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The responsible agency

06 Jul 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
The responsible agency

If agencies want to be seen as genuine partners they have to lead and advise their clients, argues Dominic Mills - even when it comes to a Facebook advertising boycott

The threat of an agency boycott against media owners is nothing new. It was a regular occurrence in the 90s and the noughties. In fact, you don’t have to go that far back to find some more recent examples — GroupM/Channel 4 in 2013 and Omnicom Media Group/Channel 5 in 2014.

But those were very different boycotts, a test of muscle really for both parties, and purely commercial. There was a time-honoured pattern to these slugfests. Public displays of aggression would be accompanied by behind-the-scenes talks and peace would always break out, both sides claiming an honourable victory. Back then, one of the debates was about whether media agencies had too much power; that seems ridiculous now.

Contrast that with the current ad boycott threat against Facebook. If you want to be generous, it’s all about taking a moral stand, and if you want to be cynical, it’s all about virtue signalling or running in fear of a consumer boycott. In terms of power, there’s no balance about it. As the CMA report made clear last week, just looking at the UK alone, Facebook has a 50%+ share of the £5.5bn UK display market, only about 10% of which comes from those making the most noise about a boycott.

But other than an absolute climbdown which would see Facebook actively removing hate speech — an act that in itself would turn it into a publisher and therefore undermine its fundamental power base — it is hard to see what constitutes victory for the boycott advocates.

Which brings us back to the role of the agency in a boycott. An agent — estate, literary, talent, creative, media— is supposed to represent the best interests of its clients, although that is a definition that is potentially vague. When GroupM threatened to take its clients off Channel 4, in whose interests was it really acting? Its clients, in order to get them a better price, even at the cost of a sub-optimal media choice? Or its own?

So far, only one agency has publicly come out in favour of a Facebook boycott; IPG Mediabrands. A second, 360i (part of Dentsu Aegis), has been revealed by the Wall Street Journal to back the boycott via the leak of an email to clients.

That is not to say others are doing nothing: some I have talked to are actively working with their clients behind the scenes but don’t want to say anything in public.

The question is: should more take a public stance? Do they lead, or do they follow?

It’s tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, to say and do nothing is, in the eyes of some, effectively to condone Facebook’s stance. On the other, to be reductive about it, they could argue that it’s not their decision to take but the client’s, and it is not in their interests to take a public view about it one way or the other.

But if you believe, as I do, that it is the agency’s responsibility to represent the best interests of their clients in the round, then this is something they should have a view on. The complication is that the clients’ best interests now include a moral and ethical dimension, as well as more tangible ones.

But I would argue that, in complex situations the like of which many have not faced before, clients need guidance and advice that goes beyond the practical (i.e. where do you get the best bang for your media buck) and therefore the agency cannot duck the issue.

There’s another way of looking at this issue, which is this: we’ve moved, or are moving, to a consumer culture in which consumer identity and values are paramount — climate being one example — and therefore the underlying basis on which decisions to buy product or service x or y are made is changing.

And, as we now understand all too clearly, consumer values and identities are as much to do with the media choice itself as the message. In recent years, however, very few advertisers have given a monkey’s about this.

To understand the change in the landscape, clients need their agencies to step up and look beyond the plan or the buy. It’s simple: if they want to be seen as genuine partners and add value, then agencies need to lead on this issue.

That lens may be the best one through which to view the stance taken by IPG Mediabrands, which published its Ten Media Responsibility Principles last month not so much as an attempt to lay down the law to Facebook (even if that was how it was interpreted) — as if! — but more as guide to the ways in which media agencies should act in the future.

Here are the ten principles that IPG believes media should follow:

1. Promote respect
2. Protect people
3. Be diverse and representative
4. Data collection and use
5. Children’s wellbeing
6. No hate speech
7. No misinformation/disinformation
8. Enforce their own policies
9. Promote advertising supply chain transparency
10. Ensure all parties in the chain are accountable.

Hmm… well I’d say while these standards don’t strike me as exactly high, a bit vague and apple-pie, they are currently beyond the reach of pretty much all the platforms. Going by actual behaviour as opposed to stated, I’d say they all fail on at least one.

And who does meet them? Broadly, any media owner that is regulated.

Saying that doesn’t help advertisers who need to find a viable alternative to Facebook or the other platforms, but that doesn’t mean the guidelines are useless if they help them progress towards better selection and inculcate a sense of responsibility. “These are decisions that need to be owned by the advertiser because they will be subject to pressure on all sides regardless of the decisions they make,” as IPG Mediabrands’ head of global brand safety, Josh Lowcock, noted.

But the real point of these principles is an old-fashioned and very simple one. If you are a responsible advertiser, you need to know where your ads are actually running. If you don’t — and how often can that be said of both client and agency — you’re asking for trouble.

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