The Ethicists

Everyone does it. It’s how things get done. Maybe not anymore.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that the line separating ethical and unethical corporate behavior has shifted. Many in advertising would agree. But few—in our business or others—can say where it now rests. As many observers noted, a boom economy forgives many lapses. But incidents such as the Color Wheel case now demand that agency managers ask, “Could something like that be going on here?”

It would be folly for agencies to not act on evidence of gross malfeasance. But some common operating principles deserve re-examination in today’s environment.

Have policies for fair use of film and TV material been established for ripomatics? (Doesn’t the term itself suggest where the line is?) Are they enforced? And how often do agencies use copyrighted music for presentations and vision videos on the basis that it is “only” for internal use?

Disclosure of confidential client business data is a fact of new-business life. The pressure to win can tempt agencies to report clients’ results selectively—or exaggerate them.

Financial decisions are particularly tricky, especially for young, ambitious employees. Is an expense billable or not? Should a cost overrun be jammed into an estimate or eaten by the agency? What about forcing suppliers to cover agency mistakes? And how much scrutiny could the average agency timesheet tolerate from a client or government auditor?

Does the agency reel include only “as aired” versions? Or are agency cuts passed off as the final product—and even entered in awards shows?

And many of us have mumbled helplessly when asked by a client to do something unethical, be it manipulating budgets or claims.

The line has indeed moved. Both front-line employees and clients will increasingly demand accountability from agency leaders—and check to see if they’re walking the walk. It’s time for executives and department heads to make their positions clear. Five practices will be useful:

1. Publish a statement of agency standards for business conduct, and regularly and publicly endorse and reward appropriate behavior.

2. In conjunction with counsel, establish procedures for handling ethical lapses, including protection for whistle-blowers.

3. Regularly audit sensitive areas such as client billing practices, production jobs and timesheets. Make supervisors responsible for any activity they authorize—explicitly or implicitly.

4. Engage outside help with ethical issues. Take advantage of the many business and theology faculty concentrating on business ethics.

5. Most important, initiate and sustain discussion of ethical issues within the agency. Put them on the agenda of management meetings. Formulate a point of view on them. Make sure the team knows they’re important—and will stay important.

The vast majority of agency people are thoughtful and principled. When problems arise, it’s often because agencies have simply been inattentive. But now that the line has moved, that’s no longer an excuse.