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Ad Association's 'we're not paid advocates' stance is noble – but does the industry practice what it preaches on morals?

By Jeremy Lee, columnist

February 1, 2016 | 4 min read

James Murphy, the chief executive of Adam&Eve/DDB and chairman of the Advertising Association, used last week’s LEAD conference to put the case that the advertising industry needed to take responsibility for its actions.

James Murphy

He argued that it was in the interests of agencies not to view themselves as paid advocates, like lawyers, but rather consider the moral dimension of the client and the views of their staff before taking on an ad brief.

It all fits in neatly with his AA agenda of positioning advertising as a force for good – for the economy, society, business and people – and mirrors that of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

However given that Google is one of the AA’s members (and incidentally also one of Adam&Eve/DDB’s clients) and has been in the news for all the wrong reasons last week, it will be interesting to see what its response to this challenge to adopt the moral high ground will be and whether the agency will continue to work with it.

Quite rightly there has been howls of outrage to the chancellor George Osborne’s deal with Google, with some saying that the back payment amounts to just a three per cent rate on its UK earnings – most of which will have come from advertising sales – over the period.

While Osborne and prime minister David Cameron sought to position the deal as some sort of success, the fact that the business secretary Sajid Javid described it as not a “glorious moment” suggests that there is recognition just how toxic the deal has become. It’s quite something when even Rupert Murdoch manages to be on the side of the righteous when he took to Twitter to criticise the deal.

Of course Murphy is right in that advertising should adopt an ethical dimension if it is to maintain the empathy with the public as well as the feelings of its staff – it is, as he says, a people business. It might also explain why he’s managed to build one of the best ad agencies in the world, but whether this translates to a holding company level – and more particularly to ad agencies’ sister media networks – is entirely different.

The issue of bots, viewability, rebates and sur-commissions has never really been addressed satisfactorily. There are many clients still suspicious that at least some of these are still current but are kept, if not covered up, then at least slightly obscured as they work in the favour of the media agencies’ business models.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States where a cross-industry task force set up by the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies to address concerns over media rebates and establish best practices on transparency has started to unravel.

As The Drum reported, the ANA has accused the 4As of failing to address the concerns of its members and of prematurely releasing the report without its authorisation.

While the taskforce was set up to address purely concerns raised in the US by a former media agency chief, is it really that inconceivable that the same might be happening in other markets, including the UK?

And if that is the case then this, plus the attempts by Google and Facebook to pay the bare minimum of tax on revenue generated by advertising, suggests the whole moral dimension advocated by Murphy and others might sound a little hollow.

Follow Jeremy Lee on Twitter @jezzalee

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