We want to be our clients’ partners — but what happens when they screw up?
“Shit, just ship it.”
Those were the words of Stewart Parnell, an executive from Peanut Corporation of America. After being told that salmonella tests would delay shipping his company’s peanut butter, he decided to proceed with getting his product out into the market. As a result of regulatory violations and the deaths that subsequently occurred from eating salmonella-laced peanut butter, he was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison.
If the recent incident involving Volkswagen and its diesel engines is any indication, even brands with a history of great marketing and a respected image aren’t immune from the “Shit, just ship it” mentality.
Do bad business practices affect advertising and marketing people even if we’re not directly involved? In many cases, yes. Because we spend hundreds of millions of dollars telling the world that items like peanut butter are fresh, yummy, and in jars from trusted brands, perfectly safe. And while Parnell’s company didn’t supply leading peanut butter brands, when people started dying all of the major brands took a sales hit. In other words, choosy mothers stayed the hell away from Jif.
No, advertising isn’t directly responsible for peanut butter-related deaths or Volkswagen’s current predicament. But do we have a responsibility to hold our clients accountable for their business practices? Can great advertising help build a level of immunity for a brand when it’s found guilty of malfeasance?
Of course, the simple answer to the former question is “no.” Ad agencies and marketing firms aren’t there to oversee quality control at a corporation or question the ethics and actions of its executives. Mostly, we do our thing and wash our hands of the responsibility if things go south at the client.
And frankly, we in advertising and marketing agencies have our own “Shit, just ship it” problem. We see it when great ideas become watered down into lowest-common-denominator work after multiple rounds of changes. When we decide to spam the public with more ads instead of better ones. When we’re persuaded by clients to indulge them by incorporating dubious claims, puffery, or trite clichés into our work. It’s always easier and financially expedient to keep a client satisfied than stand on principle. So we’re hardly guiltless of cutting corners when the need arises.
Despite our desire to be business partners or consultative experts for our clients, we’re still on the outside. We help companies craft dreamy mission statements with lofty words and imagery they often can’t live up to. We write manifestos that position a brand the way we wish they could be, not the way they actually are. We create aspirational three-minute films that portray our clients as soaring ever higher in the pursuit of helping people achieve their dreams while concealing the dirty reality of profit-driven commerce that keeps these corporations in business.
It’s the people inside those corporations that determine its fate, and we’re shut out. This is why most agencies will never fully earn that coveted seat at a client’s executive table. No matter how much we want to create “movements” around a brand or push authenticity in storytelling, we’re still mythmakers beholden to the reality of our client’s businesses. And like all fallible entities, corporations screw up. They cut corners and they’re susceptible to market forces pulling them to do things they don’t want to do. No amount of branding, advertising or engagement is going to change that.
I’d like to think that true agency-client partnerships are possible. But they would need to be partnerships of shared risk, shared responsibility, and shared reward. It wouldn’t be easy. Like a good jar of peanut butter, it might be appealing but it’d still be quite sticky.
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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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