Selling the bad stuff

Cigarettes, gambling, booze and the Church of Scientology – would your agency take them on as clients? Robin Hicks asks what’s more important, money or morals.

Advertising agencies. What do the brands on your client list say about you? Do you carefully pick who you’ll work for? Or, since times are tough, will you merrily pimp the devil for a buck? Or – advertising being advertising – do morals fly out the window as soon as you join the game?

Now, we’re not suggesting the Church of Scientology is an evil client. But, as a brand, Scientology has an image that cannot accurately be described as Godly. So it was interesting that just last week – if what the Scientologists are claiming is true – “the best of Australia’s marketing agencies” were falling over themselves to work for what senator Nick Xenophon once referred to as a “criminal organisation”.

Michael Abdul is the founder of The Sphere Agency, a smallish independent Melbourne agency with 20 staff and clients such as Interflora, Bosch and Melbourne Heart football club. He says he wouldn’t work with the Church of Scientology because he is a Christian (an executive at a PR firm said she wouldn’t work with them because she’s Jewish). But Abdul feels less strongly about Scientology than he does about online gambling.

“I don’t want to make money off people’s misfortune,” he says. “It’s my company, and while I’m running it we will not work for gambling clients.”

The same applies to tobacco and alcohol advertisers, some of whom target under-age kids, says Abdul. “It’s not because I don’t smoke or like a drink. But I have to draw the line somewhere.”

Avoiding certain types of brands can be a smart way to build an agency’s profile. Republic of Everyone is a sustainability agency that specialises in brands that do good. Co-founder Ben Peacock says the clients you don’t work for says more about your agency than those you do.

“We’re only interested in working with clients who are genuinely trying to change the way they do things, and reduce their impact on the environment,” says Peacock, who counts FMCG firm Unilever and construction giant Lend Lease among his clients.

This means being careful about clients who try to get his agency to do their dirty washing. “If a brand comes to us that has just been in trouble in the press, and just wants to get a good story out, we’re not interesed in their business,” he says.

Having morals can be good for hiring the ‘right’ sort of people. Republic hired the former acting CEO of Greenpeace, Dae Levine, in December 2011 to run its government and NGO business – and promoted her to MD just a few months later. “When someone you employ turns out to be smarter, better with people and more business savvy than you are, there’s only one thing to do – make them your boss,” said Peacock at the time.

But being picky about clients is usually a luxury only independent agencies – or do-gooding specialists – can afford.

“Big network agencies will pitch for anything,” says pitch doctor Darren Woolley. “They are purely driven by money. One great Australian agency used to have morals. But that changed when they sold out completely to a big holding company.”

Believing in something – anything – is becoming more important in such a cluttered, cut-throat market as Australia. “The question is, do you take a moral stance? Or do you need the money so bad you become a prostitute?” wonders Woolley.

Indies can more easily stick to their morals, but that resolve is put to the test when times get tough. “It’s easy to say you won’t work for a tobacco or fur company – until the dogs are at the door,” he adds.

But working with ‘sin’ brands can be bad for business. The National Stroke Foundation found itself without an agency when DraftFCB Melbourne closed last year. The NSF says it wouldn’t hire an agency that makes ads for, say, cigarettes, because cigarettes cause strokes – which would rule out Leo Burnett Melbourne, which handles Philip Morris.

The charity ended up moving its account to DraftFCB’s Sydney office. Does the NSF worry that DraftFCB advertises snack foods (Kraft biscuit brand Oreo), not typically associated with healthy living? Mary Orgill, NSF’s director of communications, says: “DraftFCB has supported the NSF for more than eight years and assisted with the evolution of some of our key campaigns. We understand they have a list of commercial clients and do not see their association with the Oreo brand as any kind of conflict. We promote balance and moderation in diet, with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, for improved overall health and to lower stroke risk.”

Could it sometimes be a better idea for ad agencies to shrug off any pretentions that advertising is a ‘good’ business, and throw out morals altogether? In the winter of 2011, Ed Commander, the former boss of WPP agency G2, whose biggest client is British American Tobacco, said he wanted to work with other ‘vice’ clients. Junk food, alcohol, anything bad for your health – bring it on, he said at the time.

Though some months later Commander found himself without a job (ironically enough, he has since scored a role in the marketing department of a healthcare firm), in theory, his was a sensible approach to winning new clients. We know how to sell bad stuff. Let us sell your bad stuff too.

Though Commander’s idea didn’t work (the agency has made redundancies in recent months, and did not report winning any new clients while he was in charge), his point about the sort of people willing to work ‘sin’ brands is worth noting. In his view, these people are “independent, strong-minded thinkers” – not “wishy-washy” types.

“Fifty per cent of people will never work on tobacco business, and that’s fine. But 30 per cent would think about it,” he said. With so many ad folk out of work, that percentage is probably on the rise – along with the attitude that, as long as a brand is legal to sell, then why should I feel guilty about spruiking it?

Personal beliefs can create cultural ructions in an agency, particularly when it comes to politics; a potentially thorny issue in an election year. Australia’s political parties have tended to be represented by small units led by individuals – Neil Lawrence for Labor and Ted Horton for the Liberals – rather than by bigger agencies, to avoid this tension, says Darren Woolley.

“Politics can quickly divide an agency,” he says. “Staff have beliefs too – which may be different to management’s.” But this has yet to cause internal problems, says Dan Johns, the boss of Ikon Communications, the buying agency for Labor in the coming election.

“We’ve never had an issue with this in regards to any of the election campaigns we have done – three Federal campaigns and two in Queensland. In fact, we always have lots of volunteers who are more than happy to get involved with the uniqueness of an election campaign,” says Johns.

“We recently declined to pitch for a dating website that targeted married customers, so we are happy to draw the line based on what our people think is morally unacceptable.”

This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.


  1. Alison F
    22 Feb 13
    12:10 pm

  2. interesting article. I’m not one to judge much but that doesn’t mean I don’t have personal ethical stances on things. That said, I have found myself working for political groups that I don’t support and animal ‘health’ products when I am in fact a vego… Whoring seems to be a part of what we do… and there’s always another whore waiting in the wings to charge less or pick up rejected ‘evil’ accounts…

  3. Nanny State
    22 Feb 13
    3:58 pm

  4. I’d like someone to explain what, exactly, is “immoral” about cigarettes, alcohol and gambling?

    “Ill advised”, possibly, when taken to extremes, but all are legal, and surely a matter of personal choice. Almost anything at all on the planet taken to an extreme, could be equally as harmful as any of these things.

    Personally, I think it’s just as “immoral” to continue to breed children that you have not a hope in hell of paying for, or sitting on your date drawing “public” money when there’s bugger all wrong with you, but does this mean I wouldn’t work on any product that these people would buy? Probably not.

  5. jean cave
    23 Feb 13
    7:17 am

  6. Addictive stuff sells itself . . . doesn’t it?

  7. David Trussler
    23 Feb 13
    2:07 pm

  8. Good article. Morality is always an important issue and despite inaccurate,negative perceptions that our industry will do anything for money, most agency principals think carefully about the business they work on. For my part I have no problem working on gambling products, but the Church of Scientology would be a different matter. The legal system ensures everyone is entitled to have a lawyer defend their rights however guilty a person might appear to be. It is perhaps naive to be too critical of people who have different beliefs and if they feel they want to run an account than so be it.

  9. Technojames
    25 Feb 13
    2:57 pm

  10. I worked for a gambling organisation for 7 years and was never once offered cocaine at a work function.

    It took 2 weeks after joining a media/advertising organisation…

  11. The Awful Truth
    10 Mar 13
    8:00 pm

  12. What a load of rubbish. Every agency has their price for one. Secondly, What about the magazines, newspapers, tv networks who took millions in tobacco ad revenue when they knew it had health effects. Lets not forget Cosmetics has animal testing, fast food obesity with trans fats, coke with sugar. Do you eat fish as the oceans are over fished so you are a guilty party. Do you buy products produced in China where appalling human rights and working conditions are at play. Where’s the line? There isn’t one my friend, not in advertising and not on moral issues as every category has their issues. This so called moralistic stance is a rubber facade for guilt ridden ad execs who try and justify why they cannot win any business. Clowns.

  13. Simon
    11 Mar 13
    12:53 pm

  14. @The Awful Truth – with that logic i presume the only thing stopping you from selling guns and drugs to school children is your concern of legal implications.
    Pointing to others and crying “we’ll their doing it too” isn’t good enough.

    @Technojames your point is rather diminished as you only worked for one employer in each field and your experience does not reflect either industry as a whole.

  15. The Awful Truth
    11 Mar 13
    11:29 pm

  16. @simon – thanks for sharing your wisdom – not sure what you are saying however Im sure it makes sense in your own mind which is the main thing. Have another read and try and work out what I was saying – common sense may evade you inside that brain however maybe try and read others. Have a nice day.

  17. Simon
    12 Mar 13
    11:55 am

  18. @The Awful truth – i am sorry if have misunderstand what your message is but to me it reads forget ethics and morality – just buy/sell the product ?
    If i have interpreted this incorrectly please excuse me.

  19. The Awful Truth
    12 Mar 13
    11:03 pm

  20. @simon – I’m saying where do we/you draw the line? ie: China – appalling human rights and animal welfare issues however we celebrate the Beijing Olympics whereby thousands of locals lost their homes for venues. We seem to forget this – so do we boycott China, its millions of products we wear and give our children as toys everyday?. Most do not, we happily continue to purchase. Cigarettes – in the UK most councils have money tied up in tobacco stock as do many pension funds as it is a blue chip defensive stock in recessionary times. Our lines of where we stop are hazy based upon our needs. The hypocrisy is rife in all categories. So i struggle to understand the boundaries to operate within with so many blurred lines.

  21. Simon
    13 Mar 13
    1:47 pm

  22. @The Awful Truth – mate i agree and i think it’s time to accept that in most cases we are in fact enabling our own demise by way of what we buy and invest in.
    We are mostly all guilty and have to turn it around.
    The superannuation point you mentioned is a perfect example – how many of us know exactly what we have invested in ?
    Supporting corporations in pumping billions out of our own country to our own detriment (google ahem) is just plain madness.
    Time to draw a line in the sand at the and we’ve got to start somewhere.
    good chat , thanks

  23. Chrrrris
    17 Mar 13
    3:12 am

  24. @TheAwfulTruth: Sounds to me like you’re saying there can be no line. But I think that line must be draws somewhere. If society isn’t perfect (which it never will be) then that is no reason to say screw it all!

  25. The T
    19 Mar 13
    6:05 pm

  26. @The Awful Truth

    As Chrrrris alludes, it seems you can’t see the difference between working on things like cigarettes (when you use it as directed it will kill you), gambling (the more you use it the more you will lose – it’s a mathematical certainty that is the busines case backbone for the whole industry), or things like China (where not all environmental or work practices are bad and international trade has actually done a lot to bring to improve local’s lives).

    Just because you, “struggle to understand the boundaries to operate within with so many blurred lines”, doesn’t mean those with emotional intelligence and common sense do.