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Is there a moral high ground in advertising?

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about employees at companies like Google, Amazon, and Wayfair speaking up and demanding change from their employers. Last week, this wave of employee activism reached the advertising world when Ogilvy employees confronted the CEO over the company’s recruiting work for Customs and Border Patrol.

 In the article, I talked about the importance of aligning purpose with behavior – but how should we react when the behavior that’s being called into question is happening within an industry that has always stood on shaky moral ground?  Can there even be a moral high ground in an industry known for manipulating people’s emotions to get them to buy things that, at best, they don’t really need and that, at worst, can kill them?

It’s not to say that ad agencies and their leaders don’t or shouldn’t have a conscience, they absolutely should and many do, turning down assignments from big tobacco, gun manufacturers, and other “problematic” clients. But where do you draw the line? And on what criteria?  What makes recruiting for CBP not ok, but recruiting for the armed forces acceptable?  Is it ok to sell sugary snacks and drinks to the people most suffering from obesity and diabetes? To promote an opioid induced constipation drug in the middle of the opioid crisis?  

I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer but as a first step, agencies need to listen to employees and stakeholders, take input, and be really deliberate about defining where their “line” is. And once an agency decides which issues and clients fall within that, that line and the rationale behind it need to be explicitly and transparently shared with employees. Employees need to know where they draw the line too, which might mean choosing not to work on a piece of business or passing up (or leaving) a job at an agency whose client roster doesn’t align with your values.

It’s highly unlikely that there will ever be total alignment between employee and agency values, especially in an industry climate of contraction, shrinking margins, and increased competition. But if it’s out in the open, everyone at least gets to choose for themselves where the line is and which side of it they’re on.

Holly Mourgues