DOES ADVERTISING HAVE A CONSCIENCE?: Agencies themselves are now being urged to take a more ethical approach to working and choosing clients

Ethics and advertising. The two words don't immediately sit

together like Morecambe and Wise, Saatchi & Saatchi or rhubarb and

custard. In fact, to say "I work in advertising" is, for some,

tantamount to admitting to running over small animals, diddling old

ladies out of their change and even contributing to world poverty and

the rise of the corporate body.

Until now, perhaps. Consumers - who now care more than ever about where

their money goes, the sourcing of products and where advertisers invest

for maximum change - are changing the behaviour not just of the

advertisers trying to sell their goods and services, but of advertising

agencies too.

Transparency is filtering down through balance sheets, annual reports,

mission statements and corporate action. Ads are reflecting the very

real need for companies to tell consumers what they are doing to become

more responsible. And some advertising agencies are beginning to pride

themselves on adopting similarly ethical business practices to get in

tune with these growing consumer concerns.

It's easy to see why advertisers are waking up to the need to present a

more responsible face. MORI figures claim a third of consumers are

"seriously" concerned about ethical issues. Over the past two years,

more than half of the British public has bought a product or recommended

a company on the basis of its reputation.

A survey by Business in the Community found that 86 per cent of

consumers have a more positive image of a company they see is working

towards making the world a better place. In a world where advertisers

sell a dream, for consumers to discover it's actually a nightmare, with

slave labour and bribery taking starring roles, is a situation which no

client can afford to confront.

Get caught out and your reputation plummets along with your share


Just look at the trials of the oil giant Shell, blasted for the 1995

Brent Spar stand-off with Greenpeace and being linked with the deaths of

environmental activists in Nigeria. Or Nike and the Gap for using child

labour to manufacture their products, McDonald's for its pedantic

handling of the McLibel case, which led to a long, much publicised trial

over claims that the company operated unethically, and more recently

Unilever, which was forced to publicly deny paying bribes to suppliers

abroad during a BBC news programme.

More and more advertisers are turning to their ad agencies to help craft

a more benign, ethical public face. Shell rallied with self-imposed

audits and ad campaigns which sought to picture it as a company with

ethics at its heart. BP forked out £7 million in design agency

costs alone to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum with a sunflower logo

and green and yellow colouring, and the UK agency Doner Cardwell Hawkins

has just been hired to make Philip Morris acceptable to consumers


And in zealously helping companies to reposition themselves as caring

contributors to society, more agencies are taking ethical issues on

board in the way they work with their clients. J. Walter Thompson was

the agency behind the reinvention of Shell. Raoul Pinnell, the

vice-president of brand communication at Shell International, thinks

agencies would benefit by steering themselves away from a solely

advertising position.

When JWT launched Shell's campaign to resurrect its image, one agency

staffer with a reputation for good strategic planning was deployed to

work solely on PR projects to run alongside the ad campaigns. What's

more, it was the agency's initiative to work outside its normal

parameters which helped it win the global account. "We went from using

35 agencies to just one globally in order to get a cohesive message,"

Pinnell says. "And JWT's understanding of what we needed to do meant the

message was right."

Some agencies, it seems, are keen to tap the business challenge that

"difficult" advertisers can offer, claiming their responsibilities lie

in finding the best solution to any client marketing, whether they are

ethics-focused or not. While some might say they are cashing in, they

argue that they are merely fulfilling a purpose. CDP handles ads for

several clients in markets currently under fire from the ethics police,

such as Gallagher and British Nuclear Fuels. The managing director,

Simon Myers, says the agency looks at clients individually, and does not

believe in blanket bans without considering the brief: "Each client

comes with a different agenda. If they are potentially contentious, then

it increases the challenge for us."

The creative director at Doner Cardwell Hawkins, Paul Cardwell, says he

had to fight his corner when it came to accepting the business from

Philip Morris, but has no doubt that not taking on a brief to help a

company which manufacturers legal, but unethical products is "naive and


"If an agency's going to fling its hands up in horror at, say, a

cigarette manufacturer, they must then look at other accounts which

could also be seen as 'unethical'. What about children's brands,

alcohol, luxury goods? Soon you'd have no clients left," he says.

But Jane Fiona Cumming, a director at Article 13, a consultancy which

specialises in advising clients on ethical strategy, says that more and

more agencies need to adopt an ethical standpoint. "Just like clients,

if they take an ethical stance, they need to really believe in their

strategy. Potential clients and consumers who see their ads will see

straight through what we call a 'greenwash'."

Article 13 has worked with Gerber Foods and Roche Pharmaceuticals, among

other global blue-chips, advising them on how to take an ethical


"We encourage them to think about their business in ten to 15 years'

time in order for them to grasp the ramifications of making ethics part

of their business plan. It can improve their bottom line if they adopt

ethical issues. such as supplier traceability, the way they treat staff

and where they invest their money as part of their strategy, rather than

as a bolt-on issue," she stresses.

"And agencies mustn't think of themselves as being any different from

their clients if they want to operate on a more ethical basis. It means

asking what the agency believes in, what values it holds and whether it

is prepared to make a stand on the kinds of accounts it takes on," she


Several agencies already have self-imposed bans on working with clients

who have been caught out over ethical or environmental issues. Abbott

Mead Vickers BBDO and Leagas Delaney have principles not to work on

cigarette brands. Why? "Because of the link with tobacco and smoking,"

AMV's managing director, Cilla Snowball, says. "We believe tobacco

advertising encourages smoking." The agency has held the Department of

Health's anti-smoking account for 17 years. AMV also has reservations

about other forms of advertising - founder David Abbott is famous for

his disdain for TBWA/London's work for fcuk.

The IPA is unashamedly on the fence when it comes to ethical standards

and has no code of conduct for member agencies on the issue, but a set

of bylaws work to make sure the industry conducts itself "honestly and

legally". The organisation's official stance is that it has no role to

seek to influence the ethical viewpoint of its members, but exists to

offer advice on best practice and act in a spokesman role.

The Leagas Delaney chairman and IPA president, Bruce Haines, claims it

is difficult for a trade organisation to dictate to its members. "The

top 200 agencies belong to the IPA. Their views on ethics and corporate

citizenship vary widely - it's up to the management of each one to

determine whether or not they want to make policy, not us."

Internal ethics within agencies are similarly skirted, although Haines

says: "We do ask that agencies remain open-minded and fair when it comes

to working on certain accounts, and respect the views of those who might

find working on accounts like tobacco."

HHCL & Partners, on the other hand, has a different approach. The agency

has no restrictions on the accounts it works on, apart from tobacco, but

claims that the advertising itself has a duty to foster what it calls

"responsible desire". But what about all those Tango ads (bullying

themes in ads for a brand aimed at children)? The HHCL partner Richard

Huntingdon admits the strategy of "building responsible desire" is a new

one for the agency, and points to its recent work for the AA, an account

it has just resigned ahead of a review of the business.

"We resisted the temptation to use the 'fear factor' in the creative

work for an insurance service," he says. "It's manipulative and

unnecessary, as well as being creatively outdated." He says the same of

the agency's work for Iceland, which asked consumers to think about the

origin and content of the food they bought in a very direct way.

He claims more and more clients are looking for ways to turn ethical

issues into marketing issues. "It's not rocket science - just look at

the way The Body Shop positioned itself right from the start," he says.

"In the long term, clients are building it into their strategies, as a

tool for growth. That's something to capitalise on, and emulate."

The HHCL partner and founder, Steve Henry, claims the strategy fits in

personal aspirations about how an agency should work. "Of course it's

personal. And while it's not about racking up new business, it is

something we're talking to existing clients about. Brands are about

trust, and part of that is making sure the brand has integrity."

HHCL, which claims to be the only UK advertising agency to have been

independently audited on the strength of its own ethical stance, also

claims the ad industry is woefully behind other sectors in the way it

handles ethical issues as businesses, never mind the clients


Everyone in the industry knows umpteen stories about accounts moving

when key staff leave agencies, clients with histories of agency

relationships moving accounts without pitches and agencies shamelessly

raiding each other's personnel departments. But without concrete

research, the ethical stance and habits of those running adland remains

unflatteringly anecdotal.

In spite of the very real opportunities available to agencies that want

to mirror client activity, the advertising market remains way behind in

the ethical stakes. "Selling is not a clean, tidy, wholesome activity,"

Cardwell says. "But what we can do is reflect more upon what consumers

want to feel when they buy a product.

"There was a time when people felt great about buying a big,

gas-guzzling car because it made them feel like they'd arrived. Now,

most of us would plump for a smaller, greener model because it makes us

feel better. Advertising, and the way companies choose to represent

themselves, has to reflect that."

Henry is uncertain about how ethics will shift the way agencies work:

"As a business strategy, it's something we are developing seriously. The

real interest lies in what our competitors do. Haines, however, is more

straightforward: "Advertising agencies and the people who run them are

not social workers. We are there to work with clients for the best

possible outcome for their brands."


Client: Iceland

Agency: HHCL & Partners

Problem: Consumers, faced with confusing messages and government policy

on the issue of genetically modified foods, need guidance and


Brief: Make Iceland the chosen retailer for foods free from genetically

modified ingredients and educate consumers baffled by conflicting advice

from the media and the Government. The campaign grasped on Iceland's

relatively small market share within the supermarket sector with the aim

of propelling it into the minds of consumers using an ethical issue such

as GM foods.

The TV, press and poster ads used child-like characters to drum home not

just the message that Iceland was anti-GM, but that it also took a hard

line on additives and other contentious food issues.

The campaign backfired when Iceland attempted to position itself as the

leading organic retailer, taking on Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury's -

supermarkets that were already established in consumers' minds.


Client: Shell

Agency: J. Walter Thompson

Problem: Shell, reeling from the PR disaster of the 1995 Brent Spar

stand-off with Greenpeace, sustained another blow when it emerged that

it was associated with the execution of eight environmental activists

who opposed the company's plans to look for oil in Nigeria, one of its

key trading territories.

Brief: Make Shell a company with ethics at its heart and stop consumer

hostility. As well as an extensive and ruthless self-auditing programme,

the client bought a campaign which sought to speak to key

decision-makers by dominating press such as Time magazine and National

Geographic. The associated television spots featured company employees

describing their everyday roles, accompanied by footage of them in

action. Only at the ends of the ads was the identity of the client



Client: Philip Morris

Agency: Doner Cardwell Hawkins

Problem: As the world, and particularly US consumers, perceive tobacco

manufacturers with increasing scepticism, Philip Morris needed to

develop and focus on its ethical policies in a bid to make it

acceptable. Its Kraft food subsidiary was also being affected by poor

press, as consumers made the connection between tobacco and some of its

key brands, such as Dairylea and Philadelphia. It has already begun work

by teaming up with Japan Tobacco International and British American

Tobacco to launch an ad campaign designed to dissuade the young from


Brief: Position Philip Morris as a more socially responsible company

across the full span of its global conglomerate. The company won't be

drawn on the content of the campaign, but the ads will aim to

demonstrate the work that it is doing to improve its reputation.