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What should agency leaders do when staff have ethical objections to a client?


By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

July 5, 2022 | 12 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

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When staff raise moral objections to a client, how should business leaders react? / The Drum

Greenpeace’s interventions at Cannes Lions had the industry talking last month, but it seems certain that agencies will continue to work with fossil fuel producers. Their staff, however, may not be as happy with that outcome as agency leaders.

“Advertising people are kind, thoughtful and care about the future for their children, nieces and nephews,” Jonathan Wise, co-founder of the environmental advertising network Purpose Disruptors told The Drum earlier this week. ”Many employees we speak to understand change needs to happen and one of those changes they share with us is that they believe their agency should no longer work on fossil fuel companies.”

The idea that one’s creative talents might be put to use to burnish the reputation of a polluter, a gambling brand or a tobacco producer has been cited as a turnoff for agencies recruiting new, younger staff before. It can also hit the morale of existing teams, who might well decide to vote with their feet – a tempting option these days. We asked dozens of agency leaders how they hoped to meet this challenge at their businesses.

How do you solve a problem like... ethical clashes between staff and clients?

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Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief executive officer, Yard NYC

One of our core values is personal commitment. We give a damn and take our work personally, and we are judicious to only work with brands that align with our values and ambitions. Still, there are always moments when new information comes up. Depending on the seriousness, we call ’pencils down’ to gather more information, talk to the client and discuss internally. While we may make business decisions that differ from personal opinion, we always encourage our team to speak openly with us and ultimately choose whether they want to opt out. That choice is essential to creating a business environment where everyone can do their best work.

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Amanda Davis, director of innovation and gaming, Grey Group

Differences in opinion should happen in every healthy industry and help us avoid working in echo chambers. Instead of avoiding tense conversations, we embrace these topics transparently. Bringing together perspectives allows us to identify solutions that truly reflect our teams and the world around us.

We manage tough conversations with open forums, where anyone can speak freely, and with dedicated task forces for complex issues. Some employees want to be heard while others want to be part of the solution. Both roles are valid and deserve support. This approach helps us resolve conflict, build trust within teams and encourage empathy moving forward.

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Simon Labbett , executive creative director, Truant London

This new generation are not afraid to go toe to toe with big business and rightfully so. As commerce inevitably locks horns with morality, those agencies with strong principles will shine bright. We’re experiencing the dark side of mass consumerism and advertising has to take responsibility for fueling that demand. To brush off activism as an inconvenience is, quite frankly, embarrassing and hypocritical by an industry that not only professes to care but trades off those values. The stage needs to be open to everyone, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable those conversations are. That’s the only way we progress.

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Caroline Davison, managing director and sustainability lead, Elvis

I don’t see ethical clashes between staff and clients as a ‘problem to be solved’, but an opportunity to move the conversation – and the ethics – forward. The status quo needs to be disrupted and the hard questions around the climate crisis – and in particular advertising’s role within it – need to be asked and, more importantly, answered. Following the Greenpeace protests at Cannes Lions, let’s hope that the organizing committee are already planning keynote sessions that put the issues Greenpeace raised center stage. We need brave, honest conversations – in public and with a range of stakeholders – about the elephants in the room.

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Rhys Cater, managing director, Precis Digital

Marketing ethically means more than just marketing for ’good’ businesses. It also means being mindful of how we use personal data, avoiding harmful stereotypes in adverts and prioritizing engaging creative and user-friendly advertising practices.

We want our colleagues at Precis to feel proud about what they do, so along with focusing on ethical marketing we are also committed to working with brands that are mindful of their environmental practices. We do not work with harmful industries, such as gambling or tobacco, and in examples such as the automotive industry or fashion we must see tangible commitments to the reduction in carbon impact before we will partner with them. Not only this, but we have also used our influence to invest and partner with startups committed to transforming traditionally harmful industries; Plick and Droppa are some recent examples of businesses tackling the impact of fast fashion in Sweden.

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Greg Ricciardi, president and CEO, 20Nine

We are a purpose-first creative consultancy and our clients align with our agency’s ethics and moral position. If there is ever a question about a prospect’s ethical and moral alignment with the agency, it is fully discussed with the agency staff before a decision is made to bring onboard the new client. If the prospect does not align and the staff agrees that this is not the right fit, the agency will move on from the opportunity.

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Andrew Barnard, co-founder, 20Something

The responsibility of making these decisions should live at the company level. It’s not fair to put that on the individual – whatever their role – because not everyone has the confidence to say ’no’ to management. A more responsible approach would be to ask the question collectively as an organization. Before taking on any briefs, we have a company-wide discussion where we ask ourselves: ’Is this brand/ brief making a positive impact in the world, without leaving a permanent imprint on it?’

As an industry with the power to influence opinion and behavior, the responsibility for moral and ethical decisions exists at an industry level. It requires transition, but there’s no excuse for agencies to not be moving in the right direction. The pursuit of growth at all costs is a short pursuit and not leaning towards the next generation’s value-set just isn’t sustainable. Without them, how are we going to deliver the ideas and innovations needed to effectively and sustainably build next generation brands?

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Dulcie Cowling, ECD and founding partner, Hell Yeah

At Hell Yeah, we don’t see ethical alignment as a problem to be solved. We consider it a competitive advantage. If people don’t believe in what they’re selling, how can they produce their best work? Obviously, ethics are highly subjective and we are a diverse team with different views, but there are some fundamental principles that guide who we do and don’t work with.

We keep our decisions and client roster under constant review and take all views into account. We only work with clients that align with our values – not just because it helps us sleep at night, but because our hunger to help the good guys win is what drives us.

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Hannah Johnson, executive director of global marketing and partnerships, Blue State

We put values ahead of profit – we work with organizations seeking to create positive progress. There is no doubt this area is getting greyer – not just for brands but for NGOs too, which is why we look into every new organization we’re thinking of working with to make sure they’re a fit. We have also held team-wide votes with the options: ‘I don’t think any of us should be working on this’, ‘this isn’t for me but I don’t mind if others support it’ and ‘I’d love to take part’.

As employers, we shouldn’t be just assigning team members to projects based on availability, but partnering with them to understand what’s a good fit knowing that when passion meets ideas is when we’ll be able to deliver the best possible work and outcome for everyone

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Saul Parker, founder, The Good Side

We’re a values-driven agency and people come to work here who want to contribute to positive social impact. We work hard to foster an open and egalitarian culture, where anyone can question business decisions. Our biggest ethical issue is clients approaching us with bold intent, where in reality their sole motive is profit and communicating themselves out of a hole. We sacked a Fortune top 50 company when we realized it only wanted straplines and sales. Our work is in unpacking wicked problems and creating real change in culture. Unless clients are committed to impact, we won’t act.

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Simon Hewitt, founding partner, Orange Panther Collective

If a creative works on a brief that’s not the right fit, that’s always reflected in the work. Great ads project the passion and commitment of the people behind them – if that spark is missing from the process, it’s missing from the ad. And this is where the collective model comes into its own – it enables us to choose the best person for the brief from a pool of freelance creatives and, crucially, the creative can accept or decline the brief.

At a management level, we don’t have an official policy about who we do and don’t work with, but we do have a good human being and common-sense approach that means we don’t work with any brands we feel are bad for people and the planet.

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Fernando Music, partner, Mythology

Our size allows us to work with brands we feel good about seeing succeed and we keep our team top of mind when choosing clients and the categories we work on. This is easy when a company or brand is relatively new. Just Egg, a client, has sustainability as a core part of its DNA and that has been a good match. We also work with many clients that are certified benefit corporations. When we work with bigger, venerated businesses that have been around a long time, we’re invested in helping them make progress and center ethical issues in their marketing.

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Dan Dawson, chief creative officer, Grand Visual and Talon Outdoor

Last year, we began talking to a huge aerospace customer that had ambitions to use OOH to tell the world an interesting and future-facing story. I have to say, the nervous twitches in some of the creative team were palatable from the start. There was some concern that working for a client that had a perceived negative impact on the environment might lead to blowback on them individually.

Hearing the brief out, we collectively helped the client position its story of pushing the boundaries on what is possible technically to safeguard the world for future generations. We helped it use the world’s largest DOOH advertising opportunity to showcase its services – while also showing the positive impact they have, and will continue to have, on the world and its citizens. Ultimately, the client’s business story evolved and our job as storytellers is always to evaluate that and help craft it for audiences.

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