It is time for agencies to reject racist clients in order to put ethics before revenue

A toxic client will not only damage an agency’s reputation and credibility, but also bring team morale down, so agencies must fight against unethical behaviour even if it means giving up business – says Lina Marican

I have been closely following the Papa John’s public relations crisis over the past weeks – not for the company’s response to it, but to see how agencies around the brand have reacted.

Thankfully, they’ve all reacted exactly the way they should have. One after another, Papa John’s marketing, PR and media agencies – Laundry Service, Olson Engage and Initiative – parted ways with the client; with newly-minted creative agency Fallon pulling the plug just after a month of working with the firm.

For the uninitiated, a couple of months ago, the global pizza chain’s founder, John Schnatter, used a racial slur during a conference call, causing irreversible damage to himself and the brand. In fact, rumblings of racism emerged as early as November when Schnatter critiqued the American National Football League’s handling of the country’s national anthem protests.

In response, the company’s marketing agency called for a media training, role-playing, exercise to prevent future PR blunders. It was then that Schnatter used the racial slur and downplayed his NFL statement by disparaging another fast-food chain.

And yet, Papa John’s isn’t the only brand to face flak for racism this year. In April, a Starbucks employee reported two black men to the police. They were subsequently arrested for ‘trespassing’ in a local store. What followed was fury on social media and a call for a national boycott.  

The problem of racism is somewhat different but no less disappointing in Asia. Several brands have used and continue to use ‘blackface’ to market their products to consumers.

Dunkin Donuts did it in Thailand, Watsons in Malaysia and more recently China’s state broadcaster CCTV dressed a Chinese actress as an African to elicit laughs in a Chinese New Year gala skit.

Unfortunately, racism remains a deep-rooted systematic problem around the world. Cases like these continue to happen because, whether intended or not, business leaders and practices don’t acknowledge or attempt to battle bias and unconscious bias.

Admitting and accepting there is a problem is half the battle – and this is where agencies can actually take a stand for change, as a force for good.

When it’s time to fire a client

In the marketing world, there’s nothing remarkable about problematic or even controversial clients. But when it comes to sensitive topics like race, agencies must respond immediately or risk being lumped in with the negativity.

Agency leaders must take a stand when it comes to servicing clients that go against the company’s culture. A toxic client will not only damage an agency’s reputation and credibility, but also bring team morale down.

It’s a tough call to make, especially in a challenging business environment where agencies are jostling to win new business and prove themselves profitable. However, you’ll thank yourself for doing it in the longer term.

If it’s time for you to dump a toxic client, remember the following:

Decide if it’s the right move for the agency

Going beyond revenue, agency leaders need to take a hard look at how the clients’ behaviour and beliefs will impact team members and the agency’s reputation across the industry.

Don’t leave clients in the lurch

We’re professionals. We need to respectfully notify the client and help to wrap-up all loose ends, providing a full handover to help clients with business continuity.

The legal stuff

Work with your legal team to ensure all is in order. Apart from notifying the clients and internal teams, do issue a simple industry alert to highlight that you’ve decided to part ways. Consider including a mutual limitation of liability clause, as well as a termination clause to protect your agency moving forward.

You must be able to turn down contracts where there is a difference in values between agency and client, or a disagreement on what is ethical and what isn’t. We have had to do that ourselves on occasion.

After all, if we don’t take a stand to uphold our own principles then who will?

Toxic clients need to go, says Marican


Lina Marican is managing director of Mutant Communications, a Singapore-based public relations agency


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