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.


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