An open letter to Ogilvy CEO John Seifert

Just a few things I'd like to ask you regarding the U.S. Customs and Border Protection mess you're dealing with right now.

Dear John, 

It’s been a while. We’ve never met, but we have spoken a couple of times on the phone, more than a year ago now — you were really friendly and orchestrated our chat with the rhetoric of a warm politician. 

I did approach you through formal channels with an invite for a one-on-one interview about the giant U.S. Customs and Border Protection mess and all things Ogilvy. Denied. But given the clandestine nature of your communication with the public so far (one leaked phone call with leadership and one internal memo), I figured this is more up your alley anyway.

Firstly, let me just stress that Campaign and the world know Ogilvy did not create the work that sparked this whole thing — a sloppy video published by Twitter account @CBPArizona in which an officer takes viewers on a tour around an immigrant detention facility. It was (rightly) the source of outrage because of his inhumane view on "aliens" and what were shown is at odds with the horrifying reality. 

Abhorrent content aside, this is a terrible piece of creative and one that smacks of desperate in-housery. 

Ogilvy didn’t make it. Good. You were quick to wash your hands of this video. But you were painfully slow in addressing why your shop is working for an organization under immense scrutiny for architecting unspeakable horrors. 

It’s clear that some of your smart staff feel passionately about not working with companies which employ morally and ethically questionable strategies.

In the phone call obtained by our friends at BuzzFeed, you compare this drama to that of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other disasters linked to the brand (including an explosion at a Texas refinery which killed more than 10). 

Then, a member of your team who I’d love to meet, said: "So I think what I’ve 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 are running concentration camps. 

"So I don’t know, so we’ll work for anyone then, is what I’m hearing and, I feel like, I don’t understand for me, and I don’t understand why we can’t pivot."

You reply: "Let me just see if I can help you understand drawing a line — auto companies allow people to die every single year."

Come on, John. 

You and I both know if we were deeply affected by the environmental damage BP caused with its spillage, we’d switch to another oil provider. If we were truly enraged by a link between sugary drink producers and rising obesity rates, we’d opt for one of those DTC boxed water brands. And if we were mortified by the number of road fatalities one particular car brand experienced this year, we’d buy our next motor from a different company. 

Point is, people can boycott most brands they don’t align with. But people can’t boycott the CBP. It is unavoidable for every American and every person who visits the U.S. That means it instantly carries more responsibility than other brands to uphold human values. And that’s how you warrant binning them off as a client. 

You repeatedly allude to the importance of putting the clients’ reputation first. This is one of the broken pillars adland is built on — a spattering of brands out there call the shots and show rare mutual respect for their agency partners (we see it all the time, like not giving credit for work when credit’s due). Hide behind your contracts and legal mumbo jumbo, but at what point does an agency turn around and stand up for itself before all good reputation is depleted? 

In an ideal world, agencies would demand more respect and be allowed to operate their own brand voice without legal constraints. I know the reality is more nuanced than that. However, you stress this is about the clients’ brand, not the agency’s brand. I disagree. This is absolutely about Ogilvy’s brand — one that people can choose to boycott, too. 

Let’s talk about the contract work Ogilvy actually does hold with CBP. I was told it has something to do with a recruitment drive for diverse candidates across a number of roles within the company, which includes CBP officers. Of course, more comprehensive details about the exact role Ogilvy plays are secret too. 

So, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you have a real shot at reinventing the CBP workforce and therefore may hold almighty power in the future conduct of this brand. My friend, if that’s the case, then why the hell aren’t you singing it from the rooftops?

I could throw a truckload more questions at you, John — and thanks for making it this far — but I’ll conclude by repeating the one question your employee asked you because I think it’s the most important, simple and poignant: Why won’t Ogilvy pivot?

The handling of this drama has been CEO level 100. Gold stars all around. The human level, however, is just, well, upsetting. 

Please write back. The interview offer still stands.

Yours sincerely, 

Oliver McAteer

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