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It's Way Past Time to Get Rid of the Term 'Master Agent'

Eclipse Telecom CEO Dave Dyson challenges Avant, Telarus, TBI and others to make the change now.

June 10, 2021

7 Min Read
It's Way Past Time to Get Rid of the Term 'Master Agent'
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By Dave Dyson

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Dave Dyson

The recent Channel Futures article, “Channel Partners Debate Rebranding Master Agents,” argued that while the terms master agent and subagent are problematic, they are the terms we know and have used for years.

It’s important for me to say that this response is my own opinion. It’s equally important to note that I am a board member of and offered to share my thoughts on behalf of Xposure. Xposure is the organization where the industry meets to champion diversity, equity and inclusion in the space. It’s also worth noting that I am a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Channel Futures, though in no way does this op-ed represent that organization. I note my affiliation to both organizations because both are critical to the growth of our channel, not just in terms of revenue and customers, but more importantly in becoming a more equitable and inclusive industry.

This column is part of an active discussion in the channel over use of the term “master agent.” Read the first part of news editor James Anderson’s series on the topic here. Part two is here.

All that said, these are the opinions of Dave Dyson. You are free to agree and sign on or vehemently disagree with me. I will heretofore refer to master agents as “technology services distributors” and subagents as “partners.”

What’s the ‘Debate’?

When I read the headline and the verb “debate,” I was intrigued insomuch as I wanted to see what arguments there might be for keeping the terms “master” and “subagent.” I had hoped to find a clever linguistic or legalistic argument that might play devil’s advocate. The strongest claim mustered was something to the effect of, “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” Everyone quoted in the article, many of whom I am lucky to call friends and all of whom I respect, were gracious, thoughtful and politically savvy in their viewpoints, which I appreciate.

Allow me to be a little less of all of those things and say the time to end the master/sub titles was 20 years ago. Each day that goes by where we still use these terms is one too many. I know I am taking what may seem like an incredibly controversial stance here, so let me take you through my rationale. (For the record, I have many controversial opinions: I am against cancer, in favor of puppies, and think that people could stand to be a little nicer to one another).

First and foremost, words matter. We have thankfully entered an era where people are acknowledging the connection between naming and thinking. We must acknowledge the influence of our words, particularly those of us whose words are listened to, studied and repeated. In our world, technology services providers have lots of power, and more importantly, they have the largest bullhorns. They have sway over which vendors are allowed in, power over the contracts that are signed by vendors and partners, and incredible influence on what we sell, how we speak (“trusted adviser,” anyone?), and the framing of how technology services are talked about and sold.

We know that what we say – and how we say it – influences our customers, partners and co-workers, and just as we think about strategic communication and its impact in terms of corporate culture and bottom line, we must also think about how the messages we send impact the social world.

I am calling on my friends and partners at Avant, Sandler Partners, Telarus, TBI and Scansource/Intelisys to take the lead and be bold. First one to come up with a new name wins! I promise, no one will hold the death of the term “master” in our business against you.

Racist Overtones

Secondly, it has super-racist overtones. Do we need to persist in naming this relationship based on …

… a power differential that both denies the reality of the partnership (more on that later) and invokes a term reminiscent of one of the uglier moments of human history? Master? There are very few contexts in which that term is used, the most common of which is the master of the enslaved peoples. Seriously, we are once again in an overdue moment about having discussions about race, systemic inequality and how to make the world more fair for everyone.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Dave, you are a middle-aged white dude, our industries’ most important and valuable resource. What will happen if things get harder for you?” I appreciate your concern, but trust me, I and all the other old white dudes will be fine for one simple reason. We don’t need to take anything away from anyone to make things better for historically underrepresented gender, racial, ethnic and LGBTQ+ groups. We simply need to expand the tent, listen to more voices and hire people who may not look, think or act exactly like us. This will give us fresh perspectives, generate new ideas and ultimately add fuel to the rocket ship of growth that we are all building together. Embracing a term that calls back to times of slavery is not a way to signal our openness.

Speaking of together, we all have absorbed this language, and it’s part of our vernacular. But have you ever tried to explain it to someone from outside of the industry? This brings me to my third point. It’s kind of strange, don’t you think? If you repeat the jargon master/sub to someone outside of the space, they will either respond, “Seems a little plantation-ey” (see above) or, to directly quote my friend, TBI president Geoff Shepstone, from the article, “It’s a little creepy.”

Now, this is not a judgment on how you choose to live your personal lives and any peccadillos or preferences you may have; we have lots of very interesting people in this industry, and I hope we keep it that way! I once explained the master/sub terminology to someone who replied, “Oh, you mean like BDSM?” (If you do not know that acronym, please, for the love of your job, do not look it up on a work device.)

I don’t know about you, but I would prefer that my industry vernacular conjures images of helping people communicate, solving complex technology problems and making the interwebs work.

Not an Accurate Description

Lastly, I do not consent to the terms master/sub, nor do I consent to the relationship those terms embody. I, like many thousands of people in the industry, am neither submissive nor subservient to any organization. Like many of you, I broke free from the stifling, constrictive world of big business because I believed I could create something better. With the help of my team, the encouragement of so many in this industry full of amazing people and the love and support I receive from my family, we have. I am always in awe of all of the awesome entrepreneurs, big thinkers and dream manifesters I meet in this business.

The one thing we all have in common is that we serve our families, our customers, our teams and our communities, but we are never subservient. In many ways, we the partners and the technology services distributors are part of the same team. Our relationships matter, and we are all better together. We deserve a term that honors all of that.

In closing, I would like to be unequivocal: It is time to end this “debate” and start a new one. Mainly, what should we call ourselves? I have seen some suggestions starting to fly around, but I think when the community starts to discuss it, we will come up with something great. This community is creative and innovative, and we can do better. We need to make a change now. I look forward to the conversation and, as always, to the future of this awesome industry.

Dave Dyson is CEO of Eclipse Telecom, a provider of telecom consulting and management for midmarket and enterprise companies in cloud, mobility and connectivity.

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