Ad Agency BBH Loses Fight Against Actors Union SAG-AFTRA

Strike attracted celebrities including Tom Hanks and George Clooney

sag-aftra bbh union dispute contracts protest los angeles
Unionized actors protested outside BBH's L.A. office last year.
Getty Images

Publicis Groupe’s BBH agreed today to abide by recently renegotiated commercial contracts and cast only union actors in its ads, ending a nearly two-year battle with actors union SAG-AFTRA.

The announcement followed a May 15 decision in which administrative law Judge Kenneth W. Chu of the National Labor Relations Board ruled against BBH, finding the ad agency had violated two sections of the National Labor Relations Act when it decided in November 2017 to stop recognizing the union as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of commercial actors.

Nearly one year later, the agency released a statement confirming its plans to withdraw entirely from the contract that shapes relationships between the companies that produce ads and the talent that appears in them. At the time, BBH argued it was “not well-served by a contract that was designed for a traditional media landscape” and newer shops that never signed on operated at an advantage in an era when clients increasingly want digital content produced more quickly for less money.

"We lost the battle, will respect the ruling and move on."
Brett Edgar, managing director, BBH New York

In his decision, Chu wrote that BBH violated the section of the Labor Relations Act that covers bargaining in good faith with employees’ union representative when it refused to negotiate a new contract in December 2017.

BBH argued that “the union does not enjoy majority support because no permanent employees exist in November 2017,” therefore it did not have to recognize the contract that had applied since the agency opened its first U.S. office in 1998.

But Chu ruled against the company, finding that BBH “employed numerous [actors] during the material time with an average of more than one employee in each production” and should remain bound by the contract, which is generally renewed every three years.

Chu’s ruling orders BBH “to recognize and bargain with the union [and] notify the union in writing of any changes made in the unit employees’ wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment after Nov. 21, 2017.” He also ruled the agency must “restore all benefits, wages, hours and other terms and conditions enjoyed by the unit employees prior to Nov. 21, 2017.”

“Our goal from the start was to produce high-level, cutting-edge creative work for our clients on a level playing field in a fast-evolving industry,” said BBH New York managing director Brett Edgar in a statement. “We lost the battle, will respect the ruling, and move on. We thank our clients for their unrelenting support throughout this process.”

This development comes three months after SAG-AFTRA and the ad industry, as represented by the Association of National Advertisers and American Association of Advertising Agencies, reached a new agreement on contracts that they said is a better fit for the digital age.

When discussing the new contracts, Lori Hunt, SAG-AFTRA executive director of commercials, corporate/educational and non-broadcast contracts, told Adweek, “Our concern is focused now on BBH because they illegally withdrew.”

The union staged protests at BBH’s offices in New York and Los Angeles, and the cause drew the support of celebrities including George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Bryan Cranston, Octavia Spencer and Jennifer Aniston, who united under the hashtag #AdsGoUnion. Union groups also picketed a BBH Samsung ad shoot in Brentwood, California earlier this year to protest the use of non-union actors.

The fight also grew personal, with SAG-AFTRA targeting BBH chairwoman Sarah Watson by calling her “hypocrite of the week” for serving on the Time’s Up Advertising board while her agency was “depriving [actors] of union guarantees of safety [and] healthcare.”

In a statement, SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said the union is pleased to resume its nearly 20-year relationship with BBH.

“Now, with our new 2019 Commercials Contracts, we are thrilled that BBH can take full advantage of the transformative compensation models in this groundbreaking agreement to better compete in the constantly evolving advertising industry,” Carteris said.

Spokespeople for BBH and SAG-AFTRA declined to comment beyond today’s press release.

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