Why agencies can’t ignore ethics as they chase the money

Should they go further and blacklist controversial clients?

A Guardian investigation reveals that various WPP PR and lobbying firms have been trousering fees from America’s National Rifle Association (NRA), a perfectly legal organisation, for years even while WPP agencies including Grey, Ogilvy and Y&R have been making pro-bono films advocating gun controls.

Grey Toronto won a Grand Effie in 2016 for this ad attacking retailer Krogers for allowing guns in its stores.

This particular controversy has emerged again following the horrific recent slaughter in Las Vegas. The NRA’s belief – one presumably shared by its lobbyists – is that the best protection against a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. In Las Vegas the good men didn’t even come close.

Controversial accounts (to put it mildly) were also at the centre of the recent Bell Pottinger implosion, in that case an illegal social media campaign for the Gupta brothers in South Africa to deflect attention from their unhealthily close relationship with president Jacob Zuma’s government. WPP, whose tentacles are everywhere, was a minority shareholder in Bell Pottinger but gave its shares back sharpish when the issue hit national media.

PR and advertising are different, of course, although both share the same objective of publicity. Any PR firm with the ambition to be big will, almost inevitably, find themselves holding their nose about the activities of some of their clients (although Bell Pottinger founder Lord Bell seemed mostly immune to this). The companies spending the most lobbying politicians are often trying to forestall trouble through back door means. Google and Facebook have increased their lobbying budgets in recent times.

Creative agencies over the years have often eschewed certain accounts: tobacco back in the day being the most avoided category. But both Collett Dickenson Pearce and Saatchi & Saatchi won loads of awards (and made an awful lot of money) from tobacco accounts: Benson & Hedges and Hamlet at CDP, Silk Cut at Saatchi. Charles Saatchi himself used to work on Silk Cut (the one below is ascribed to the late Paul Arden) even though he had partly made his name at Cramer Saatchi producing gruesome anti-smoking ads for the Health Education council. One of the reasons John Hegarty quit Saatchi for TBWA was this change of tack. Abbott Mead Vickers famously refused tobacco clients from its inception.

More recently some big name agencies have declined betting accounts although they’re wary about saying so publicly, fearing they might be seen as anti-advertising. Betting ads are a boom category of course, although their days may be numbered. Other agencies steer clear of payday lenders.

For a holding company with fingers in every pie it’s much more difficult. The NRA, for example, has many supporters in America including senior Republicans, terrified of its lobbying power even if they hate automatic weapons. President Trump is said to be an NRA supporter, which will surprise nobody. So, on one level, it’s perfectly reasonable for WPP and others to work for such organisations. It’s also true that, if they didn’t, someone else would.

The old “taxi rank” principle – that anyone accused of any crime is entitled to legal representation by the next available criminal barrister – might suffice if agencies of all hues and their holding company owners were just advocates for hire. But they’re not. In the era of “advertising for good” they’re only too pleased to be lauded and awarded for making the world a better place, saving the planet and so on.

It’s one thing not to make ads for people who believe that lethal weapons should be readily available but is lobbying for them any more ethical?

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

One comment

  1. ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ is a pretty clear and powerful guideline.

    And if you are the leaders of an organization you have the right to decide who you want as clients….acknowledging that in some cases it gets pretty personal/subjective.

    In Anomaly’s Operating Agreement we agreed that unequivocally we wouldn’t work on Politics, Tobacco or Guns. There have other situations too where we simply had split views on products and whether the world needed more of them or not…if the partners couldn’t agree, we declined the opportunity.
    Clearly the better you are as an agency the more choices you have.

    If the leaders don’t decide who they have as clients…or don’t care who they have as long as they pay…then its also clear that they have sold their soul to one degree or another and its up to them how good they feel about that and how ‘True’ to themselves they’ve been.

    There’s no ‘right answer’ but equally no-one ‘makes you’ do anything.