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Does the term "master agent" carry racially insensitive connotations? Or is it just not a good fit?

James Anderson

June 4, 2021

7 Min Read
Do Master Agents Need a New Name?

Partners say antiquated and inaccurate language paints the channel in a negative light.

Channel_Futures_Signature_Series_Logo-300x300.pngMaster agent leaders are reckoning with the racially charged power dynamics that the word “master” connotes. Meantime, members of the agent channel are discussing how traditional terminology and branding poorly communicates their value to potential partners and customers.

Should we just call master agents “distributors”? We ask that question in part two of our series.

The term “master agent” exists all through the channel. A simple review of LinkedIn profiles demonstrates its widespread use, and a Google search produces approximately 1.3 billion results. But master agent executives are joining vendors and subagents in expressing discomfort with the term.

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TBI’s Geoffrey Shepstone

“It’s always been a little uncomfortable, but the industry named it that,” TBI president Geoff Shepstone said. “We just went along with it. It has always been a little creepy in a way.”

For Shepstone and other channel partners, the creepiness comes from the implication that the master agent owns, or in some way takes priority over the agents it serves. Moreover, Shepstone said the term has created a stumbling block for people who haven’t grown up in the channel.

“I can remember trying to describe what I do to family members, and as soon as I say ‘master agent,’ they’re like, ‘What?'” Shepstone said.

Dalyn Wertz, executive director of Comcast Business’ indirect channel program and marketing, said she and her team have considered moving to the term “primary agent.” She said “master agent” creates confusion for anyone who works outside of the channel.

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Comcast Business’ Dalyn Wertz

“[Outsiders] seem very surprised when they hear us use the term ‘master agent,’” Wertz said.

She noted that various industries have removed the word “master” from their branding. For example, debate has erupted over the more than 67,000 U.S. patents that contain the pairings of the words “master” and “slave.” But even more innocuous terms, such as “master bedroom,” have undergone a makeover.

Channel Futures interviewed more than a dozen people about what the term master agent means to them. Less than half called it racially insensitive, but everyone agreed that we should standardize a new name. “Master agent” – offensive or not – doesn’t accurately describe the channel, they said.

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Five9’s Kelli McMillan

“It’s an old, antiquated terminology that doesn’t fit anymore,” said Kelli McMillan, national partner manager at Five9.

Offensive?

One source, who asked not to be identified, said the term “master agent” evokes the disturbing history of American chattel slavery. The source said it’s difficult to hear “master agent” and not associate it with the violent system that sought to strip Black people of their dignity and personhood.

The person, who works for a large carrier, said context makes a big difference when we talk about the word “master.” For example, a Masters degree and the Masters golf tournament don’t carry the same heavy implications.

“It’s not the word ‘master’ per se. It’s the context of how it’s used. And certainly when I hear ‘master agent’ and understand the relationship between a master agent and the subagents, I [think], ‘Oh, that more than cuts close. We can do better,’” he said.

He suggested “executive agent,” “lead agent” or “primary agent” as easy replacements. Yes, outdated terminology might linger in long-term contracts; however, he said we need to start with changing our verbal communication.

“Frankly, those contracts that sit in files or in digital storage don’t necessarily offend people. They don’t jump out of a computer and speak. It’s the words we use every day,” he said.

Listening

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Xposure’s Dante White

Dante White, a member of the Xposure Inclusion and Diversity Council, said that some people might not see a problem, but he would rather lean on the side of the person who takes offense.

“I think what people should focus on are the voices that people need to hear,” said White, who suggested “principal agent” as a replacement. “And if somebody says that something is not appropriate, then we should probably listen.”

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Athenium’s Jolene Langford

Jolene Langford, who runs Portland, Oregon-based consultancy Athenium Technology Group, said terms like “master agent” and “subagent” imply a power dynamic.

“My personal resistance to the term is that a master is someone with authority and a sub (which is me) is a subordinate,” Langford said. “This just isn’t a great way to describe the ‘partnership’ between the parties. As an independent business owner, I don’t answer to anyone but my clients, and no other entity has authority over me or my business.”

Semantics?

Jamaal Savwoir, who leads 8×8’s channel sales engineering team for North America, EMEA and Asia Pacific, said the term “master agent” bothered him less and less as …… his understanding of the business model expanded. For example, he said master agents exist in order to benefit their subagents, rather than the other way around.

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8×8’s Jamaal Savwoir

“The master agents can’t really do anything if they don’t have programs that benefit the subagents,” Savwoir said. “And yes, the masters get their cut. They build it to benefit themselves, but if it was a master-slave situation instead of a master-sub situation, there wouldn’t be any benefits for the other party.”

Moreover, Savwoir said direct selling firms that contract with a master agent keep their autonomy. The master agent doesn’t own them.

“They can switch masters anytime they want,” Savwoir said. “They can say, ‘This isn’t working for me. I want to go do something else,’ or ‘This master offers a better spiff paid through this one provider, so I’ll go register my deal over there.’”

Shepstone said the term “master agent” very poorly reflects the relationship between TBI and its agent partners.

“The reality is, the agents are the master of us more often than not. They’re our customer, so fundamentally we’re serving them,” Shepstone said.

Incomplete?

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JS Group’s Janet Schijns

Kelli McMillan said these companies do far more than serve as the “master” of various vendor contracts. They offer back-office support, education, and in some cases even a lending arm. She suggests calling them “technology services partners.”

JS Group CEO Janet Schijns agreed that master agents do more than their name connotes. She prefers the term “solution aggregator.”

“They are more of a robust resource than that name would indicate,” Schijns said.

The History

How did the channel come to call these companies master agents?

PlanetOne CEO Ted Schuman, who has spent more than three decades in the channel, said he doesn’t recall the exact origin of the term master agent. But he does remember the first time he heard it back in 1994.

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PlanetOne’s Ted Schuman

“Nobody knew what the hell it meant, but it stuck. At the time, you were either an agent or a master agent. Of course, we were trying to be big companies, and who wants to be an agent when you can be a master agent?” he said.

But so much has changed in the last 27 years. Schuman said just 10 years ago, LAN and WAN providers operated in completely exclusive silos. But the lines have blurred.

“Now you’ve got MSPs acting like agents, agents acting like MSPs, some agents even being distis, and some distis buying agents,” he said.

Many master agents have already adopted the branding of a “technology services distributor.” Channel Futures will be talking about that nomenclature in part two of our series.

What are your thoughts? Please weigh in with comments below.

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About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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