Are agency employees truly empowered to make principled stands?
Recently, a Los Angeles-based Associate Creative Director sued her former agency for wrongful termination. Why? She was asked in late April to work on an assignment for a cruise line — to aggressively sell the idea that it was safe to get people back on cruise ships starting June 30. With COVID-19 raging and a CDC “No Sail Order” banning cruise travel in place, the ACD believed the campaign was unethical and refused to do the assignment. She was then pulled off all existing agency clients and ultimately fired. (Read a story about the case and see the lawsuit.)
I can’t speak to the merits of her lawsuit. The agency denies her allegations. But I admire her courage, which is sorely lacking in the ad industry and sorely needed if our industry will thrive in the future. In the advertising agency business, it’s one thing for management to turn down prospective new business on principle. It’s quite another for a mid-level employee to refuse an assignment on a current agency client.
So how should ad agencies react when their employees object to an assignment? When is the time to share those concerns with a client? When employees decide to take a stand, is this a downside of the “bring your whole self to work” notion?
These days, I’m a freelancer. In other words, I’m free to lance for whomever I choose, and it’s directly my loss if I turn down an assignment. Which I’ve done — I’ve turned down an assignment for a company that makes urban surveillance systems because I didn’t want to promote that sort of business.
But in the agency jobs I’ve had, I’ve seen how difficult it is to truly take any sort of stand and say, “I’m not comfortable with that.” I’ve seen an agency CEO turn down business from a tobacco client, and I once had a Creative Director say he wouldn’t take on work for a personal injury attorney because the lawyers in his family would kill him for it. The reality is that few people in advertising feel a moral imperative to turn down work on a principle. Even fewer have the financial resources to act upon it.
Plus, there are always people who will step in to do the work, ethics be damned. Especially now with tens of thousands of recently laid-off ad people looking for jobs. In this case, other creatives stepped in to work on the cruising assignment after the ACD objected. And if the agency had objected, the client wouldn’t have had to look far to find another shop to take on the assignment.
Advertising has never been an industry to stand by any sort of strict ethical code. But increasingly, there’s been a trend toward imbuing the brands we market with some sort of “purpose.” Plenty of so-called purpose-driven brands, and the companies behind them, still resort to the same old business practices and marketing techniques behind closed doors. And their ad agencies still accede to requests for puffery, hard-sell tactics, or misleading product claims.
Many ad professionals have lamented how little regard agencies have in the C-suite of many companies, and the cruise line example may be one more reason why. It’s not hard to see why a cruise ship would tell its agency to get butts in cabins pronto, safety be damned. But it took a mid-level ACD to say “no” to a seemingly unethical client request, and even that objection ultimately went unheeded.
If an idea or assignment has the potential to be injurious for either the brand or its customers, I believe the agency has an obligation to say so. That kind of pushback isn’t easy to do for anyone. It takes deft political and interpersonal skill to do it successfully and still maintain a healthy employee/employer or agency/client relationship. But ultimately, it’s necessary.
Each one of us has to personally decide what kind of work we’re willing to do, what kinds of clients and assignments we’re willing to work on, and how we’re going to use our persuasive and creative powers on the public. All with the understanding that if you go to work for someone else, you’re not in control of what you’re asked to do.
But now, many ad agency employees are encouraged to “bring their whole self to work,” part of which includes the ability to speaking up about office culture, bias, and other issues if they arise. Does this ability extend to agency or client business itself? Let’s face it, many agency executives, from the top down, aren’t willing to foster an atmosphere of open dialog when dealing with issues of ethics and unreasonable client requests.
Perhaps we’ll see more advertising professionals truly stand on principle when it comes to doing the right thing, even if it means telling the client “no.” We’d have a stronger, more respected business. Unfortunately, that ship may have already sailed.
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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