An awkward pitch question for agency bosses: Have you hushed up claims of a predator in your midst?
Welcome to Unmade, squeezed in during the first day of the Madfest (or to give it the organisers’ preferred punctuation, MAD//Fest) conference in London.
There’s a real buzz to the event. As I observed when I wrote about the Future of Brands conference in London a few weeks back, my sense is that the UK is a few weeks (or possibly months) ahead of Australia in terms of a full throttled return to live events.
I’ll write more about some of the Madfest (I’m struggling with the official punctuation) sessions in Best of the Week on Saturday. Sir Martin Sorrell’s thoughts on the economic outlook for the industry deserve exploring some more, particularly in the context of this week’s 50 basis point interest rate hike in Australia.
Meanwhile the agenda for the Australian marketing industry has been set this week by Darren Woolley, boss of marketing relationship consultancy Trinity P3.
As you’ll have heard in our Start the Week podcast and subsequently read on Mumbrella, AdNews and B&T, Trinity P3 has drafted a document which it will be inviting agencies participating in pitches run by the consultancy to sign. Trinity P3 has expanded on its proposals in a lengthy LinkedIn post which explains its position well.
Trinity P3 wants agency bosses to declare whether they are dealing with “any current or unresolved complaints of bullying, harassment and assault in the workplace”; to declare whether they have used deeds of confidentiality to prevent any complaints reaching the public domain; and to declare that they are currently providing a safe workplace for staff.
By making the document a statutory declaration, the stakes are raised for agency bosses. Ultimately, lying on a stat dec can lead to jail time. That’s a long way from the “truth well sold” exaggerations of a typical agency pitch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reaction from within the establishment to the initiative has not been a particularly positive one. Woolley wrote to the main industry bodies - the Media Federation, the Advertising Council and Independent Media Agencies of Australia - back in March, with the idea of setting up an industry wide independent reporting process for bullying and harassment claims. They came back to him in May to say they would not be supporting the idea, which led Woolley and Trinity P3 to create the stat dec instead.
Similarly, there was a spot of whatabout-ism, with one popular comment on the Mumbrella article asking whether clients should be asked the same difficult questions about their own departments.
For individual bosses running agencies, some see it as an offensive question to ask, somewhere on the spectrum between “Are you now or have you ever been a communist” and “when did you stop beating your wife?” Surely they deserve the benefit of the doubt without having to profess their innocence in writing, they would argue.
But the problem for the industry is that there are still predators out there.
Of course it’s unpleasant being judged based on the worst behaviour of one’s peers.
Back when I worked at Mumbrella, during one of the periods when scam award entries were on the rise, that the editorial team emailed all of the winners at Cannes to ask where their work had actually run. Although it was a clumsily worded email, it made clear we were making no accusations and were asking the same question of all the winners. A couple of agencies - who we didn’t dream were actually involved in scam - were furious at the implication of just being asked the question. They didn’t understand that the behaviour of their peers had cost the industry as a whole when it came to awards.
Similarly, I hate the lazy assumption one sees on social media and in wider society that every journalist is corrupt and in the pocket of one side or another. However, I have to accept that the reason people think that is because of the number of times in recent years that journalists have behaved in partisan ways. “Not all journalists” doesn’t cut it.
So the reaction of the industry bodes - whose constituents are the agency bosses who provide their funding through membership fees, not rank-and-file staff - is predictable.
The establishment, even when it broadly wants to do the right thing in theory, prefers the status quo. The way AdNews covered the story certainly leaned into that. How dare a pitch consultancy tell agencies what to do?
And yet, the reality is that what Trinity P3 is attempting is indeed in the long term interests of the industry. There’s reputational risk going forward to think about, not to mention the fact harassment issues in agencies are not historic. Ella Campbell demonstrated that this year.
Nobody would argue against the proposition that a more inclusive, safer workplace would be better for the industry’s own interests. Yet the argument from the industry bodies that employee assistance programs can solve everything is wishful thinking.
Luckily for the industry, Trinity P3 has a degree of power thanks to its position as a gatekeeper to the clients, and it certainly has independence. Woolley has previously been willing to call out the conflict of interest existing within the Australian Association of National Advertisers - in theory the voice of big budget advertisers - in accepting funding from media agencies. So he doesn’t mind challenging the trade bodies.
It will be fascinating to see how agencies participating in some of the big pitches run by Trinity P3 address the issue. They don’t have to sign the stat dec. But the client will be told.
My guess is that the industry bodies will quietly organise a boycott of the initiative. The big agencies will all apparently spontaneously offer similar bland regrets on why, sadly, they simply can’t provide such a document.
I’d love to be wrong.
Time to let you go about your Wednesday. I’ll be back later in the week with the second episode of our new podcast series The Unmakers, in which I explore those in the industry who are building new business models.
Have a great Wednesday.