Can Agency Culture Foster an Ethical Mindset?
by TAI Professor Dr. Sidharth Muralidharan
Business ethics can be broadly defined as a brand’s moral obligations to their stakeholders, employees, consumers, competition, and society at large. Ethics operates at a higher plane than law and motivates brands to think beyond just meeting the minimal legal requirements. In advertisements, ethical considerations can manifest by providing honest and truthful information about products and services, by not being offensive, or culturally distasteful. Being in a position of influence, the expectation for a brand to abide by a moral code can never be perceived as a choice but a duty. This moral duty rests not only in the hands of the advertiser but also the hired advertising agency.
The ad agency is an organization where the blending of business and creativity occurs seamlessly. In such a competitive environment where both advertisers and agencies are driven by the motive of earning more profits, the emphasis placed on ethics, unfortunately, diminishes. Lapses in ethical judgment can negatively impact the brand in terms of lower sales, negative brand image, and can end the relationship between the agency and the client. For example, in 1991 Volvo and its agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves Inc. of New York was each fined $150,000 for their deceptive ad. The commercial depicted a monster truck that ran over a line of cars, and the only car to survive was a Volvo station wagon. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found the ad to be deceptive because the body of the Volvo was specially strengthened to withstand the impact and a regular Volvo was not equipped with a similar shell. Knowing that the demonstration did not truly represent the product, the agency still decided to move forward with the campaign, posing an ethical lapse. Granted, agencies are under the influence of their clients but the question remains, can an agency still come out with a creative ad that is both effective and morally sound?
The answer is yes. To overcome such setbacks, agencies need to foster a culture of ethics and responsibility. This should be initiated from the very top, where, leaders are setting an example and having employees not only be a part but also take ownership of the culture. A good example could be the agency ‘Enviromedia’ based in Austin, TX. The main mission of the agency is to make the world a better place to live in and help brands make profits. Championing this vision is the CEO and Founder – Valerie Salinas-Davis, who has created strategies for campaigns such as “Don’t Mess with Texas” and the eco-friendly Nissan Leaf, to name a few. Being a B-Corporation, the agency has set high standards to achieve both social and environmental goals. As per their website, the agency has contributed $1 million in pro-bono work and volunteer time to different charities. The agency headquarters has sustainable features like solar panels and water saving functionalities, while employees recycle and use recycled materials. Enviromedia is selective of who they work with, making sure their culture and values align with their clients and is propagated through the campaigns they create. From the causes they support to providing employees with paid time off, Enviromedia has shown that their belief system can foster an ethical mindset. If the industry is filled with more agencies that have a strong moral compass then it helps put pressure back onto brands to achieve their bottom line through ethical channels.