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Advertising's moral dilemma: Why agencies should take the high ground and not the wonga

By Jeremy Lee, columnist

May 27, 2015 | 5 min read

When the payday loan operator Wonga split with its agency Albion after four years together it was impossible not to suppress a deep feeling of relief.

Jeremy Lee won't miss Betty, Earl and Joyce

First it meant the end of that grotesque puppeteer's geriatric ménage à trois – Betty, Earl and Joyce – preying on the vulnerable and the desperate in a 'light-hearted' and morally dubious but apparently entirely legal way.

And second because Albion is a far better shop than this campaign displayed – not just creatively but from a moral dimension too. This particular client on its roster always seemed to demean and devalue a pioneering and innovative agency that had always promised a lot and often delivered more.

Albion resigned the account with a somewhat enigmatic explanation, citing “certain practices… that we were unaware of and we categorically do not agree with”. This opaque statement begged more questions than it answered but either way it seemed to show a triumph of principle over profit. And this Damascene conversion, you could argue, was long overdue.

Wonga has now attempted to reposition itself as a more responsible provider of short-term credit with its 'Credit for the real world' campaign through Fold7, which ticks all the boxes for a clichéd romp about ordinary hard-working people. The first spot is unlikely to trouble many awards juries but taken in the context of of Fold7’s recent but now terminated work for Gocompare, which was set in a fictional Welsh town, it’s a relative triumph both for the agency and for Wonga.

If Wonga’s chief executive Andy Haste, who was responsible for packing Betty, Earl and Joyce off to marionette hell as part of its repositioning, holds true to his word and avoids the scandals of miscalculated customer balances and threatening letters from phoney law firms that engulfed his predecessors then it’ll be progress of sorts. After all, it’s better for people short on credit and cash to borrow from a heavily regulated payday lender than fall into the clutches of some of its grubby backstreet alternatives.

While Fold7 and Albion before it are willing to work on accounts, such as payday loans, that are perfectly legal but morally questionable, there are many agencies that would not. For example, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO is famous for having nothing to do with the tobacco industry.

Other agencies are more likely to heed the words of Lord Bell who, when challenged about the sort of morally questionable corporations and organisations he was willing to work for, replied that morality wasn’t for him to decide. “I am not a priest,” he said.

But the industry looks like it may be going through its own version of moral purgatory with recent sacerdotal pronouncements by the incoming president of the IPA and chairman of the the Advertising Association respectively.

Tom Knox and now James Murphy have both laid out their agendas [see Knox's piece for The Drum on 'conscious capitalism'] and there seems to be a remarkable amount of consensus between the pair.

Both stress how advertising should be seen as a force for good and how the industry needs to do more to promote its higher purpose, beyond the profit lines of large corporations, many of which increasing numbers of people are either ambivalent about or hate.

Knox, the clever and civilised founder of DLKW Lowe, has coined the phrase 'here for good' as his mission agenda, which will recognise and promote advertising’s societal value and raise its ethical standards. It’s a slightly high church and lofty approach, but one that is worthy of support.

Equally Murphy, the charismatic chief executive of Adam&EveDDB, has set out his agenda to prove how advertising is good for the economy, society and people over at the AA. In particular he wants to make more of when the industry 'does good' through charitable support or promoting positive behavioural change. It’s the sort of stuff you’d hear from a trendy vicar in a T-shirt and is equally laudable.

What is also striking is how both Knox and Murphy’s predecessors at the IPA and the AA also seemed to share a common purpose. Ian Priest and Cilla Snowball used their positions to promote the value that advertising played for business and the economy (although Priest’s alphabet soup approach based around the acronym ADAPT was sometimes difficult to follow). They were appropriate for a Britain struggling with the recession.

While both Knox and Murphy would never claim to be saintly, their agendas seem to chime with the public mood. Now let’s see if more agencies are willing to follow the lead of Albion and adopt a more moral approach to business by checking the integrity of those clients they work for.

Jeremy Lee's column will appear on thedrum.com monthly. Until the next one, you can follow Jeremy on Twitter @jezzalee

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