Ogilvy has been thrown into moral quandary after staff demanded answers from management regarding its work with the US Customs and Border Protection on recruitment.
According to a transcript obtained by BuzzFeed, on 9 July employees talked with Ogilvy worldwide chief executive John Seifert to ask why the company was working with US Customs and Border Protection, the division that has come under fire for its inhumane treatment of immigrants at detention centres on the US southern border.
BuzzFeed has removed the names of staff recorded in the transcript.
Seifert opened the meeting acknowledging that "I know that everyone who's joined this session feels strongly about a number of issues related to what we know is happening broadly in our reality of the immigration issues going on in our country… and how that may or may not be connected to the work we're doing for Customs and Border Protection out of our Washington DC office."
One staff member noted that while having "federal agencies for clients for decades is great", it raised the question of "at what point do you decide this might not be the best decision for the world to see as taking them on as a client?"
Siefert, who has worked at Ogilvy for 40 years, recounted working with a scandal-struck BP, with tobacco companies and with Coca-Cola.
"So, there's almost no client who walks a perfect line of doing nothing but good for the world," he said. "So we make this choice every day."
Another employee retorted: "So I think what I heard is that we're willing to work with companies that have oil spills. We're willing to work with companies that sell big tobacco. We're willing to work with companies that contribute to obesity rates and, I guess, what I'm mostly hearing is that we're willing to work with companies that are allowing children to die and that are running concentration camps."
Seifert countered that automotive companies "allow people to die every single year", while another staff member argued that the difference regarding its work with Customs and Border Protection was that it was a "human issue" and "a crime", rather than a product issue.
Seifert confessed that he 's "not a Donald Trump advocate", but added that "president Obama on one level has just as tough a stance on immigration as Trump".
"Trump is choosing to actually execute the policy in a way that Obama chose not to," he said. "Now that is a far simplification and I'm not trying to be an expert on the two administrations.
"But if the debate is there's one part of Customs and Border Protection that is failing to do what it should do and that has a human cost, and Ogilvy as a contractor to the entity as a whole should have nothing to do with that organisation as a result, right? To me, that is not a black-and -white choice."
Another employee asked whether there would be a "larger town hall around this, or is this it?". Seifert answered that no plan was in place but that he would "continue to see what happens".
"If we continue to be associated with work that isn't ours or an agenda that isn't ours, then obviously we have to think differently about how we could respond to that," he said. "Believe me, the last thing I'm into is to let Ogilvy be harmed in a way that is inappropriate."
He ended by saying he was "more than happy" to continue the conversation with "anyone who wants to share their thoughts with me personally".
"If you write to me and I write back to you, I would appreciate it that it's kept between the people who are writing and myself. Because I will try to be as honest and candid as I can be. But that's not always understood when it gets passed around out of context. That's the only ask right now. OK? Thank you all very much. I appreciate it."
A full version of the transcript is available here.