Ad Agency Bosses On What To Do When Staff Object To A New Client

The power of a quiet word or collective decision-making before a pitch? Our snap panel explores how agencies can weigh up staff protestations around specific clients.

Moral objections to a client’s business – over its environmental impact, over its perceived impact on the social fabric or detrimental effects upon public health – generally don’t get much of a hearing when an agency is weighing up whether or not to pitch. But staff corralled into working on a controversial client have a habit of leaving for greener pastures. Many agencies solve that question by allowing staff to opt out of specific accounts – though such policies are often informal and ad hoc.

We asked a range of agency execs how they handle ethical objections to clients and how they do so in a way that gives staff a fair hearing.

How do you solve a problem like… staff objecting to a client?

Andy Fowler, founder and chief creative officer, Brothers & Sisters: “A former colleague once had a quiet word with me about not wanting to work on a gambling pitch because there were some awful gambling addiction problems in his family. We’re a human business, not a coercive business, and in that context you’d have to be entirely inhuman to force the individual to take part.

“My personal feelings in regard to my own moral compass is that even if it’s a brand I object to, I’m always fascinated to meet them and hear what they have to say, rather than judging from afar. One meeting doesn’t hurt anyone and gives you the tools to judge.”

Ed Palmer, managing director, St Luke’s: “St Luke’s philosophy has always been about giving everyone a voice. This is what makes our culture richer and more rewarding for our people and our clients. Everyone can debate any issue, including who to pitch for, and opinions will be heard. And individual circumstances, views or religious/cultural beliefs will be factored into how we staff the account. But a formal policy of picking and choosing risks undermining our collective culture and creating factions. Once we’ve made that decision to work with a client, they should feel they have the full support of the agency.”

Dan Saxby, managing director, The Elephant Room: “Every leader understands that without your team, you don’t have a business. So why would you leave them out of the decision-making on a controversial client?

“With every prospective client, you have to be transparent and consult with your team. Make your case, listen to their feedback, engage in open discussions and strive for consensus. Allowing objections to surface after the fact reflects a disconnect in leadership, where financial gains overshadow organizational culture.”

Lloyd Davies, managing director, Making Science UK: “The best approach is to try and find a delicate balance by keeping communication open and honest with employees. There must be respect for individuals’ beliefs and preferences, however, ultimately we all want a climate of civilized debate and civilized advertising. Key considerations for us include that the business is aligned with our corporate values and is a legitimate company that employs fairly and contributes to the UK tax system.

“From a resourcing perspective, during the employee interview process it is important we discuss areas such as business objectives and the client sectors a candidate could be expected to work on. This provides a chance for applicants to consider and share any concerns they might have before starting.“

Andy Hewitt, co-founder and managing partner, Something: “Nurturing a culture to allow for morale objections is vital, but first and foremost our team chose to work with us because we partner with brands ‘born better’ or committed to ‘becoming better.’

“We have a strict triage process to ensure projects we take on don‘t conflict with our moral, ethical and environmental values. So, it shouldn‘t get to a point where team members have to opt out because, if they do, we lose what makes us a committed team. Ultimately, identifying if a brand is committed to becoming better and if we can contribute to that should be the question.”

Jason Jones, chief executive officer, Brandwidth: “At Brandwidth, we address ethical considerations with policy, process, and common sense. New client relationships undergo an ethical assessment, with contentious issues referred to our ethics committee. Typically, this leads to a decision we‘re all happy with. In rare cases where individuals still have strong personal objections, we prioritize team consensus. Our people can only do their best work when they buy entirely into the mission of our client’s business. If one of our team doesn’t want to work for that potential client, we either make sure they don‘t have to or we won‘t work for that client at all.”

Giorgio Cassella, managing director, Evoluted: “Typically, we filter out clients who don’t fit with our ethos/culture/values at the new business stage. At that point, we get an indication of any objections from our delivery teams before we proceed to pitching or bringing the client onboard. We‘re currently working towards B Corp certification, so where existing clients don‘t match our push towards sustainability, we try to use our relationship with them as a trusted partner to encourage them to make positive changes alongside the wider digital transformation we‘re supporting them with.

“And of course, if staff object to working with certain clients we’ll make accommodations wherever possible. In the past, we’ve done so when staff didn’t feel comfortable working with adult toy clients, for example.”

Feel like taking part in future discussions? Get in touch: [email protected].