What happens when business and personal ethics collide?
Recently, A Very Famous Ad Guy decided to lend his name, money, and creative expertise to a support a number of causes: GMO food labeling, opposition to sugared soft drinks, and climate change awareness. All of this after a career spent running an agency that worked on colas, fast food, and other clients whose products are often deemed unhealthy.
There’s nothing wrong with spending the second half your life or business career atoning for what you did in the first half. But how many of us are willing to say, “No, I won’t work on that” while you’re currently at a job? What are you willing — or not willing — to work on?
While some products are considered more taboo than others, it’s an arbitrary, personal decision.
I had a friend who recently told me he started working on a gun account. Right when he told me, I thought, “Oh that’s cool!” even though I’m not a gun owner or hunter. It simply sounded like an interesting product to work on, and a good creative challenge.
I asked him how he managed to get the assignment. “Because no writers at their other agency would work on a gun account. And for five years, their designers were writing the headlines.”
It made me wonder: Can an entire group of writers refuse to write on an account and remain employed? Is this type of personal conflict something you should disclose before you accept a job?
While I’ve never outright refused to work on something, I have declined to pursue job leads or calls from recruiters where I wasn’t a fan of an agency’s main clients.
But once I got hired as a copywriter, I had no control over the accounts that came through the agency door. I worked at an agency that would take literally any business that came through the door — except tobacco work. Even avoiding unsavory businesses or industry categories doesn’t guarantee a positive experience. I’ve worked on perfectly reputable accounts that were run by sleazy people.
Sometimes it’s a fuzzy area. You can work on Nike but not be a fan of its labor practices, or for that matter, its support of Lance Armstrong or Michael Vick. No marketer or corporation is pure as snow.
I know folks who won’t do work for the military. Or brands that test products on animals. I once knew a Creative Director who wouldn’t work on ads for ambulance-chasing lawyers (he objected because he came from a family of upstanding lawyers) but was happy to do work for high-interest payday lenders.
So what does it say about us if we refuse to work on something, or oppose the way a prospective or current client runs its business? It doesn’t make someone an anti-capitalist. As advertising professionals, we’re paid to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Part of that also means we can work to change our clients’ minds about their business practices.
But taking a stand has its risks. It’s easy to feel queasy about refusing to work on a piece of business, knowing there’s a distinct possibility that in this economy, five other people are willing to step up and work on it.
I suppose a good rule of thumb is that an ad agency that doesn’t respect your beliefs or principles isn’t a place you want to work at. However, you might find that out months, or years, into a job, and that puts you in a tough spot. Some agencies respect individual principles. Most don’t. And there aren’t any agreed-upon “never do that” clients, concepts or ideas. Someone will always be willing to sell a particular product.
So do we want people who are passionate about working on their clients’ specific businesses, or people who are simply passionate to be working in the advertising industry?
All clients deserve — and ought to expect — the people who work on their account to be excited about the work they’re doing. To be proud of their clients and their clients’ businesses. But that’s a two-way street. Most of us want to believe we’re working for good businesses or good people, and that we’ll get respect in return for our work.
What’s even worse than working on a bad business is doing bad work for a good business. It pains me to watch when clients with great brands opt for mediocrity in their advertising.
I wish, instead of an ethical dilemma or conflict of interest, we should be refusing business because of a “conflict of interesting”: Realizing ahead of time that an assignment or brand simply isn’t interesting because the people in charge don’t want it to be. The strategy isn’t interesting. The proposed media tactics aren’t interesting. And as a result, the work is going to be boring, ineffective and unable to move business. If we could stop those before they turn into real work, our industry might be better.
Above all else, I wish all marketers believed in doing the best work. That’d be a cause everyone would support.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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