As Ogilvy stands by CBP, questions arise over staffers' say on client lists

John Seifert confirmed he would not retire CBP as a client this week

Many staff at Ogilvy aren’t happy their agency is doing advertising for the US Department of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). But should they have a say in what happens to the contract?

Chief executive John Seifert this week acknowledged that though many “feel strongly” it should be resigned, he will not axe the client from its books.

It marks the latest reaction from the embattled boss following a challenging three weeks for Ogilvy in wake of revelations that the agency was working on the $12m government account . One employee who spoke to The Drum on the condition of anonymity said they were not aware of the relationship until the publication of a video, appearing to promote the heavily critcized immigration detention centers on the southern border, was erroneously attributed to Ogilvy on Twitter.

Despite swift denials of involvement on that particular video, it has since had to face questions - both internally and externally - over what exactly it is doing for the government department amid the border crisis.

In an attempt to defuse the situation, Seifert called a meeting with its US employees to explain the agency’s position. Buzzfeed later published a transcript of this meeting, in which staff questioned the values of the agency, rose serious concerns on how it might affect their careers in the long term and pushed Seifert to tell them why it had agreed to work for the CBP in the first place.

Is working on CBP the same as BP or Coke?

Seifert deflected their concerns with suggestions that working on a client with a troubled reputation is nothing out of the ordinary for advertising agencies. He cited the likes of BP, which he personally worked on in the late ’90s knowing their “operating practices were not perfect”, big tobacco clients that are “very important businesses for us” and even Coca-Cola – a sugary drinks company “many people… believe [is] major contributor to obesity and diabetes”.

"If we believed that any of these clients were fraudulent, that were knowingly selling products and services that, you know, we thought we could not reconcile in terms of the greater good, then we have a simple choice: 'don't work for them," Seifert reasoned.

“But in the main we have tried to find and see the good side in most clients and work with them to mitigate things that over time might be deemed negative.”

However, the reasoning did little to mitigate the concerns. “…seven children have died for lack of care. Like, it feels a lot different than Boeing,” responded one. “Boeing, or Coke, or BP, it was an accident, and the court of public opinion, as egregious as it was, understood that it was an accident. This is not that, this is different. And it feels different, and it feels different everywhere, and I think that’s what we’re trying to communicate to you.”

Seifert has no plans to resign the account in the face of public and private scrutiny. He said employees were entitled to their personal views and are free to protest against what they see as political injustices, but the company had opted to retain the client and he wanted their backing.

“We are making the right choice in the very short term to not violate our contract and stick by them and do what we're doing and see where we go,” he said.

“The company has made a choice. I'm asking you to try your best to represent that choice based on the facts, based on the merits of what I've laid out for you.”

He reiterated this message later in the week in a staff-wide memo stating that though “some of you feel strongly that we should stop working for CBP” he has “concluded” that the work it is doing is “genuinely intended to improve the quality of this government agency’s public services.”

But it wouldn't be the first agency to decline to work on controversial clients. AMV BBDO, for example, has declined to work for any tobacco company and the Interpublic Group has said it wouldn't work for the National Rifle Association.

WPP - Ogilvy's owner - has faced these problems in the past. Earlier this year, chief executive Mark Read was quizzed on whether it would ever decline to work with certain companies that don't align with its 'purpose'. Read simply said: “Our people have to be able to decide what clients they want to work on and what clients they don’t want to work on and they should be absolutely free to make their own decisions. And clearly there are clients we would and wouldn’t work for.”

Where WPP draws the line, however, is yet to be seen.

According to academic group Tobacco Tactics, WPP agencies to have worked on tobacco brands include PR agencies Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller as well as JWT and Ogilvy.

Should staff have a say?

So, the situation at Ogilvy New York has once raised fresh questions for the entire industry on whether employees should have a say in the accounts that their agencies decide to work on – particularly as the industry's obsession with brand purpose reaches fever pitch.

Seifert was at pains to stress during the meeting that a paying client means jobs. If the account is resigned or removed from Ogilvy on the part of the government, that means job losses.

The Drum asked a number of industry leaders whether agencies are obliged to turn down work on account of the views of their staff: For most, it’s a no-brainer. The output of an ad agency is only as good as its talent; alienate the talent and it will show in the work.

Natalie Graeme, co-founder of ad agency Uncommon

Agencies are nothing but a collection of brilliant people applying their talents to exciting business problems. How on earth do we expect the whole team to bring their best to the task if they feel grubby getting out of bed everyday to do it?

At Uncommon the brands and people we decide not to work with say as much as those we do. It’s a team decision. And as a team, we are fiercely protective of working with brands people are glad to exist in the world, and importantly the ambitious people driving them. The combination is rocket fuel for us all being excited but also proud to get out of bed each day. We have walked away from seemingly exciting and lucrative briefs that would have brought that into question.

But aside from the daily temptations of morally questionable briefs; as an industry aren’t we better than this? Surely we want people to be proud to work in our industry. Not questioning whether they made a pact with the devil to do so.

We seem to have forgotten the power of what we do. Our industry has the power to change minds, behaviour, company fortunes... but as the saying goes, with great power, comes great responsibility. We have a choice as to how we apply our talents. What problems our industry helps fix in the world. At what cost we earn our paycheques. If not for some moral judgement then do it for the future of our industry.

Phil Smith, director-general of Isba

More and more people are considering a company’s ethical values before buying its products – six in ten younger consumers, according to Accenture – and every age group has got its cause. And this year’s AA tracker shows there is a long-term trust gap in advertising which must be addressed.

The advertising industry is incredibly important in effecting positive change, because of its understanding of people and trends and through its powers of communication.

In my view, it can best do this not by refusing to work with those whose industries are most challenged but instead by working with them to hold up the mirror of emerging public attitudes and by helping create and communicate better lifestyle choices for individuals.

Asad Dhunna, founder, the Unmistakables

An agency is nothing more than a name above the door and the people in it. While the name can get you so far, the people and their ideas are what matter; and we're at a turning point where an increasing number crave purpose alongside profit.

Agency leaders understand this, and won't magically stop taking on questionable clients. However, they have a duty to stop any pretense staff might have about where the lines are.

If agencies can grapple with, and clearly articulate, their own purpose internally and externally we'll start to see a new competitive landscape for clients and people that is based on more than the surname

Read Seifert's memo to staff, in full, below:

Date: July 24, 2019

From: John Seifert

To: Ogilvy USA Staff, Worldwide Executive Leadership Team

Subject: Customs and Border Protection

I’m writing with an update on the situation surrounding our work for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a U.S. government agency that is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Just over two weeks ago, commentary on social media suggested Ogilvy was responsible for a video for CBP that we did not create. It was also incorrectly suggested that Ogilvy provides public relations support on issues related to detention conditions on the country’s southern border.

Our contract with CBP, which began in 2017, is for recruitment advertising only. Our brief: to support more effective recruitment of applicants who would both diversify CBP’s workforce and raise performance standards for a wide range of roles within CBP, including border patrol agents, officers who screen passengers and cargo at our nation’s ports of entry, and agriculture specialists to curtail the spread of harmful pests, as well as plant and animal diseases – and many other areas of responsibility.

We conducted comprehensive internal and external research, which led to a new applicant recruitment strategy and advertising campaign that launched in March this year (you can review this work on the Ogilvy intranet here). Our assignment focuses exclusively on hiring better and more diverse applicants across the CBP organization; it does not include any work related to CBP detention operations.

Our Government Practice in Washington, DC, has a long history of recruiting efforts to attract better-qualified applicants to career opportunities in public service. This practice is an important part of the broader work Ogilvy has done with governments and municipalities since our founding: engaging with people, businesses, and public sector organizations around a range of societal issues – from public health emergencies and public safety to volunteerism, tourism, and beyond.

In light of the detention situation on the southern border, our work for CBP has come under scrutiny. On July 9, I met with approximately 45 employees from across several USA offices to listen to their collective and individual concerns. I explained the company’s position on our government work generally and CBP specifically. I clarified for this group my own personal view of the situation as a U.S. citizen and my professional view as chief executive of The Ogilvy Group, which has been reported on and debated publicly across a variety of media outlets.

I deeply appreciate the growing demand among many employees for company leadership to communicate with greater transparency, timeliness, and accountability on matters they care passionately about, both personally and professionally. We should have done a better job in explaining our work for CBP from the moment our company was referenced incorrectly for content appearing in social media. I take personal responsibility for that mistake.

Some of you feel strongly that we should stop working for CBP. While I do understand and appreciate this point of view, I have concluded that our work for CBP is genuinely intended to improve the quality of this government agency’s public services. And we should continue to do all we can to support this objective.

While you may disagree with this decision, I do want all Ogilvy employees to feel comfortable in raising any questions or concerns directly with me and with Ogilvy leaders across the company. Our ability to deliver the best work depends on us working together in partnership – with candor, trust, and mutual respect no matter how complex the situation or difficult the challenge.

Deepest thanks for your understanding and support.

John Seifert

Chief Executive, Worldwide

Words by Jen Faull and Katie Deighton with contribution from Stephen Lepitak

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