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.