Lobby groups take their protests to the agencies of offending companies

Charities and direct-action groups have long since lobbied against organisations they feel are plundering the Earth’s resources or failing in their social responsibilities, but a trend is emerging of ambushing those companies’ mouthpieces – their advertising and communication agencies.

Such activity looks set to escalate as canny charities realise the potential for increased media exposure, while agencies have started thinking about their role as vehicles of corporate responsibility.

Last month, Greenpeace targeted the offices of Ogilvy Advertising and Jackie Cooper PR in order to highlight client Unilever’s policy on palm oil, which it says is destroying rain forests. London Rising Tide staged a sit-in at Wunderman’s London offices, because of parent company Young & Rubicam’s Land Rover and BAE Systems accounts. Charges against three London Rising Tide members for offences, including “stealing pens”, were dropped last week.

Two weeks ago, WPP-owned public relations company Finsbury was hit by Survival International over British mining company Vedanta, whose subsidiary Sterlite is, according to the charity, set to destroy one of India’s most isolated tribes, the Dongria Kondh (MW.co.uk May 28).

Targeting brands’ publicity machines marks an evolution in lobbying groups’ armoury of publicity-raising weapons. But ethical problems are nothing new to advertising or its agencies. Back in the days of tobacco advertising, many an agency made a virtue of not taking such clients on. More recently, the trend has been to make agencies and networks carbon neutral, something helped in no small part by clients imposing targets on their suppliers.

‘Inevitable and on the rise’

One agency chief sees direct action of this nature as “inevitable” and bound to increase. He says: “It seems an inevitable consequence of the blame culture and also of the increasingly open society which we live in.”

He says that although it is easier than ever to find out about companies’ practices, it is even easier to find out who their suppliers are and target them. However, DraftFCB London president Enda McCarthy cautions: “Agencies have a lot of influence with their clients, and both parties take CSR seriously. So if a direct group really wants to hit a brand through its agency, I would suggest that they actually talk to them, rather than attempt to bully them with direct action.”

Certainly, the issues raised by the likes of Survival International, London Rising Tide and Greenpeace are not as cut and dried as the notion that advertising cigarettes is immoral.

A blurred line

Karmarama managing partner Nicola Mendelsohn says that agencies, often barometers of public feeling, are increasingly looking at ethics and CSR, something that could lead to resigning or not taking on certain accounts.

She says: “If a company was a big polluter and not doing anything about it, I would question whether to work for that brand.” But, she says, car brands and the major oil companies are actively working to make their organisations cleaner and more ethical: “I’m a great believer in little changes helping,” she adds. “Companies are accountable, but you can’t be ‘Pollyanna’ about it.”

A spokesman for Greenpeace says its aim was not to force agencies to resign business coming from unethical companies, but to put pressure on their clients to expedite change – something which it believes has worked. “By focusing on the brand Dove, which touches many consumers, and its agencies, rather than the corporate brand of Unilever, which has less consumer resonance, we wanted to force home the point,” he says, adding that Greenpeace wanted to piggyback the fame of the Dove brand to illustrate its view. “Lots of people know Dove through its advertising, rather than the product itself.”

Agencies are increasingly putting green and CSR considerations at the front of mind, if not letting it dictate the business it takes. Yet, as the spotlight turns to adland, agencies must beware of the company it keeps.

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