Agency bosses on clients they wouldn’t work for

Don DraperBig tobacco, junk food, online gambling, an oil giant drilling in the Arctic, or any client who is unreasonably demanding and pays badly.

Are their some clients agency CEOs wouldn’t work for? Have they ever resigned a client on principle?

Mumbrella asked lots. Not everyone responded, presumably for fear of shutting the door to potential clients. But some did. And here’s what they said.

John Zeigler, chairman and CEO, Asia Pacific, India and Japan, DDB Worldwide

John ZeiglerNo, we will not work for anyone. There are some areas such as smoking that we try not to be linked to. We believe in people and they are our asset, so we do have a hard time working with clients that do not respect human values. Yes, we have resigned clients in the past and they have been major clients on the basis that our people we’re being badly treated. For sensitivity reasons I will not name the client. It’s an interesting question. It make me wonder if you guys ever get a story you not prepared to run?

Joseph Tan, CEO, Lowe Indonesia

Joseph TanAs an agency principle we shun corporate evildoers that have appalling business ethics, human rights or environmental abuse record. Indonesia’s progress as a country has been greatly impeded by these unethical conglomerates and the last thing we want is to aid their cause. We fired a top spending client for being abusive to the agency… to the point where a total of eight people on the business left without a new job within five months. The client simply has to go before it takes the entire agency down and me committing murder. We go through great lengths for clients who are respectful and don’t play creative directors.

Tony Savarimuthu, founding partner, Merdeka LHS

Tony SavarimuthuThe client CEO/CMO should have the last word on all aspects of strategy and the agency CCO/CEO should have the last word on the creative product. To reach this point in a relationship takes some work. Anything that departs from this inevitably turns turtle up and like a bad divorce there will be a huge cost. But C level jobs are transient these days and few if any think long-term about this. Sometimes there is a trail of destruction.

If the creative director only meets the CEO for the first time in the pitch room then I don’t foresee that this relationship would be productive in the timespan that it takes to build market success. Like arranged marriages this is a game of luck.

The categories that I would not work for now I would have probably worked for in the past. Whichever way you look at it, it becomes hypocritical when you are chasing the margin that is demanded of you. It’s like being in politics and having to toe the party line regardless of your personal beliefs. Happens.

I’ve encountered a situation in my past agency where we were employed to promote a particular cause and point-of-view of the client. While it was a professional brief, we informed the team that they had a choice not to work on it. There were some who stayed because they felt they had a professional duty, others believed in the client’s point-of-view. And yet others left the room because they didn’t. This wasn’t about a difficult or troublesome client. They weren’t and they paid on time. We knew some people had some deep-seated reservations about what this client stood for.

As long it is not the mob, agencies will work on everything and anything, including promoting corrupt or genocidal regimes. But there are certain categories which people working in agencies have a strong point of view on. Corporate reputations and the beliefs companies align under matter to employees. Typically they have issues with the promotion of tobacco related products, alcohol, quick service restaurants and industries that have scant respect for the environment. The latter often have the term “Promotion Board” attached to the name. I avoid them.

While there is self regulation increasingly there is greater scrutiny on brands marketing foods high in fat, sugar and salt content (HFSS) to children. In all of the categories mentioned, I think we have to ask our teams and the management partners, and align views to avoid a particular category. Diktats and a top-down view don’t work anymore in our business, unless you want to lose all  your employees. People in our business are hired because they have a point of view on things. We can’t then run rough-shod over that.

Sonya Madeira, founder, Rice Communications

Sonya Madeira

It’s a tough call to make. As an (ex) smoker, personally I would prefer not to work with tobacco brands. At a generalist agency like ours, where the business grows via word-of-mouth, we have taken on some clients that others might have had an issue with. For example in coal mining or paper products. But we understand the difference between having a point of view and running a business that successfully supports clients across industries. I know teetotaller PR consultants who have worked on alcohol brands. If it’s not breaking the law or crossing a morality “line”, companies will always find PR support. What is closer to my heart is walking away from clients – this boils down to individuals really. And if you don’t treat your consultants like human beings, are abusive, incessantly unreasonable or plan to make your PR agency a scapegoat, best to find someone else to work with.

Warwick Olds, director, Riverorchid

Warwick OldsWe have three absolutely non-negotiable no-go zones, and one negotiable zone. The no-go’s:

1. Clients who contravene the law, be that formally in terms of what they do (very rare) or with cultures which tolerate corruption (sadly more common).

2. Political parties, or quasi-political organisations or bodies with obviously political agendas. It’s not whether we agree or don’t agree with the politics involved – we just stay strictly non-political.

3. Abusive or offensive clients. Just last year we resigned a quite a size-able client over behaviour which was – by any standards – insultingly rude and unacceptable. Our staff and our own suppliers have rights too, and they need to be respected.

Our more negotiable zone covers the category of clients who are quite chaotic, or who often brief but don’t sign off, or who are given to holding pitches with lots of agencies involved – often for small pieces of work. There is nothing illegal or abusive about these clients – they are just very messy to work with. Depending on our work levels we do or don’t (more commonly don’t) handle these job offers. It’s critical that opportunities like this should not get in the way of servicing our established, loyal clients.

Aaron Koh, co-founder, GOVT

Aaron KohI don’t believe in working for an organisation that benefits from mistreating animals. Watch Black Fish or The Cove and you’ll probably agree with me… if you don’t, then you should be treated in the same way too 🙂 Try keeping your child in a glass box during his childhood and see how that turns out, it’s just not right.

The agency does great work when they believe that something good can come out of it, that’s one of the main reasons GOVT exists in the first place.

We’ve not fired any clients… yet. But we will if there is a lack of respect to the agency. We’re not here to say ‘yes, sir’ and follow instructions all the time, they could do that with other agencies that bow down just to earn a quick buck. There are also some clients that do not understand timelines and feasibilities, which is actually quite logical to a certain extent. If you don’t thaw your steak and rush into the frying, it’ll taste bad. We’re here to work with clients that believe in what we believe. And you need to thaw that steak before cooking it.

Simon Kemp, regional managing partner, We Are Social, founder, Kepios

Simon KempNo tobacco. I will avoid carefully that anything is pushing a political or religious point of view. I would work for government. But I don’t like imposing an emotional or subjective choice on anyone.

But of course one of realities of saying no to certain clients is that the people who work there move on, and you meet again further down the road.


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