Is it time for a new set of values for a new era of advertising?

Words can be like brands and one word that has now got the worse brand image of all time must be ‘greed’. T-shirts are already appearing in markets with a Thatcher cartoon on and the slogan “greed is good for a few and bad for the rest of us”.

The recession has exposed an indefensible amount of unethical behavior by bankers who’s only value has been greed. Eric Daniels, Andy Honby, Lord Stevenson and the rest may have got a good grilling by the press and politicians and stimulated a lot of public anger, but when you have been pocketing obscene bonuses for years it’s a small price to pay as you sip vintage champagne on your yacht in the Maldives. Saying “sorry” and then defending bonuses as “well earned” isn’t washing (Bob Diamond got paid £20m at Barclays in 2007). As the Independent on Sunday said, ‘what planet are they on? A different one from the rest of us.’

Apparently, the backlash has resulted in lots of students signing up to left wing groups and anti-capitalist organizations in colleges. The next generation doesn’t sound like it’s going to be very ad friendly. The recession has left almost everyone asking the question, “what is the true cost of making money?” While religious leaders are quoting “money is the root of all evil” in their Sunday sermons and most of us are starting to agree as we fear for our jobs and homes.

Money is a twin edge sword that can motivate or corrupt. One agency (that will remain nameless) discovered how bonuses brings out the bad in people. Account handlers started fiddling invoices and double billing clients to make targets and get big
bonuses. As this legendary story goes, the agency nearly ended up in court and had to pay back all fees to one client to avoid a public scandal. The simple rule I read (I think in a Peter Drucker or Tom Peters book) was, if you have to use money to motivate people to do their job properly you have the wrong people. I haven’t yet met a really good creative who did better work for a bonus. Or a nurse, policeman, soldier or teachers. I’ve heard of lots of stories of bent traffic wardens though.

The Triple bottom line – People, Planet & Profit has been at the core of many ethical businesses but even mainstream brands must be looking to be a little more ethical given the public outcry. Could this result in a move to more ethical business models like Quaker, Puritan or even Islamic models? These all balance a businesses need to make money with making a positive effect upon society. Brands like Cadbury’s built houses, schools, churches and health centres for their workers. Brands like The Body Shop and John Lewis make employees part of their business. There are many brands that prove that you can make money without abandoning basic social values or exploiting people.

Of course the ad industry is going through many changes and the big question is, is the current model (largely based on the 60’s model) right for the future? Has it become too fat in places with too much admin? Could the recession be the perfect
catalyst for a positive change, after all we are one of the last creative industries to change.

In these dubious times redundancies are so common they no longer make the pages of the news and all of us in the ad industry have got friends who have been laid off in the last few weeks. Freelancers and juniors are getting an equally negative message, “we’re not hiring” or “we’re cutting back on freelancers.” It’s a tough business and the really tough bit is to treat people fairly and with respect. I’ve recently heard some disgusting stories of how some agencies have been trying to get people out without decent pay offs. Cutting costs isn’t the same as making money and trying to save on redundancies packages only puts us in the same hall of shame as those bankers.

Equally as concerning in these times is the pressure those still in a job are going to be put under. The work needs to be done but with less people how will this impact upon families? Will we see more stress related illnesses? Are clients aware of the outcome of paying less but demanding more?

What if the ad business turned over a new leaf and tried to be more ethical? To adopt new values? Having worked with many charities, how would it be if agencies were set up as social enterprises? This means they can’t make money for shareholders but have to reinvest any profits back into the business – people, talent, training, resources, etc. This model has worked really well in other industries (especially ethical business) as it’s a value based business model not a profit based one. This
forces the business to focus on its core values. Makes you think, how different would an ad agency look?

My book – Ethical Marketing and the New Consumer: Marketing in the New Ethical Economy

  • Will Humphrey

    Surely it was ever thus that the best agencies were ‘social enterprises’?

    The best work comes from some form of higher order social truism or thought, in my opinion.

    I like the notion of agencies investing properly in the company, rather than shareholders though; means they may start to focus more on staff retention and fostering an enjoyable working environment – rather than joyless excellence which some agencies seem to thrive on.


    “When was the last time you heard someone use the word ‘fun’ to describe their job?” This was a quote from a headhunter I was talking to recently.