Ogilvy Leadership Confronts Staff Concerns Over Customs and Border Protection Contract

Chairman John Seifert addresses work for client in internal email

Female U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent pointing something out to her colleagues.
The new "Go Beyond" campaign from Ogilvy looks to attract more diverse recruits. U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

WPP’s Ogilvy this week moved to address internal controversy about its ongoing work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the largest law enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

An email from global chairman and CEO John Seifert appeared to be an attempt to quell growing concern among employees in recent days after a Sludge report included Ogilvy on a list of contractors providing services to CBP and to counter claims on social media that the agency played a role in producing “state propaganda.”

The relationship between Ogilvy and CBP had not previously been reported, and many agency staffers were unaware CBP was a client, according to multiple employees speaking on condition of anonymity.

Seifert’s email to a concerned staffer was shared and quickly became a discussion point among members of an Ogilvy-only group on the anonymous messaging app Fishbowl this week, and two sources confirmed its authenticity.

"The fact that our work was misrepresented in social media and some press is too often a reality with no easy answers."
John Seifert, global chairman and CEO, Ogilvy

“I would not hesitate to speak out if I felt we were doing work that violated our culture, values and beliefs,” Seifert wrote in the email. “That is not the case with [CBP], no matter what side of the border protection debate you take sides with.” He opened the email by stating that Ogilvy’s contract with the federal government prevents the agency from commenting on its work, and voicing concerns that any agencywide communication regarding the account would be leaked to the press, effectively making them public.

Last week, Adweek sent an extensive list of questions to CBP about its marketing business and relationships with Ogilvy and other contractors, including Accenture and Deloitte. A representative acknowledged receipt of the questions on Monday morning and provided responses on Thursday afternoon, after this story initially went live.

An Ogilvy spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that the agency’s contract is limited to creative work for recruitment campaigns. Seifert also wrote in the email that “the only work we do for [CBP] is employee recruitment,” and CBP stated that Ogilvy does not provide public relations services such as “messaging materials like talking points [or] external press releases.” The agency’s holding company, WPP, deferred to Ogilvy for comment.

Whatever the nature of the work, the relationship with CBP puts Ogilvy in the middle of what may be the most contentious political issue in the United States. In recent weeks, U.S. lawmakers traded barbs over reports of “horrendous” conditions at detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border as they negotiated the terms of a humanitarian aid package.

The issue reached a fever pitch on June 18 when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., referred to the centers as “concentration camps.” Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic lawmakers later toured a detention facility in Clint, Texas, and The New York Times reported that the station is “several times over capacity,” with children sequestered in padded cells without diapers or access to proper food and toothbrushes.

Three days before the Times story ran, the Arizona office of CBP tweeted a video countering stories like those about the toothbrushes and a tweet from Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who said that during the tour she witnessed a border patrol agent tell a woman to drink from a toilet. RAICES, an immigration advocacy group based in Texas, then tweeted that the Arizona video was “state propaganda” and implied Ogilvy Public Relations assisted in its production.

CBP confirmed that the Arizona office created this video in-house. Adweek contacted RAICES with several questions about its tweet but has not received a response.

Seifert wrote in his email that he took a “monitor only” approach on social media to Ogilvy’s CBP contract “because any (broad) internal or public communication from us could have invited backlash from CBP and other government clients (of which we have many in the millions of dollars of fees).” Those clients include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

According to the Federal Procurement Data System and public database USAspending.gov, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide LLC—a blanket designation encompassing all of the agency’s Washington, D.C., area operations—has counted Customs and Border Protection as a client since late 2017, when CBP’s Office of Human Resources Management awarded the agency a contract for “branding services.” The initial contract, which was worth $4,056,681, ran from Sept. 25, 2017, to Sept. 24, 2018.

CBP renewed Ogilvy’s contract on June 15, 2018, and again on Sept. 30, 2018, for “marketing and advertising services.” The value of the second contract was $3,326,257.55, but, as RAICES noted in its tweet, that total ballooned to $12,773,606 in the current deal, which could concern up to $39,039,225.97 in spending if extended to its expected completion date of Sept. 29, 2021.

It is not clear why the contract increased in value by 314%, but it was signed several months before the release of Ogilvy’s latest ad for CBP, which first ran in late March as part of the “Go Beyond” campaign mentioned in a USA Today report about the client’s struggles to hire agents.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.