Nivea vs FCB: Do ad agencies have a responsibility to react against controversial client views?
Last week, the 100-year relationship between Nivea and its ad agency, FCB, came to an end after an executive allegedly said “we don’t do gay at Nivea,” when its creative team proposed a skin care advert that featured two men touching hands.
According to reports, the remark was made by a senior Nivea employee during a conference call with staff from FCB - one of whom is gay.
Having worked with the skincare brand for over a century, FCB told employees it would resign its global Nivea account, which represents 1% of its global revenue when the contract expires at the end of the year. It chose not to address the incident.
Since then, Beiersdorf AG, the German owner of Nivea, has released a statement that did not confirm or deny the allegation but used the opportunity to stress its commitment to diversity instead.
Although both sides have declined to comment further, FCB’s decision to drop the account has opened up a conversation that needs to be had - should advertising agencies react when the employee of a client shares strong, controversial views?
“Words have consequences, particularly in the workplace,” remarked Jan Gooding, chairman of the LGBT charity Stonewall. “All too often in the past, homophobic comments have been dismissed under the excuse of ‘banter’ or humour.”
She highlighted that we now live in an age when having an inclusive culture matters, and FCB's move may trigger more companies to declare they can't work with others that don't share the same values of mutual respect.
Asad Dhunna, director of communications for Pride in London and founder of The Unmistakables, shared that given how great Nivea's business was of its total revenue, he thinks it's heartwarming to see a business choose between morals and money.
"This will be a huge morale boost to staff," he said. "All too often people go back in the closet or are afraid to come out to their clients, so for the agency to have their back and resign the business sends a really strong signal."
He said that the signal is both internal and external, and questioned whether FCB, or any other global agency, would have taken such a bold move five years ago.
He felt: "it shows how far we've come for LGBTQ+ rights within the world of advertising and also sets an example for other agencies to hold their clients to account."
However, judging a whole company for the action of one can be problematic, and Gooding asked whether there could have been alternative actions.
"To be fair, we can all make mistakes, or say the wrong thing out of ignorance," she admitted. "So I would always suggest exploring routes of education, apology and the opportunity to put things right as a first move."
She said that if that method proves ineffective, consequences should become more severe. "How companies react to incidents such as the one reported, says everything about their culture," she added.
After news broke of FCB's decision, Beiersdorf AG released a carefully written statement that the reported allegations did not reflect the values of the company and its employees worldwide, and that it did not tolerate any form of discrimination, direct and indirect.
"The statement from Nivea is poor," said Gooding in response. While the statement stresses its commitment to diversity, "there is no mention of what they plan to do or whether they are investigating the incident."