The employee activist could be a huge constraint on big agencies

The recent controversies at Ogilvy and Edelman about employee objections to their work for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) prompted Paul Holmes to brand this a ‘new generation’ of employee activism.  He’s right, but what’s so new and what does it mean for agencies?

In case you missed it, the US CBP are the people tasked with border security and have peers in every country around the world, but border security is highly politicised in the US and recent stories about the Mexican border and the caging of children have raised the stakes considerably.

Employees (some) at both agencies objected to CBP as a client (some championed it by the way). Edelman quit the business whilst Ogilvy carried on. For those of us with friends and ‘networks’ in agency land, neither ruckus was a surprise. However, one of the ‘new generation’ differences is that these days all anyone needed to know about the story before it was covered was to be on Fishbowl, that gossipy little app that started out as a forum for careers advice and has now become the go-to place to discover an alternative take on what agencies say is their culture and values and how awful your new boss is.

As in all these things, it is over-represented by the motivated which often results in ‘awesome’ and ‘sucks’ being sequential answers to the same question about an aspect of agency life.  But increasingly, it is becoming a forum for employee activism, helped considerably by the anonymity it gives posters. Glassdoor, of course, has been around for longer but is more static in its reviews (and is probably having its lunch eaten by Fishbowl) but it too provides a forum for pressure on issues as banal as bonus policy and as activist as the appropriateness of working for energy companies.  CEOs are much more likely to act if employee grievances are aired publicly and PR agency CEOs even more so. Expect much more of this.

Agencies, and PR agencies by their very nature, are engaged in activist issues and arguably have the most sensitised of any workforces because of that.  And agencies more than most businesses, work hard at defining their ‘values’ because they know these are important to recruitment and retention and employees are their principal differentiator. So agencies are more exposed than most businesses to this sort of activism.

And big agencies, as the CBP incident illustrates, are more at risk than smaller ones.  Big agencies have more people in more places, doing more various types of work that tends to lead to a wider sense of what is right and wrong. A Public Affairs team in Washington is probably made up of very different people to, say, a brand team in New York, London or Mumbai that are doing ‘purpose’ or sustainability work for brands like Patagonia.

To be effective in Public Affairs in London or Washington right now, you have to be able to deal with the administrations led by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.  You probably recruited people from their campaign teams or recent staffers. Whilst legal and ethical, what seems a reasonable client to that sort of person is probably going to trigger woke hipster account people in the Portland or Shoreditch offices.  

Similarly, accounts like Huawei and ZTE are reputation making and highly lucrative wins for the Beijing and Hong Kong office, but go down less well in trade war sensitised Paris and Washington.  And what about the Kuala Lumpur office’s win of the country’s biggest palm oil producer? Or the Delhi office’s win of the Pale and Beautiful skin whitening range? Values are in the eye of the beholder, even if London and New York always bleat the loudest.

Big agencies are already significantly constrained in their growth by client conflict, but that used to be just commercial conflict (Pepsi vs Coke).  Smaller agencies suffer this much less because, well, they are smaller and therefore have fewer clients and less potential for conflict. These restrictions are enforced by the clients rather than the agencies.

In addition, most agencies have lists or categories of client they will not work for (tobacco, coal, climate deniers, political parties etc) and often this is offered as proof of their values.  These are agency driven restraints, but they are calculated and conscious and ‘priced in’ from the beginning.

But now we have the employee activist, emboldened by anonymity and Fishbowl, leaking the content of internal meetings and emails to force nervous CEOs to resign accounts that don’t align to their own personal value sets. And if you don’t believe values are personal not universal, look on Fishbowl at all the supporters for Ogilvy’s continued work for the CBP.

For big agencies, this is a frightening new development and could be a significant new constraint on future growth.  

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