Interpublic chairman urges rivals to do more good, as WPP boss says tobacco work is a personal choice

The chairman of holding company Interpublic Group used his platform at Advertising Week Europe to call on his peers to do more good in the world, minutes before the boss of rival group WPP was asked on the same stage to defend working for tobacco companies.

Michael Roth, chairman of Interpublic, and Mark Read, CEO of WPP, were among the opening speakers at the London conference. Although they did not appear on stage together, both were asked about the issue of brand purpose, and the advertising industry’s wider responsibilities to society.

Roth brought over from the US client Anne Finucane, vice chairman of Bank of America, to speak about projects including efforts to provide clean water in the third world.

He said: “When you think of purpose-driven advertising, it’s pretty clear that companies that participate on particular issues, and part of their communications and advertising have component of that, perform better.

“In order to build your brand you have to stand for certain things. Investors are looking for companies that stand for something and have value in the market place. The truth is, how do you distinguish a brand in today’s environment if you don’t have values. Purpose-driven advertising is a very important component of brand building, aside from doing good.”

Roth: “Plenty” of rivals are not doing enough good deeds

Roth said that Interpublic’s focus on water security had come about as part of a UN cross-industry initiative in which different organisations agreed to tackle specific UN priorities.

He appeared to hint that others had failed to follow through. He said: “It was an attempt by the United Nations to put the competitors in the same room and jointly work towards these development goals, putting aside the competitive aspect and we would each adopt a strategic development goal.”

Roth was asked: “And did it work?”  He replied: “Well, it worked for us.”

Asked later in the session if his competitors need to step up more, he said: “The more the merrier. It’s critical to the viability of our industry.”

Asked by Mumbrella if others were lagging, he said: “Yes. Plenty are, but I’d rather not talk about it.”

Immediately after Roth’s session, Read was quizzed on stage about WPP’s fortunes. He took charge of the company in September last year after the exit of Sir Martin Sorrell.

The only awkward moment of Read’s interview came when he twice appeared to dodge a question about the company’s work for tobacco clients.

Interviewer Kathleen Saxton, CEO of The Lighthouse Company, asked Read: “Do you have from the purpose, morals, ethics point of view, without naming any names, any clients that you may choose as the global CEO to not work with, because they are maybe not sustainable or maybe they are in sectors we have discovered are no good for us?”

Read’s first response, in full, was: “Um, you know I think we’ve set out a new purpose for WPP, you know within that purpose around, you know, around, you know, building a better future for our clients. Um, I don’t think there’s anything, er, (pause), you know I think we’ve had a approach to taking on clients for a long time and I think we can continue that. If that’s a way of answering your question?”

Saxton responded: “Not really. What does that mean?”

Read responded: “You know, we work with a large number of clients all around the world. I can’t be intimately familiar with every single one of them from day one.”

Saxton pressed: “I guess my question is – would you take on a client , let’s say if it was in the smoking area, would you feel that maybe with what we’ve learned in the last decade you wouldn’t want to work with a client like that, or do you not see the world in that way?”

Read said: “Our people have to be able to decide what clients they want to work on and what clients they don’t want to work on and they should be absolutely free to make their own decisions. And clearly there are clients we would and wouldn’t work for.”

According to academic group Tobacco Tactics, WPP agencies around the world which have had clients in the tobacco industry include PR agencies Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, along with ad agencies JWT and Ogilvy.

Many of those within the advertising industry argue that if a product is legal, it should be acceptable for an agency to provide its services, in the same way they do for potentially unhealthy products such as alcohol or unhealthy foods.

In 2011, Ed Commander, the boss of WPP’s G2 agency told Mumbrella that he intended to make the agency first port of call for “vice” clients which included British American Tobacco.

In a rare example of an agency boss commenting on such clients, Commander said at the time: “Our experience is in vice products. “We want to look at working on specialist projects with large corporations in categories such as junk food – products high in fat and salt – and also build on our relationships with alcohol clients.”

Other agencies Tobacco Tactics says have had links to the tobacco industry have included Omnicom’s Proximity Worldwide, and PR agency Edelman. Mumbrella does not suggest the Australian offshoots of these agencies are part of any such arrangement. However, Edelman no longer works with tobacco clients and in 2006 published a code of conduct saying it would not do so in the future.

Disclosure: As Mumbrella has previously announced, Marian Salzman, senior VP of global communications for Phillip Morris International, will be appearing at Mumbrella’s CommsCom conference later this month to discuss what she claims is the company’s evolution away from smoking. At a keynote speech at last year’s Cannes Festival, Salzman called on the advertising industry to put its resources behind raising awareness of smoke-free alternatives.


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