OPINION: Can clients expect shops to guarantee confidentiality?

Philip Dale argues that because of the use of freelance staff it is hard for agencies to be certain that the confidentiality a client would expect is not jeopardised

Philip Dale argues that because of the use of freelance staff it is hard

for agencies to be certain that the confidentiality a client would

expect is not jeopardised

Confidentiality has suddenly become a hot topic. Within a short space of

time, we have had a series of headline-making stories.

First, there was the case of KHBB contacting the police about suspected

unauthorised access to its computer network and the alleged transfer of

unauthorised information from the agency’s offices.

Then D’Arcy Masius Benton and Bowles issued a writ against Graham

Hinton, its former chairman, for an alleged breach of confidence -

although the action has now been dropped.

It’s the tip of an iceberg, but it’s an iceberg that’s been floating

around for a very long time. The main difference today is that

everything has become more digitised, portable and accessible. The cases

currently being reported may be of real concern to the agencies

involved, but have they really been put at a commercial disadvantage?

After all, in the communications business it’s what you do with

information that’s important, not the possession of it.

These recent actions do, however, raise two key questions. The first

relates to how we, in today’s computerised world, ensure the security of

confidential information, while still allowing instant access for all

those who should have it.

The second is a more fundamental, and important, issue, which is how do

agencies and other communication companies guarantee confidentiality to

their clients as they continue to move towards ‘virtual’ relationships

with many of their key employees?

Because of the recession, most agencies have cut back on full-time staff

in more costly departments such as creative and planning. In order to

function as business has recovered, agencies have increasingly turned to


However, this hasn’t just been due to the recession. Another important

factor has been the decision by many senior creatives and planners to

operate outside the traditional agency environment, having found their

new freedom to be both more stimulating and rewarding.

A third element has been the decision by many of the more recently

formed communications companies to create new working methods in order

to make use of the pool of permanent creative and planning talent now

available to them.

The confidentiality issue is particularly sensitive because not all

agencies are being honest with their clients. Frequently, creatives and

planners are presented to clients as full-time employees of the agency

when they are, in fact, employed on a freelance basis.

But it’s not just in the creative and planning departments that this

happens. It also applies to other communication disciplines such as

direct marketing, sales promotion and sponsorship, which many of the

larger agencies are now trying to integrate into their structures.

To date, service contracts have provided a degree of control over

confidentiality because they set out for employees the rules that will

apply both during their employment and after their departure. But such

contracts have traditionally only been applied to full-time staff.

Freelancers have simply operated outside the formal employment system.

It seems that the eventual solution will need to be in three parts.

First, in the future specific ‘confidentiality agreements’ will have to

be signed by everyone working on an account, whether they are employed

on a full-time or freelance basis. Second, agencies will have to be more

upfront and honest about their relationships with the members of the

teams presented to their clients. Third, clients will need to recognise

that confidentiality and remuneration are inextricably linked, and that

you can’t really have one without enough of the other.


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