Ask Bullmore: Should I work for a company famous for its ethical scandals?
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

Ask Bullmore: Should I work for a company famous for its ethical scandals?

How can I work for a company that is frequently in the news for its ethical scandals? Agony uncle Jeremy Bullmore offers his advice.

Dear Jeremy, My agency is pitching for an account with a company that is frequently in the news for ethical scandals. I don’t feel I can, in good conscience, work for them – is there a way I can make my voice heard?

Are you sure that these ethical scandals are real, proven scandals stemming from scandalous behaviour? Or are they unsubstantiated rumours of scandals?

There’s nothing more unedifying than a service company backing nervously away from a potential client whose reputation is taking an utterly unwarranted mauling.

It’s not only cowardly; it’s an abdication of purpose. If the scandals seem to be well-founded, you need to check with your management that they’re aware of the possible reputational cost of taking on such a client.

At the very least, an off-the-record check with one or two existing clients would seem prudent. But almost always in such cases, things are more than a little fuzzy.

Yes, it’s true, there was a bit of trouble in the past, but that’s all over now. There’s a new man on the bridge and he’s claimed to have turned over a new leaf, started with a clean sheet, put the past behind him… But not everyone’s convinced.

Your conscience may still trouble you. In which case, you can ask your agency to do what many agencies did when it was still legal to advertise cigarettes: to free you personally from any obligation to work on this particular piece of business.

You and your agency may find that a perfectly agreeable compromise. I don’t. It means you can smugly sit back, your own conscience squared, while your colleagues are left to employ their considerable skills to promote a client you believe to be ethically dodgy; while your agency accepts its money for doing so; and while you continue to accept your agency’s money.

Please remember that the only sound test of a principle is that it costs you. This compromise would free your conscience yet cost you nothing. Surely that should seriously trouble your conscience?

My ad agency has just moved into a really fancy office with one of the best views in London. Should I start pushing it harder on margin?

I’ve always found it understandable that, even in the soundest and most successful of client/agency relationships, an element of one-way envy should be found.

I doubt if agencies envy their clients much; but I’d be amazed if senior brand managers didn’t occasionally think to themselves: "Here I am, with another set of dismal figures to explain away and nothing to look forward to but another bout of armwrestling with retailers and another niggly note from that upstart in procurement. What wouldn’t I give to be Nigel? Office to himself in a cool part of London, surrounded by leggy lovelies, and off next week to a shoot in Antigua. It’s all right for some, that’s what I say."

So, yes: I have some sympathy for you. But not with your suggestion. Dress it up as much as you like: but you will always be the principal and Nigel will always be the supplier.

If you make a success of your brand, the credit, entirely properly, will be all yours. Many people will have helped you, not least Nigel, but it was you who chose Nigel and you who motivated him.

To resent Nigel having a really fancy office is to surrender your ascendancy. It’s not simply envious; it’s pitifully petty.

I am the head of marketing at a mid-sized FMCG company. I report to the chief marketing officer, who is generally good at his job but has a seeming compulsion to make terrible jokes all the time. This can make him extremely trying to work with. How can I encourage him to tone it down?

Senior people attract toadies, creeps and grovellers. Toadies, creeps and grovellers laugh at senior people’s jokes. Senior people assume that, because toadies, creeps and grovellers laugh at their jokes, their jokes must be funny. And so they keep telling them.

But even deluded senior people will stop telling terrible jokes if absolutely nobody laughs at them. So the solution is in your hands and those of your colleagues.

Don’t say why, don’t explain and, whatever you do, don’t apologise. Just stop laughing. 

Dear Jeremy, I am the marketing director of a major brand, which does not allow me to do any kind of public speaking or build any kind of profile. While I appreciate the ethos behind the mantra ‘let the brand do the talking’, I am concerned this will harm my long-term prospects. What can you advise?

It’s probably best (it nearly always is) to start by trying to understand just why your company imposes these strict limitations on your activities. And I suspect that it’s a combination of two emotions: one fairly respectable and one rather less so.

Celebrity marketing directors are a relatively new breed. They’re famed for their apparent ability to market anything: from pension plans to prophylactics by way of Brix.com and Bristol Zoo.

They see marketing as an entirely portable skill that can be applied to wildly different sectors with the minimum of adjustment.

They spend much more time with their agencies than they do with their retailers and are regularly found at conferences – far more often as speakers (usually keynote speakers) than as mere delegates.

Sooner or later, their chief executives begin to suspect that celebrity marketing directors are at their most committed and most productive when they’re busy marketing themselves. And that, I would guess, is one of the reasons why your own board forbids you from public speaking.

I have some sympathy with them. (I notice, for example, that you regret being unable to "build any kind of profile". Would that be your company’s profile, I wonder – or could it just be yours?).

The less respectable reason is envy. Chairmen and chief executives of major brands don’t like subordinates getting too much credit and becoming more famous than they are.

When the marketing fraternity wonders plaintively why there are so few chief marketing officers on main boards, the answer is often quite simple: it’s much the most telling way for a chief executive to make clear to the world just who’s in charge round here; and, if there’s any credit going, who should get it.

Your salvation lies in the fact that the marketing world is a very small world. If you do a good job, however low your profile, the people who matter will discover who’s doing it. And, suddenly, your absence from platforms and opinion pieces will actually enhance your reputation: a marketing director whose foremost quality is modesty!

You’ll be on everybody’s shortlist. All this, of course, depends on your doing a good job. But that, after all, is what you’re paid to do.

I’m a junior member of staff in a well-established agency. I can’t help but notice how much of the senior leadership is leaving, but we’re not being told that there might be a wider issue. Should I be worried?

Yet again, let me suggest that you stop and think. You say you’re not being told that there might be a wider issue – but just suppose you were?

Suppose you got an all-staff email that read: "Dear all: in the interests of transparency and open management, I’m bringing you up to date with the state of the agency.

"You will have noticed that, over recent weeks, seven senior members of staff have left. These have not been isolated instances but more the result of a shared feeling that the agency was wallowing – and, more specifically, a wider issue that I, as the chief executive, was failing to provide the clarity of purpose and leadership that all seven believed necessary.

"I did my best to persuade them all to stay but failed. As a result, a great many clients are understandably concerned and so I am now dividing my time between trying to reassure them and wondering what to do next. As soon as I’ve thought of something, I will, of course, in the interests of transparency and open management, let you know what it is."

All successful leaders manage to survive periodic hazardous times through the temporary concealment of reality from their troops. It’s an occupational necessity. You need to realise that, being kept in the dark – however unsettling – can be a lot less worse than being faced with the brutal truth without so much as a hint of better times ahead.

Of course you should be worried; just don’t expect to be told why.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or by tweeting @Campaignmag with the hashtag #AskBullmore.