When should an agency back out of an account for ethical reasons?

Last week, Juul said it will still run its ad campaign despite FDA warnings.

The Food and Drug Administration expressed concerns about Juul’s marketing campaign last week, "Make the Switch," which showcases why users have decided to start smoking the e-cigarette.

Additionally, the Trump administration announced a plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes after a rise in unknown lung illnesses and youth usage. 

DDB - and a few other Omnicom shops -  have held the business for more than a year. 

Campaign US’ Question of the Week to the industry is:

When should an agency back out of an account for ethical reasons? 


Jason DeLand, Founding Partner, Anomaly
"I believe it was Bill Bernbach the founder of DDB who famously said, 'A principle is not a principle until it costs you something.'"

Greg Paull, Principal, R3 Worldwide
"Listed entities have to ask some tough questions on whether they are beholden to their shareholders, their clients or their employees. Advertising is not a widget making business -- 60 percent of the costs are people. Without taking the pulse of those 60 percent you run the risk of diluting your asset."

Sandy Greenburg, Co-Founder and CEO, Terri & Sandy
"An agency should back out of an account the moment executive leadership has ethical concerns. This is difficult for a huge agency, such as DDB, because there are so many people at the ‘top’ it's hard to agree on a decision. 

At a smaller agency, like ours, Juul would never have been let in the door. I can say this because we have turned down e-cigarette business. I have a teenager daughter and I see, firsthand, how many of her friends are lured into smoking thanks to Juul's kiddy flavors. Kids are dying. Seems like powerful reason to tell Juul to take their Strawberry Lemonade and shove it up their Pod."

James Fraser, Head of Strategy, Mother New York
"More than our job titles or roles, we’re people. With lives and friends and family. If a client or product makes you, and your colleagues, feel icky, then don’t sell it. If it doesn’t feel right to you, then it isn’t right for you. Trust your values and the values of the people around you."

Lisa Colantuono, President, AAR Partners
"Saying ‘no’ to new business or ending a current client relationship is not the kiss of death.  In fact, it usually helps agencies to focus on what they need. Saying "no" can fall into a pile of rational reasons but one reason can tie to ethical issues.  It’s not ‘when’ but rather "should" an agency back out of an account for ethical reasons? And the answer is a resounding, ‘yes.’ Why? You won't produce quality work when working on something that you don't agree with… If your heart and head aren’t there, then it is not possible to be a true communications partner with that client.  It’s a simple as that."

Daniel Jeffries of Jeffries Consulting 
"The reality is that agencies are brands in themselves and they have to treat their brand as they would advise a client to.  If an agency leadership makes a conscious decision to work with a client that may have some negative connotations such as Vaping, they have to be prepared to defend their stance and respond to any flack with their brand in mind.  When we saw Ogilvy CEO, John Seifert, defend his agency’s decision to continue working with CBP earlier this year it didn’t come across well and they received a fair amount of negative feedback as a result – the question is, ‘will future clients care that Ogilvy works with CBP and will they decide not to work with them as a result?’ – this is the question that any agency CEO has to consider as they weigh up the revenue being delivered by the contentious piece of business. 

I would imagine that, in an era when many agency CEOs answer to shareholders it’s much harder to turn business away – perhaps that’s why DDB are sticking with Juul – whatever we think of the brand and how it is exposing our kids to nicotine, it’s a growth category and there is a lot of money being poured into it.  If the FDA changes that reality the agency might see the payoff drop and say goodbye to Juul but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one."

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