Amid agency scandals, is your house in order?
A view from Claire Beale

Amid agency scandals, is your house in order?

Earlier this year, a successful marketer was invited by her CEO to present the new ad strategy for her biggest brand to the board.

She asked the CEO, the chief strategy officer and the chief creative officer of her ad agency to accompany her. Big guns, all blazing. But the meeting with the board was a personal disaster for the marketer. I’m told the CEO was aggressive, rude and patronising to her. OK, maybe he didn’t like the strategy or the work. But everyone I know who was present concurs that his behaviour was shocking, unacceptable and deeply discomforting. He thoroughly undermined his key marketing lieutenant. The ad agency CEO told me he’d never seen anything so embarrassing: "You just couldn’t get away with humiliating people like that in an ad agency. We’re people businesses, we know our staff are our only real assets."

So right, yet wrong. Yes, agencies are really very little more than a collection of talented people: all the proprietary tools with silly names that are anyway rather similar to everyone else’s; all the scraps of IP you’ve warred to hold on to that never actually make any money; all the tiny bits of equity you’ve gambled in start-ups that probably won’t make their second year – all are worth nothing without the unique collection of creative thinkers that sits on your payroll.

So it’s absolutely stunning to hear of another major agency network being devastated by a high-level lawsuit centred on accusations of abuse. Greg Andersen, former US president of Omnicom’s Rapp, has accused global CEO Alexei Orlov of discrimination, retaliation and wrongful dismissal.

No question, we’re all innocent until proven guilty. The lawsuit has unleashed a flood of comments on US advertising sites purporting to be from Rapp staff who claim to have been damaged by their experiences. I hate anonymous comments; it’s easy to exaggerate, lie and stick the knife in when no-one knows who you are. But there are an awful lot of anonymous views posted in support of the picture Andersen has painted and the list of senior executives who have exited the London office in the last year or two is a matter of public record. 

Parallels have been drawn with the WPP farrago that saw J Walter Thompson global CEO Gustavo Martinez accused of sexism and racism by his chief communications officer. That the two stories should break so close together has led some commentators to question whether there’s something rotten in the wider ad agency culture. Almost certainly not. But every agency should be looking at its human resources systems and asking itself whether it’s really listening to its staff. And the headhunters who make a tidy sum from placing persistent offenders should be called to account. Clients will almost certainly not tolerate any hint of an abusive culture at their agencies, even when they’re sometimes guilty themselves.