Blogs & Comment

How a crisis of morality is slowly killing marketing

Marketing is rapidly becoming whatever you can get away with, and it endangers the whole business

Businesspeople shaking hands, holding knives behind their backs


A few years ago, when I was departing the ad agency I’d co-founded, a friend sent me the link to an obscure YouTube video entitled When to Take My Name Off the Door. The scratchy black and white film records the 1967 farewell speech of advertising legend Leo Burnett. “When you are no longer what Thoreau called a corporation with a conscience,” Burnett admonished his firm, “when you begin to compromise your integrity…stoop to convenient expediency and rationalize yourself into acts of opportunism for the sake of a fast buck,” he thundered, “[I’ll] demand you take my name off the door.”

Believe it or not, there was a time when you could say that kind of thing with a straight face in the marketing world. I’ve thought about that video a lot lately, not so much for Burnett’s finger-wagging at the agency that bears his name but for how marketers of that generation reckoned this business ought to be conducted. It may not always have been the way things were, but at least there was a consensus about how things were supposed to be.

Recently, even this modest idealism seems about as fashionable as Leo’s diction. Consider the case of an AB InBev agency review in London last spring. When InBev asked candidate firms how much extra work they’d be willing to do without compensation and how much longer than the company’s already astonishing 120-day payment terms agencies would be willing to wait for their money, the ad biz was in high dudgeon. Leading shops proposed a strike, denying the prestigious client access to the industry’s best talent.

It was a nice idea. But, as satisfying as the notion of showing some backbone may have been, InBev’s cynical bet on the industry’s ethics turned out to be well placed. The “strike” was sheepishly abandoned before it had begun. Meanwhile, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, a body representing marketers in the U.K., declined to even comment on InBev’s conduct. Nobody came out smelling very good, and nobody seemed very shocked by the episode. It was as if it was all just part of the game.

So, maybe pitches are never showcases of ad biz rectitude. But neither has the recent moral decline stopped there. It has actually becoming frighteningly normal. On the agency side, for example, media kickbacks have become so controversial—and common—that four of the largest agencies have had their stocks downgraded over the potential cost of stopping the practice. Click fraud remains such a big problem that organizations have been formed to fight it as if it were a disease. Major brands like Kraft and Kellogg so distrust the viewability numbers they get from online video publishers that they’re boycotting them until they see independently verified data. Fudging time sheets seems almost quaint. “We audit everything now,” the CEO of a major consumer packaged goods brand glumly told me recently. “Everything.”

Preaching morality is above my pay grade, but you don’t even have to have a conscience to see the madness in this. Despite its recent fling with science, marketing remains—and will always be—based on acts of faith. When a CEO approves a CMO’s marketing plan, when a client buys a bold idea from an agency, when a consumer tries a new product, they do so without certainty about the outcome. They, too, are making a bet, and that bet is based quite a lot on how impeccable with their word the people doing the selling have been in the past. The titans of old Madison Avenue may not have been model citizens, but they were smart enough to realize that their businesses—indeed, the whole idea of marketing—depended on cultivating moral authority.

When marketing becomes whatever you can get away with, there’s not much left to stop the marketplace from heading in the same direction. With no basis for faith, every sale eventually goes to the lowest bidder (or the one willing to wait the longest to be paid). Selling becomes war, and every attempt at innovation is blocked by suspicion. With no trust, there is no profit. That’s not idealism. It’s just good business.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award

Watch Leo Burnett’s farewell speech, “When to Take My Name Off the Door”: