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Finger-pointing over bad brands: who are we kidding?

Finger-pointing over bad brands: who are we kidding?

The uproar over Havas winning the Shell account is hypocritical. If we’re all so perfect, why are any of us in an industry that promotes consumption and waste?

War; the cost-of-living crisis; alleged sexual assaults. These are real problems in our industry. As are the lack of transparency, megalomaniacal tech leaders and bad players in the value chain.

Yet the recent trend seems to be focussed on calling out media agencies for securing a client that spends lots of ad dollars.

The latest thing everyone is in arms about is Havas being rewarded the Shell media contract. Let me be clear: Shell is not perfect, they’re missing their own net zero goals and continue to pollute the world.

But hang on. To condemn an agency for not working hard to win such a contract — at a time where margins are squeezed, cost-of-living is biting, hence talent salaries are increasing — is naive. Can we blame Havas?

Shame on all of you

Whilst we’re there, let’s blame others. According to AdWeek, “only IPG Mediabrands and Media.Monks confirmed that they were not involved in the review. Sources also confirmed Dentsu Media and Stagwell were not pitching.” IPG’s UM wouldn’t be involved as they handle media for rival ExxonMobil, while other holding companies reportedly stayed silent. So you’d be forgiven for concluding that a good few agencies were also thirsty for some of that petrol money themselves.

So then, why don’t we all have a go at IPG’s UM for the ExxonMobil contract? And the agencies who likely went for it, but by not getting awarded business they escape criticism? And how about the creative agencies like Omnicom’s BBDO which creates the ads?

Could we congratulate GroupM for exiting the Shell relationship, when one of their agencies, Mindshare, manage media for BP? Actually screw it, let’s go in on them for working with Unilever which is responsible for so much plastic being used in their products. And Ford, one of the biggest of ad spenders and a top four car manufacturer globally and a huge enabler of greenhouse gas production.

As for Omnicom, you’re not getting off scot free either, with your TBWA\Media Arts lab for Apple, helping the tech giant sell approximately 250 million iPhones a year, driving yet more landfill and energy use. Or Publicis Groupe, the creative and media agents for rival Samsung.

And shame on Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Heineken, Beam Suntory and their audacity to grow market share (these big businesses eh, who would’ve thought?), and their spread of media agencies selling products that poison the world and cause alcohol addiction.

What is and is not in our control?

Ethical challenges present themselves practically everywhere. So where do we draw the line?

The world runs on inconvenient truths. Outrageous posts and replies will be typed on unethically mined phones; your commute to work is likely consuming fossil-fuels; your shirt may be produced by cheap labour; your lunch may contain meat from an abattoir; your after-work beer is addictive and poisonous.

The world is built on industries that have been glamourised. Have we been seduced by aesthetics and good branding so much to the point that we are alarmed by a small group of protestors who shine a light on the ills of industry and throw orange dust at doorways, industries which reflect actual consumer demand?

I have to call on some old stoic principles: let’s think about what is and is not in our control, and aim to do good on the hand we’re dealt.

I dislike a lot of the above. For example, I typically do not work with gambling clients (as that is more of a vice driving adoption to life than a day-to-day necessity), but I’m also accepting that there’s a 2023 Maslow-esque global economy of billions of humans in the world that need movement, food, communication and leisure, with advertising and media serving to promote of these products to solve these consumer needs for hundreds of years.

The manufacture and means to get where we are today have been, in many instances, unfortunate. But, bit-by-bit, I hope we can all be agents of change, from leadership down to product development and supply chain. It won’t happen overnight, however, and taking aim at the majority of employees for just trying to make a living in both brands and agencies, rather than leadership, seems unacceptable.

The same people who moan about Ryanair being terrible in focus groups don’t seem so upset when they see a £9.99 seat to Palma flashed in front of their face. Because, lo and behold, consumers don’t do what they say or think. That’s probably why Ryanair, despite the negative ‘research’ and the sentiment, carry more passengers than anyone other airline in Europe.

Yes, there are smaller agencies whose mission is to work with good brands only, and I admire that choice to turn down profit for values. The larger network agencies responsible for thousands of employees’ livelihoods, however, have likely made profit and loss a rod for their own back. Meanwhile, market conditions have driven the need to have skin in the game in the world’s ‘controversial’ brands.

The B Corp thing for Havas is unfortunate optics, but it is a holistic award which likely takes into account its working practices and treatment of its employees and not just the brands they promote. So no doubt they are deserving.

Let’s get out, then

If we’re all so perfect, let’s get out of advertising, the industry likely responsible for driving more consumption, plastic in oceans, abundance, materialism, and wastage in the last 150+ years than any other.

If that doesn’t fly, go and do the work. Work for an NGO or an organisation that can help make the changes. Build a product to save the world, or just change industry.

But it isn’t realistic. Instead, let’s do what we have always done, plan and deliver media, take pride in our job, make a point on LinkedIn in a one minute virtue signalling moment, then get back to sending a reply-all saying “aligned on below” on a whisky campaign, Gantt chart, or whatever we’re actually doing day-to-day.

Remember, we’re part of the value chain but we’re not the creators. Most of us are honestly just trying to do our best and I bet hopefully get recognised, or a bit more money, right? We’re all part of the problem day-to-day, in media or not, of the consumption and creation of bad things. We must all fight our own urges, question our own consumption, and not finger point.

For real action from the desk, make suggestions to your clients, speak to leadership, and understand the commercial impact of these clients being sunset. It probably isn’t pretty.

By understanding stakeholder interest and the way the world is really working, and begrudgingly accepting the sheer scale of miserable industry out of our hands, it’ll probably mean a calmer and more tolerable, self actualised and enjoyable career for all.

Simon Akers is a marketing consultant, media strategist, and founder of Archmon, a marketing consultancy for brands and agencies. He is also an inaugural member of the Future 100, The Media Leader‘s collection of the most disruptive, high-achieving, and innovative rising stars in the media and advertising industry. 

Akers was one of four Future 100 members to pitch a manifesto to our industry’s senior leaders this year for what should be the most important issues they should address over the next year. Watch as he explains why media needs to embrace neurodiversity:


Chris Howell, Creative Director, EMEA, IPG Mediabrands, on 26 Sep 2023
“There are several problems with the arguments put forward here. They are arguments I've heard often, whenever discussing the ad industry response to the climate crisis. The first regards the notion of hypocrisy: to demand perfection from activists (or in this instance, the ad industry) or else brand them hypocrites, is nothing more than a lazy and well-worn tu quoque fallacy. It is not realistic to expect perfection from everybody calling for climate action. We all live and work in an imperfect system; changing it from within will, at times, require hypocrisy from all of us. Instead of weaponising that fact in order to belittle or shut down those seeking positive change, we will have no choice but to accept our contradictions and aim high regardless. Climate action won't be delivered by saints, it will be delivered by you and me. So yes, ask the awkward questions of agencies and their questionable clients, but do so in order to open up space for change, not to shut down those seeking change. The second regards the question "If we’re all so perfect, why are any of us in an industry that promotes consumption and waste?". It is the core existential question of our sector at this time, often phrased in a way that closes off the possibility that our talents might ever serve any other purpose than to promote consumption and waste. The short answer to the question is: because we are currently operating within an economic model predicated on exponential consumption and indifferent to waste. It is not beyond the realms of possibility (in fact, it is necessary) that this model will change to reign in the excesses of modern consumption and waste. Where will that leave our talent then? The climate crisis has been described as a crisis of communication. Who better to shape the necessary behaviour change, and communicate the urgency and scale of the problem than an industry of experts in creativity, communication and reach? My third point regards the question of 'where do we draw the line?', a phrase imbued with either a sense of decisive finality, or indecisive impossibility. It's a question that cloaks itself in rationality but obscures a deeper, more primal concern: what happens when we open Pandora's box? Or put another way: where does it end? I have a better question though: where does it start? Because in truth there is no line to be drawn, only work to be started, across every sector and every aspect of society - and for us it should start with the lowest hanging fruit: the clients and industries who are unequivocally not only contributing the most to the climate crisis, but actively, knowingly, demonstrably standing in the way of progress. Lastly, we are invited to reflect on 'what is and is not in our control'. I couldn't agree more. We need everybody to reflect on what is in their control at this time. For example, for some, it is in their control to choose who we pitch for. For others, it is in their control to refuse to work on certain clients. It is in all our control to question the business decisions of large media networks and hold our leaders to account. It is in all our control to challenge the social license of bad actors who operate at the expense of a living planet, and those who facilitate them. Telling people 'if you don't like it, go work somewhere else' completely misses the scale of the problem, as if the ad industry (or any industry) can continue as it is today while NGOs and volunteers pick up the pieces. Championing the little people 'working hard to win such a contract' during a cost of living crisis, but failing to grasp that the climate crisis will only exacerbate already buckling economies misses the point entirely. By understanding the climate science and the way the world is really working, and ignoring the naysayers telling us that it's out of our hands, we might just see the transformation required. We might just be left with a planet able to sustain life – maybe even able to sustain future media leaders.”

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