Talking In Code

In July, Shona Seifert was given a unique chance to write advertising history: She was asked by a federal judge to promulgate a code of ethics for the entire agency business.

It was part of the sentence she was handed after she was found guilty of inflating the government’s billings by $3 million on the White House anti-drug account —a sentence that also includes 18 months in prison.

The task was brimming with potential, as the code was sure to be read widely by her former industry colleagues. Less certain was whether the industry would have adopted any part of it. Still, the level of curiosity was such that, were she to do a good job, there was a chance she could go down as the founding mother of ethics in advertising—the Plato of Madison Avenue, if you will.

Last week, her 18-page opus arrived. And she has blown it, big time.

The preamble states: “None of us ever plans to be thrown under a bus. But it happens. Sometimes it’s because of something we said or did. Sometimes it’s not.” And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the document.

Seifert seems to be saying that she was pushed under the bus, and that she may not be responsible. Never mind that a 12-member jury concluded in the winter that Seifert was actually the bus driver, not the stricken bystander.

Thus, the Seifert Code functions more as a scary look inside Seifert’s mind as she prepares for the big house in Danbury, Conn.

Before I am accused of kicking Seifert while she is down, let me say this: Seifert was always gracious and polite to me during her trial, even though I essentially spent three weeks stalking her. It is hard to watch the federal government bring its might to bear against a single individual, no matter how culpable he or she might be, without feeling somewhat sympathetic. I genuinely hope she can get her life back together once this is all over.

That said, the Seifert Code is a huge opportunity lost. In places, it reads more like a half-hearted rationalization for her own actions than a set of rules that could be applied by agency managers. Some examples:

“When problems occur or mistakes are made, finger-pointing begins. … Ethical choices aren’t always black and white. … It may be better for others that you take a bullet. … Accepting instruction blindly can cost you dearly. Whether the ‘brief’ comes from the client, a colleague, your boss or the CEO.”

The folks at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, where she was an executive group director, will no doubt be parsing that one to see if she might have had anyone specific in mind.

That’s not the only spot where Seifert seems to be writing a blind item for a gossip column:

“To witness sexual misconduct and do nothing about it is wrong.”

“Asking a supplier to conceal an error to protect yourself is wrong.”

“Telling a client you only use in-house production facilities, then sending the work out, is wrong.”

“If you promise the client that specific individuals will work on his business, honor the promise.”

“Don’t run for cover, especially if you are the manager responsible.”

Fill in the names yourselves!

Some of Seifert’s suggestions, like encouraging whistle-blowing, make a lot of sense. But they are lost amid references to Woody Allen, John Locke and Janis Joplin.

She should have kept it simple, like she did on Page 5, where she wrote, “Boring work has never resulted in a prison sentence. Poor timekeeping practices have.”