Adland's moral maze

If your personally held views conflict with what you do at work, do you forget your principles or dissent?

Conservatives...controversial campaign
Conservatives...controversial campaign

"Hang the bastards," the senior agency planner at the next table to me growled. It was during the height of the banking failures and there was fresh news of various bankers and financiers, their transgressions and their recent bonuses. He was genuinely angry, almost incapable of drinking his claret, indignant at their selling huge loans to people who couldn't possibly afford them.

I happen to know that in a long and varied career, he'd worked on any number of financial accounts, quite possibly on campaigns linked to the activities he now found so reprehensible. And it did make me wonder, as he ranted at their greed, exactly where does our moral responsibility as our clients' advertising and communication agents begin and end?

If he's going to get that outraged, shouldn't he exercise his pungent views before the event - and risk losing his client - or should he, as a paid advocate, swallow his concerns, shut up, and do what he's told? Can we claim that, as mere suppliers, we're not responsible, or does the rejection of "only obeying orders", the so-called "Nuremberg Defence", establish that we have moral responsibility over and above our immediate duties?

We are, after all, humans, mothers, brothers, friends and members of society first, marketing people second, with primary responsibilities to those close to us and around us. And, an increasing number would add, to the environment. As such, we have views about the world and community, views which will inevitably come into conflict with what we do at work. But when do we have the right as a retained agent representing our clients' interests in a capitalist free market to say: "I do not believe this is right and therefore I will not further its aim?"

Some believe in a demarcation between the twin existences of business and personal life. "You have to compartmentalise - you have to keep what's professional from what is personal, like a barrister defending the indefensible," Moray MacLennan, the chairman of M&C Saatchi, says. "It's not an agency's job to take moral decisions on behalf of their clients - I have an inbuilt resistance to people getting on their high horse."

But are there not products, activities, issues or interests that would give him personal problems promoting? He thinks for a moment and says: "Yes, I suppose there are. Fox hunting. Animal testing. An extreme political party." He trails off, as if imagining more. And there you find the conflict.

For if you feel strongly about something but there is revenue for your agency in promoting the opposing interest, where does that leave you?

I saw an emphatic illustration of one man's answer to the dilemma at WCRS, when Andrew Rutherford, the "R" of WCRS and as fine a copywriter as you'll ever meet, wrote a brilliantly persuasive and hard-hitting anti- abortion campaign for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. I was impressed and unnerved by the arguments, unnerved because I didn't originally sympathise with them.

"Do you really believe this, Andrew?" I asked.

"No. I don't. But I'm a hired pen, an advocate. And I think their argument should get an airing."

It's a thoroughly honourable position, especially if held in support of a belief in the total freedom of speech or in the tradition of Voltaire's "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". And we are, as he says, paid advocates; although, interestingly, the position doesn't find exact precedent in the role of a barrister. Contrary to popular belief, a barrister can refuse a case and even walk off it if he or she believes to continue it would necessitate misleading the court.

And it's not a view shared by everyone. Rutherford himself would never work on tobacco. And when it was fully legal to handle tobacco business - and, it should be remembered, highly rewarding - the fact that a considerable number of agencies refused is an indication that there is already widespread acceptance that advertising isn't entirely about the bottom line.

Jeremy Miles, the chairman of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says: "If you own an agency, you run it on ethical and moral guidelines, and I certainly think it's our duty to tell clients, if it should happen, when we think they're getting into questionable areas."

And, for Jeremy, he doesn't just mean commercial judgment, he very much means moral. I raise with him a recent story involving Lloyds TSB.

It was castigated for sending out Visa debit cards to children as young as 11, with no intention of telling their parents. At the time, a spokesman said: "We don't always have the parents' contact details or know the family's circumstances." Why this story wasn't a major scandal is beyond me, and, indeed, Miles, flying in the face of everything we understand about abuse of the trust of children, exploiting their ignorance, respect for parental control and responsibility - or even of your own customers. "Absolutely we'd have told them what we thought, and probably requested not to co-operate on that particular project," Miles says.

Really? Even up to the point of losing business? After all, as Bill Bernbach said: "A principle isn't a principle until it costs you money."

"We've done it before," Miles says. "We had a profitable and friendly relationship with a client, an ISP provider, who then asked us to do a print campaign directing users to their porn sites. We had a conversation among the partners and decided we didn't want to touch it. We told them that and things got heated to the point where it was clear we were going to get fired. But we didn't back down and, in the end, we resigned the business."

To many, that would seem noble. To others, at worst bad business, at best sanctimonious. Every single agency chief I spoke to about the Lloyds TSB activity was pretty much appalled, but none, apart from Miles, said they would take dramatic action.

Robin Wight, the chairman of The Engine Group, is representative of the attitude to a client who may be crossing moral boundaries: "It becomes self-policing ... (a client) has to behave responsibly or risk their reputation."

But is that always the case? Miles' objection to the ISP client could never have been on business issues, as porn isn't necessarily bad for reputation - look at Sky, which carries enough of it.

Wight has a personal yardstick against which he measures products, services and issues that may present him with a moral problem: "I wouldn't promote anything that I would strongly want my kids not to do."

But, used in conjunction with his other measure of a product, "is it harmful in normal use?" - alcohol, no; tobacco, yes - it's a clever and almost unfailing tool. I first heard him state it many years ago during a fascinating debate at WCRS, when, as a "No Tobacco" agency, senior management were pondering whether to handle a cigar account. (In the end, we took it on, on the Clintonesque defence that "cigars are less harmful because you don't inhale". Discuss.)

Anyway, if you have no children, borrow someone else's for the purpose of this tenet, apply it to your circumstances and you'll find it all-embracing. I have three daughters and while I'd prefer that they didn't chew gum, pierce their bodies or pole-dance, I've never felt passionately enough about those things to act strongly against them. However, I would have lied, bribed, stolen, cheated - done anything to prevent them smoking. So there's my judgment, manifest in my hopes and fears for my children.

Having reached that decision, it seems weird, hypocritical - schizophrenic, even - that within half an hour of straining every sinew to persuade your children of something, you should arrive at work and encourage others to do exactly the opposite.

Which perhaps is why so many agencies make considerable room for conscientious objection. They don't strictly have to; according to Michael Burd, an employment lawyer at Lewis Silkin and a specialist in advertising: "Even if it's unwritten, there's an implied agreement in a contract that an employee agrees to undertake anything legal and reasonable. Apart from possible religiously based exemptions, no employee has a right to refuse work on moral or ethical grounds. But, nevertheless, I've never heard of any management forcing staff members to work against their will on, for example, a political cause."

This is partly, of course, because, at best, they'd produce third-rate work and, at worst, present a security or sabotage threat. (With glorious efficiency, though, at the height of their pomp on the Conservative Party account, Saatchi & Saatchi made use of the refuseniks by showing them roughs of their next ads, judging which would be the most successful by how enraged it made them!)

Stephen Woodford, the chief executive of DDB London, says: "Advertising is a heart and soul business, you've got to have passion for everything you're working on." But today we have an unprecedented awareness of consumer issues, local and global. And the consequent circulation of information often critical of the products we're paid to advertise could be putting an increasing strain on that passion.

A meal in a high-street cafe used to be a hamburger and a coffee. Now it's a hessian sack full of issues including fair trade, salt content, globalisation, employment exploitation, GM or organic content, dietary, over-packaging, to name a few.

Woodford remembers a mini revolt within a creative department on Kellogg because of sugar content. Sir John Hegarty recalls how naked anti-GM protestors on the roof of Bartle Bogle Hegarty created, not surprisingly, massive internal debate on the morality of handling the Monsanto business. And as an indication of just how complex and pervasive corporations and our consciences have become, and thus how the potential for objection has grown, there had already been a strong concerned debate internally about Monsanto's involvement in the manufacture of Agent Orange, used in Vietnam at least a generation earlier.

As Hegarty observes: "Take a company like Cadbury, a fine patrician ethos, concerned philanthropic employer even building a small town for its employees, making excellent products with a reputation for value, responsible quality control - look at that same company now and what do you see? Obesity!"

And it's not always what a client may be doing that can cause problems - it's what they want to say. I was once, only once, many years ago, asked to tell outright lies. The brief was a corker, the sort you want to frame and hang in the lavatory. It was for a US multinational about which a scathing and widely read exposure had been written at the dawn of the concerns about globalisation. The brief listed some of the highly critical facts that had been used and asked us to make a counter case. But gaining full points at least for candour, against several of the exposure's criticisms, the brief said "this is true, but what we want you to say is ..." and provided us with something completely manufactured.

Of course, advertising lies by omission, but so what? Society understands its job is to put the best case and, anyway, we do it all the time in our personal lives. When we meet someone for the first time or go for an interview, we present only our good side, we don't volunteer appalling failings such as dreadful table-manners or following Gillingham FC. But bare-faced lying is something else.

There are even objections that are completely beyond the responsibility of the client. A tragic example is William Eccleshare, the chairman and chief executive of BBDO EMEA, who, as a young account handler at JWT, asked to come off a pitch for Raleigh bicycles. His sister had been killed in a bike accident and he felt he couldn't bear the close involvement with the machinery that had contributed to her early death.

The agency was completely understanding. Even if it had been a tiny, four-person company, it was still the only course and surely you, as chief executive, would do the same for anyone who comes to you under similar circumstances.

But suppose you then offered them an alternative, say the British Nuclear Fuels account, and they demurred on environmental concerns; you then suggested a newspaper but got "sorry - disagree with their editorial" as the response; you volunteered a bank and the reply was "oh dear, involvement in South Africa during apartheid ..."

At that point, you'd probably be entitled to say, as kindly as possible: "Look, this is a tool of capitalism, of choice and competition and all that brings; don't you think you're in the wrong business?"