Prabhakar Mundkur Published: 14 Aug 2019, 1:30 AM
Guest Article

On Clients and the Transgression of Morals

Earlier this month, there was a furore about Ogilvy handling the Custom and Border Patrol (CBP) account.

It is not the first time there has been a discussion in the advertising industry about a client’s morals, or whether the agency should retain a client if their morals are objectionable.

Prabhakar Mundkur
Prabhakar Mundkur

I remember in my earliest advertising jobs, some agencies had a company policy not to handle tobacco or liquor, another one did not want to take up political campaigns, etc. But to my mind, all these agencies had a high sense of morals and ethics and typically their policy to not handle certain kinds of clients came from the philosophy of the man at the top. It was more a question of belief rather than morals. Because if you believe that tobacco is bad for the human race, your anger must be rightfully and primarily directed at the government for letting this industry exist rather than the advertising agency who handles tobacco accounts.

Image Courtesy : The Spectator
Image Courtesy : The Spectator

Let’s take a look at the Ogilvy-CBP case briefly. Ogilvy was retained to do recruitment advertising for CBP. The CBP detention centres have come under fire for their horrendous conditions. Some have even described their detention centres on the US-Mexico border as concentration camps. Videos about the facilities have created a storm on social media. Stories of the cruelty meted out at the detention centres are going around like wild fire including the one of a woman being made to drink water from a toilet bowl. But the primary responsibility of the CBP, as in the tobacco case, is the US Government. And rightfully, all anger must be directed at the government. So why do advertising agencies always get the wrong end of the stick?

Interestingly, both Accenture and Deloitte have had CBP as their client in the past and with consulting companies rapidly acquiring advertising agencies, issues like this might take on an interesting hue in the future. But the list of companies working with CBP are much more than Ogilvy and the consulting companies. IBM has worked with them, Unisys has provided both hardware and software, and so have other well-known companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. After all, CBP needs uniforms, hardware, software, drones and several other products and services to carry on their business. So where would one draw the line on how to starve CBP of all their vendors? Difficult question.

Can employees impose their will on their companies?

About 20 years ago, if employees objected to the social policies of the advertising agency, perhaps, they would have been asked to leave their jobs and find companies that are more in sync with their own values. But no longer. Employees have huge expectations on how their companies should behave in the social sphere.

When Google agreed to help the Pentagon with AI for defence purposes, the employees at Google threw a fit. They didn’t want their company to be remotely connected with war. 4000 employees signed a petition that they didn’t want Google to go ahead with Project Maven, a program by Pentagon which focused on the targeting systems of the military’s armed drones. The tech giant is supposed to contribute artificial intelligence technology to the program. Essentially, machine-learning algorithms to help military drones.

Are Ogilvy employees unique in taking a stand against CBP as a client?

Not really. More than 650 employees are known to have written to the earlier Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff criticising the company for the work they did for CBP. Salesforce employees had felt it went against the ethos of the tech company.

Accenture employees did likewise. They circulated a petition where they said, “The technology we provide is sold in the name of efficiency, but all we see is technology supercharging inhumane and cruel policies”. Further they said, “We joined Accenture because we want to work for a company that does good in the world, a company that helps vulnerable immigrants, not facilitates putting them into cages.” For Accenture, the CBP contract was worth $297 million -not a small amount. Again, the contract was to hire new staff for CBP, an effort similar to Ogilvy. There was even a petition on change.org.

One Ogilvy employee was applauded when he said, “We are a business of morals and influence, and our perspective can’t just be economic. ... This is about people, not just about money.”

So where does all this leave us?

It does seem as if employees today have strong views about the vision and culture of their company and what kinds of businesses they should acquire.

How does this affect other professions other than advertising, technology and consulting? Can a lawyer afford to have the same sense of ethics whilst accepting a client? For example if the lawyer is convinced of his client’s guilt should he continue to represent him? There are lawyers who do and lawyers who don’t. What about doctors? Can a doctor afford to say he won’t treat a patient because of the patient’s morals? I don’t think so.

But companies might be increasingly in a position where they are not left with a choice because employees can be a strong force that can impose their will on their employers. So companies might need to exercise more caution while accepting clients/business associates in the future. Morality and ethics has become a company-wide issue and not one that only the CEO and board of directors has to grapple with.

(The author is a former adman and present-day brand strategy consultant).