8 min read

Vendors, Thought Leaders, & Ethics: Is Pay to Play Honest?

If you are a vendor or a thought leader in a particular vertical you have surely faced a “pay to play” ethical challenge. If you haven’t, you may be lacking some self-awareness. “Pay to play” is the long-accepted rule, but should it be?
Written by
Roy Keely
Published on
February 8, 2023

If you are a vendor or a thought leader in a particular vertical you have surely faced a “pay to play” ethical challenge. If you haven’t, you may be lacking some self-awareness.

“Pay to play” is the long-accepted rule, but should it be? Should it be challenged in an overt way? Hmmm?!

The current thought leader space seems to be dominated by people endorsing software and lines of thinking that likely isn’t altruistic. It likely lines their pocket in some way, shape, or form. Is this wrong? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s hard to find a cut and dry answer.

It’s Personal & How it Shows Up

This became personal to me years ago as we grinded it out year over year building a reputation in the marketplace. We may not have been the perfect provider, but damn it if we didn’t try to make the right decision every time… even if it cost us financially. Years of sweat, tears, and sleepless nights to create a company, run rate, and reputation.

THEN….a thought leader in the space decided to start awarding “THE BEST SO AND SO” in our vertical. We started losing deals to a company that had no right being in the same conversation as us. In time, their customers would come to agree with us.  What made it even funnier/maddening/sickening was that we had 20x the customers, complete vertical focus, and a stellar financial position + security track record that no one could touch. Perfect? NO WAY! Better than the top two on the award list? Abso-fucking-lutely. I am still pissed about it.

I asked said thought leader “Why weren’t we included in this conversation? Reality is, we should be #1!” His response. “You didn’t pay me any consulting fees”.

Should Influencers Get Paid?

To this day I wrestle with the ethics of paying influencers to endorse a product.

Do influencers and thought leaders deserve to get paid in the B2B world? I think so! But, what does it look like that leaves everyone feeling good about it rather than a bit dodgy? That is a challenging question.

This is true in the accounting, legal, healthcare, and every other vertical niche I know of. I’ve spent most of my time focused on the accounting vertical and this problem can be tough to navigate.

Startups face an uphill battle against the incumbents and are willing to do anything to get noticed. But should they?

“Everyone does it,” you may hear. Sadly, this approach is anti-competitive and means that the best product, team, or idea can easily lose to whoever has the most money… usually the incumbent, backed by the public market or a large PE fund.

Skin in the Game

I am a huge fan* of Nassim Taleb, especially his Incerto Series** and the last book of the series “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life”. It creates various heuristics to help you make sure your ethics and intentions are properly aligned. A quote that tees up much of the book is:

“The question becomes: To what extent can people in a transaction have an informational differential between them?”

This nails it.

Example: I pay you for consulting. I assume you give me the best advice you know of. However, you know you only recommend people who pay you to do so. There is clearly more downside in your recommendation than there is for you.

*Most of the time…agree with him 90% of the time, dislike the other 10% …most people who know me likely think the same.

**I am not getting paid and this is not an affiliate link - ha!

Forcing Skin in the Game

Quick hit examples:

  • When you hire a consultant make them sign a contract requiring them to disclose any financial interest they have attached to the recommendations they make.
  • If you hear a speaker at a conference rave about a vendor ask them if they have any financial interest attached to their endorsement.
  • If you read about a vendor winning an award, perhaps consider doing:
  • Vendor: they are a vendor you are considering ask them if they paid to influence the decision in anyway ….such as spend XXX amount in advertising or consulting fees
  • Publication/Trade Periodical: If they are a trade periodical ask them to publish which of the winners or finalists pay you for ad space
  • If applying for a job in part because they win ‘The Best Employer’ award - ask the HR team how much they pay that group a year in sponsorships.
  • If you are a vendor and pay a consultant or a trade publication let the list be known. Ask your partners to do the same.

Stopping the Cycle

It starts with you (and me) and how you conduct your business. Just because they’re doing it, doesn’t mean you should… even if it decreases your likelihood of success.

Un-American? To the contrary!

If you pay someone who then also says nice things about you, let it be known. If your solution is great, then so be it. If you pay someone, so be it. We can normalize the support of thought leaders without it feeling slimy.

What Guidelines Exist?

In recent years there has been legislation and guidelines adopted for the protection of consumers. As you know, this rarely seeps into the B2B world but if you are reading that is likely your concern.

If you read the below link* you will get a summary in how the FTC views disclosures and they seem to translate well to the B2B world. One in particular - “Disclose when you have any financial, employment, personal, or family relationship with a brand.” Seems pretty straightforward and would be helpful too.

*Check out Influencer Marketing: A Research Guide via the Library of Congress

“Beware of the person who gives advice, telling you that a certain action on your part is “good for you” while it is ALSO good for them, while the harm to you doesn’t directly affect them.” -Taleb

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