Liars, cheats and thieves

MainScreen-Android-SFWIs our industry full of cheats and liars or do people of honour who stand by their word still exist in business? In an article that first appeared in Encore, Cameron Boon investigates. 

The recent court case involving Paul Fishlock suing his former employer The Campaign Palace brought into focus more than just the struggle of one man. It highlighted that there are some in adland whose word cannot always be relied upon.

Fishlock, who was dumped from his position as the national creative director for the agency, discovered he had been ousted after reading about it in the trade press and the case saw many reputations take a battering, including former Campaign Palace CEO Mark Mackay. After sifting through correspondence between Mackay and Young & Rubicam’s global creative director, Tony Granger, and hearing testimony from Mackay, Justice John Sacker chose his words carefully. “I have serious misgivings about Mr Mackay’s evidence,” he said.

From this evidence, it emerged that there were times when Mackay was discussing with Fishlock the appointment of a creative director who would report to him while Mackay and the international management were, in fact, planning a replacement for Fishlock.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fishlock won damages in the ballpark of $300,000.

Sadly, this is not the only recent example that has raised the question of whether someone in the marketing and media industry can be taken at their word. Another high-profile case before the courts in recent months brought this home − the hearing to decide the fate of former Spice Girl Mel B’s local TV career. The case saw details of conversations between Mel B’s partner and manager Stephen Belafonte and Seven’s Brad Lyons come under scrutiny. Much like in the Campaign Palace case, the presiding judge, Justice Hammerschlag, concluded that Belafonte was “unsatisfactory,” “evasive” and “unclear”. Lyons’ reputation, on the other hand, remained intact.

A third case, back in 2010, was similarly poor for the reputation of adland. Andrew Moss sued Lowe Hunt & Partners after he joined the company based on the promise that it was in good shape, only to discover it was technically insolvent. He also won about $300,000 in compensation.

And it’s not just individuals in the business whose reliability is in question. Brands can also face a backlash when the public feels misled. Earlier this year Domino’s Pizza suffered the ire of the public for its “game changer” campaign that wasn’t really a game changer at all. While the stakes were lower, the teaser campaign fell flat − and made the brand look somewhat foolish when it proved to have nothing bigger to announce than a new pizza range. It didn’t help that Domino’s boss Don Meij was the face of the campaign.

But when it comes to misdirecting the public, it’s hard to forget Witchery’s girl in the jacket campaign from 2009.

Naked Communications was behind the campaign which − via a YouTube video and a misleading tip-off to the press − claimed an attractive woman called Heidi was on the hunt for a man who left his jacket behind in a Sydney cafe. She was actually an actress cast by the agency.

An unamused press, and unhappy rival agencies who didn’t like what it did for the reputation of the industry, went hard against Naked. But while Naked’s head of behavioural science, Adam Ferrier, says he wouldn’t change the campaign itself, or the initial deception, he would change the way his agency handled the response.

“People are very wary and defensive of anything that makes them feel stupid and it’s a fine line to tread between a practical joke and insulting somebody’s intelligence,” says Ferrier. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though, because something you’ve made that seems fairly playful and mischievous can be very quickly demonised.” Ferrier quotes Mark Twain, saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” and says advertising isn’t always “straight down the line” when it comes to selling a product. “Sometimes you have to fabricate something to generate conversation,” he adds.

And the stunt certainly did generate conversation as Naked pushed the campaign to its limits, running an ad that listed the journalists duped by the ruse.

One of the journalists on that list was the Sunday Telegraph’s Caroline Marcus, then employed by Fairfax Media. At the time, she called it “journalistic fraud”, and told Encore’s sister publication Mumbrella: “If the CEOs of Naked Communications and Witchery think that the media will forgive and forget being lied to, then the biggest joke is on them.”

Anthony Freedman, founder of ad agency Host and the chairman of the Communications Council, says there are clear legal boundaries around what advertisers can and cannot say.

“That doesn’t mean that agencies, like lawyers, won’t find a way to present the facts in the most compelling way possible. In fact that’s the agency’s job – to find a way to present the truth in a simple, memorable, unexpected and differentiated way.

“In general, despite what some might think, most people who work in advertising have a moral compass that points true north. In pitching, we compete hard against one another and like to know who we are up against, but it’s all left on the field and we’ll win, more or less, fair and square and take the losses on the chin.

“That said, of course there are some for whom winning at any cost is considered fair and square. But I think that’s true of any business or industry, not just advertising.”

Sometimes, of course, whether or not an agency is lying to consumers is settled by the regulators. Sportswear brand Skins was penalised $120,000 in 2008 by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission after being found to have engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in advertising. It had wrongly claimed in its ads that it did not pay sports stars to wear or endorse Skins products. Similarly Optus was fined an eye-watering $5m by the ACCC in 2011 after is made misleading claims about its broadband packages. And even Apple − which enjoys one of the best reputations in the world − was fined $2m last year for wrongly implying its iPads were 4G compatible when they were not.


One sector of the industry often called in to put a positive spin on less than palatable information is public relations. Stuart Gregor, chairman of industry body The PR Council and founder and director of PR firm Liquid Ideas, agrees that the industry is ruthless with clients looking to agencies to deliver information in as positive a way as possible.

“The simple fact is, you’re always working for somebody who has a challenging message to get out, whether it is cereal, beer or airlines. And that’s kind of the fun of it. The easy ones with an interesting story and a person everyone wants to interview is the dream, but that doesn’t always happen. The good ones don’t really need a PR agency.

“You don’t always win, you have a few blues and certainly losses along with the successes. When you’re given a hard brief you think ‘Jesus Christ, how are we going to massage this into a positive message?’ and we face that almost every day.

“It is increasingly hard to spin and bullshit your way out of things because there are so many more ways people can find the true ownership of a brand. Transparency is the key these days. Once upon a time you only needed to know a couple of people, but these days obfuscation is much more difficult. My advice is consistent and I tell people to just tell it like it is and work hard at it.”

Gregor says he once worked on an account for a Chinese restaurant in the early 2000s and attempted to sell “Chinese Tapas”.

“A food writer who I was friends with at the time called me and said, ‘I’ve seen some bullshit in my time. Chinese Tapas is called Yum Cha,’ and we got called out on that.”

The problem, of course, with being caught lying is that you won’t necessarily be believed next time. There are at least three major agency bosses whose future denials would have little credibility with the Encore team after having been caught red handed.


But there are others with a reputation as being among the most trustworthy in the business. One person known for being a straight shooter is Sydney ad agency Banjo’s managing director Andrew Varasdi – a man mentioned over the years to the Encore team by his peers more than once as someone whose word can always be trusted.

Varasdi says relationships between advertisers, agencies and the public need to be built on trust. He says: “To get any sort of meaningful work done, you have to be transparent and honour agreements and not try to pull the wool, so to speak. My experience has been that you’ll get caught or the relationship will break down and the work will suffer.”

“Sometimes integrity is lacking in the industry. From agency side, people haven’t been honest and have done whatever it takes to win a piece of business or to woo a potential staff member − but naturally things don’t work out in the long run.”

Naked’s Ferrier says: “I don’t think there’s a culture of lying in the industry, but advertising is art and it’s important to always be pushing to find out what is acceptable and what isn’t. You’ll always find the odd instance where somebody thinks they can get away with being untrustworthy but they’re few and far between. The days of lying and not getting caught are gone. People will find out and I don’t think any agencies can afford to have that happen. Sure it’ll happen by mistake from time to time, but I don’t think it’s a deliberately malicious act.”

And it’s worth noting that adland’s job is different to journalism.

A century ago, HK McCann, now McCann Erickson, launched. Its motto – Truth Well Told – still stands.

Encore issue 13

This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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