroes. In fact, often the marketing analyst or the analytics manager is the one who made the campaign successful. 


What inspired your mini documentary, ‘Uncommon Transparency’?

The inspiration came from the fact that in order to solve issues, we need to have deep conversations and a commitment to transparency. I had personally grown tired of our industry’s vagueness, specifically relating to a controllable issue - transparency of agency fees. So, we decided to show Levelwing’s commitment to it. This is only the first of many efforts we have planned focused on this topic. 


Transparency continues to be a hot topic in the advertising industry, mostly regarding media agencies. Is it as much of an issue on the creative agency side?

This is a pervasive issue and it is not simply relegated to media. In fact, this also occurs within creative, analytics and ad-tech. The bottom line here is, if as a steward of client trust and dollars you are allowing any portion of that to be used in an unspecified manner (i.e. markup, rebate, or other format of monetary value), then you are operating in a non-transparent manner. This occurs within media in the form of rebates or incentives for spending, it occurs in creative with mark-up on third party production teams hired to do some of the work, as well as studio and equipment rentals, and it also occurs in the form of rebates or bonuses in analytics and ad-serving services. 


How do you think the industry has reached a point where transparency has become so uncommon?

I think it has become uncommon for many reasons. A few examples:

1. For many it’s the way they have always done business. So for these folks it’s, like, what’s the big deal? 

2. The incentive in the agency world to create these additional revenue line items is strong and very profitable. 

3. The lack of clients asking the proper questions, the lack of proper audits, the lack of controls to facilitate clean working environments free of these schemes. 

4. The misalignment by agency and client on workload and time (lack of setting proper expectations) creates a means by which this is made acceptable. 

This list goes on and on...


You chose an interesting mix of people for your mini documentary on transparency, what was the thought process behind selecting a wine expert and one of the world's most well-known conmen?

Everyone in our industry has their opinions, so we wanted to get some objective voices to speak out on the topic. Second, we wanted to align the story with others, outside of our industry, that have experienced this in their chosen professions to expand our own perspectives on what other businesses are experiencing.


With wine expert Anthony Giglio, he shared the example of how in the United States a wine-maker may call the wine “Chardonnay” on the front bottle label, yet the bottle itself may only hold 75% Chardonnay, the remainder being another variety of the wine maker’s choice. The back label, which should be held as a “place of truth,” is not transparent in what else is included. This example of a lack of transparency in the wine world served two purposes. A) To ask, why is this acceptable? Why is something allowed to be called something it is, in fact, not. And B) To align this story with what happens in advertising media, where clients believe they are getting 100% of their working media dollars spent. In fact, a substantial portion of the media is being cast to rebates, mark-ups and essentially technology tax. 


The other individual featured in our documentary, Frank Abagnale, is well known for both his book and the movie created about his early life, Catch Me If You Can. He has spent the last 40 years helping to catch criminals and prohibit fraud. He works for the FBI and some of the largest global banks and corporations. Frank believes that failing to be transparent in the advertising industry is fraud. 100% fraud. He states in our film that he has no other way from which to view this, because those creating these schemes in order to keep money, mark it up, etc, are simply choosing to not be honest about where the money is being spent. The purpose of including Frank was to leverage his expertise on both sides of the equation. Someone who has committed these types of schemes, and can therefore see through the excuses made by those committing them, and also someone who has since dedicated his life to preventing fraud from happening to others. 


To watch Levelwing’s documentary, Uncommon Transparency in full, visit: https://levelwing.com/uncommon