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Location3 Denver : True Clients or Just Logos?

Looking at Location3 in Denver

Location3 is a “digital agency” in Denver, Colorado. It was recently featured as an “award winner”. Now we all know how those awards programs work. It’s nearly impossible to tell a legimiate award from a nonsense award, because a well-known marketing strategy is “create an awards program”.

The Power of Awards

Awards programs work…. and have been used by advertising agencies since long before the Internet became a thing. Even small, boutique vertical industry agencies are encouraged to create awards programs, because that allows them to grant “awards” to their best clients and friendly associated in positions of influence. Since people still respect “award-winning” people and agencies, they love getting awards. And since award winners typically brag about and link to their awards (which are hosted on the award-granter website), running an award program is a win-win for agency and client.

Until the trust is lost… and people come to recognize that most awards programs are full of BS. Has that happened yet? I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure the use of client logos has gone haywire, and I’m looking at Location3’s “clients and work” page wondering if this is for real or not.

Illegal and Inappropriate Use of Client Logos

One of the biggest struggles of a performance-oriented team is the way agencies steal attention and cause clients to doubt efforts. Performance teams deliver results, not promises. But while such teams are busy drawing leads and making the phone ring etc, client marketing leadership can get bored, and look at agency claims.

Let’s admit this right off:  in most companies, an in-house marketer’s career is not based on performance as much as it is based on the appearance of capability, and the promise of future performance.

A C-level marketing exec with an awesome performance team at work keeping up the business growth, still seeks a way to differentiate herself from her peers in the world of Marketing. In-house execs are also subject to the “what else are you doing” challenge from other C-level executives, even when targets are exceeded. And because of these pressures, even when they are achieving excellent results, they look at “what’s happening in the industry”.

And they find Awards. And award winners.

And when they look at the websites of award winners (like Location3), they find… a page full of impressive client logos, like below.

The logos of 55+ companies proudly displayed on the Location3 client page. Click for full-size view.

The logos of 55+ companies proudly displayed on the Location3 client page. Click for full-size view.

The Lanham Act, and the Legal Issues of Using Logos and Trademarks

Now I am not a lawyer, but I have been involved in lawsuits. And among those lawsuits have been suits brought by losers who painfully discovered that my team had displaced them in the SERPs and “stolen” all the commercial opportunity in the page 1 search results.

Second Page is the First Loser

Yes, that is correct. An incumbant, accustomed to sitting in the top 3 for some money terms, who may or may not have been paying some agency a hefty monthly fee to stay there, may get upset when their web site is displaced to page 2 and the phone stops ringing. And since anyone can sue anyone for anything, this sometimes results in a law suit that seems to be designed to frighten competitors (at best), or demand disclosure of methods and tactics used to win (at worst).

Lucky for me, I have a great legal team. Unlucky for them, I get very aggressive under such conditions.

As a performance-based team leader, I have little patience for such game-playing. I have less patience for lawyers who appear to have a need to get “Internet experience”, and appear to be abusing their client’s ignorance to get some experience on the company dime. Shame on you.

The Wonderful Lanham Act

This Lanham Act thing is a catch-all for lawyers seeking some cause for action. Look it up… it’s an act (law) that prohibits unauthorized use of trademarks (including logos). It is intended to prevent theft of business via hijack of trademarks, but is widely used by lawyers to stifle competitive pressures (in my experience).

Publishing a company logo on your client page, without permission from that company, is very likely a violation of the Lanham Act. Yes, even if you did work for them.

Now back to Location3. That impressive page full of company logos suggesting “clients and work” included 55 logos from companies as impressive as Public Storage, ACE Hardware, Olive Garden, ATT, Discover, Charles Schwab, Dunkin Donuts, In-n-Out Burger, Red Robin, and Advantage Rent A Car. Wow. Impressive. There were actually 56, because HP SpartaCote was coded into the page, but the logo was missing.

Not My First Rodeo

Now, this is not my first rodeo. I know some of the games that are played with client lists and such. For example, an accountant who used to work for an account at a big agency, but now works at a small design firm, might think that it’s ok for his new employer to show that former client’s logo on the “our clients & work” page. Misleading for consumers seeking a desgn company, but quite often done.

I don’t think the FTC would be happy with that, but the Lanham Act is the law to cite.

Another common trick : a small PPC agency that helped a larger agency with strategy, may try to put that larger agency’s client logo on the “our work” page. This happens all the time. And it’s improper (and often illegal).

When Cheaters are Allowed to Cheat, Honest Players Get Hurt

Why do I care to question (in this case) Lacation3’s use of 55 corporate logos? Well, it’s not because I have any issue Location3. Honestly, before I was told about this new Awards Program and looked at the winners list to evaluate the credibility of the awards program, I had never heard of them.

I am concerned because my teams routinely avoid stealing client brand trust via this sort of tactic. In fact, all of the respectful (and knowledgable) agency people I know avoid such making claims like they avoid The Plague.

One of the first things you learn when you play with the Big Boys in marketing (big clients, big brands, big money players), is that trust is everything.

If agencies are permitted to play fast and loose with company logos, performance-based teams suffer because even though they do actually work with such projects, they cannot proclaim that on their own “clients and work” pages. When “agencies” do, with big bold proud pages like the Location3 Digital “our work and clients” page, it’s unfair. When such an agency wins an “award”, shouldn’t we care?

Personally, I’d love to see the world change and allow such use of logos (I think.. not 100%  certain).But since that’s not reality, I would really like to know if this awards program bothered to check candidates up for awards, for such things as respecing the law, etc. Maybe not?

The Litmus Test : Ask The Client-side Legal Department for Permission

I have no ill-will towards Location3. I don’t even know them. But I have serious doubts that many of those companies whose logos are proudly displayed on the Location3 client page, would be happy to know about that trademark use. And I think if they did know, many would say “take it down”.

I would like a level playing field, at least among award-winning agencies. After all, they should be held to a higher standard than fly-by-night Internet marketing companies. At the very minimum, that standard that requires not violating the law. Right?

Disclaimer: one of my teams recently did some work for one of the clients listed on that page. Real work. Real as in strategic, national, high-visibility work that is a highlight of the brand, seen by just about every online customer of that brand, and with which the agency and client teams are very, very happy. But we can’t publish their logo. Our team asked. They said no. As they should have. They need to protect their trademark. We got paid, and they are the brand. By law, they have to protect their trademark rights.

Which made me wonder, did Location3 get paid? Did they do major work, or just work for another agency (an Agency of Record, for example) that was subcontracting part of the work? I can’t tell. Location3 doesn’t say. And by all appearances, the companies are allowing Location3 Digital to publish their logos on the portfolio page.

Which Highlights Another Trick

As a side note, I have to point out another “trick” marketing agencies sometimes pull. They will do some work for free, hoping to be able to claim that client on their portfolio page. Again, a common tactic. It has been used by some of the best in the agency business (whom I will not name). But again, unless specifically permitted by that trademark owner, likely to be illegal (under the Lanham Act).

Let’s Have a Pool: What’s your guess?

I wonder, what if Location3 asked the legal departments of those 56 clients for permission to publish the logos on the Location3 client page. Would Location3 Digital get permission to publish client logos? For at least 30? How about 20? Maybe 10? How about 5?

My guess is on the very low end of that range of possibilities.