Mark Ritson: Don’t be stupid, the Oscars mix-up has no impact on PwC’s brand

PwC is a B2B firm and its business is based on decades-long relationships, so talk of ‘brand damage’ from naming the wrong best picture is facile nonsense.

I don’t know if you’ve seen ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic biopic of two great American anti-heroes, but it’s well worth two hours of your time. The film ends in a shootout in which Clyde, played by Warren Beatty, looks lovingly across at Bonnie, played by Faye Dunaway, one last time before the pair are ripped apart by machine gun fire.

It’s a shockingly brilliant finale and, exactly 50 years after the film’s release, it was replayed on Sunday night on the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. Beatty and Dunaway were reunited and tasked with announcing the Oscar winner for best film and, well, you know what happened next. Beatty opens the red envelope and looks at the card within. He looks again. Looks over at the officials. Frowns. Looks once again at the card. Looks at Faye Dunaway. She shoots him a look that is half a century old and he finally hands her the card. “La La Land,” she exclaims.

The ensuing chaos certainly kept global audiences amused on Sunday. Two accountants from PwC, the official ‘tabulators’ of the Oscar Ceremony, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, oversaw the calculation of the votes and the winning envelope distribution on the night. It was Cullinan who picked up the envelope from the previous award category, Emma Stone for Best Actress in La La Land, and handed it to Beatty. It was therefore PwC’s fault that, for a whole two minutes, Moonlight was not awarded the Oscar and La La Land was – a mistake that the firm subsequently apologised for the following day.

PwC is a B2B firm. That means the people who select it are not like your auntie Gladys and the decision to hire it is not like buying some teabags.

So what has this got to do with marketing? It has become the fashion when any major company makes a goof that makes the headlines to immediately embark upon the same tired and inaccurate ritual. The brand in question is “plunged” into catastrophe, the crisis management clichés are quickly trotted out and every manner of brand expert duly informs a rabid media of the untold damage that this crisis will immediately have on brand equity, reputation and the bottom line.

Sure enough on Sunday night and then Monday morning, everyone quickly went through the motions. USA Today predicted that “short-term damage” to the PwC brand was inevitable. ABC News claimed that the Oscars mistake has put PwC’s “reputation in jeopardy”. Advertising Age concluded that the “Oscar Oops” could “spell lasting brand damage” for the firm. My favourite article was the Wall Street Journal’s, which argued, completely nonsensically, that the error would “hit the brand” but would not impact on the business. What? You’re the Wall Street Journal, get a grip. If it hurts the brand it’s going to hurt the business. But it’s going to do neither, so why even bother writing this crap?

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Unilever resisting takeover is a win for responsible business

A special Oscar mention goes to “London-based independent branding specialist with decade’s worth of industry experience” Nigel Currie, who managed to get his nonsensical assessment into more than two hundred global media titles on Monday. His sage analysis was that this was “as bad a mess-up as you could imagine”. I even had some bloke on Twitter chide me that this was a bigger crisis than the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. Yes, the 11-people-dead, $60bn, ocean-fucking, business-killing Gulf of Mexico disaster. That one.

And, of course, it’s all balls. Total balls. Giant monkey marketing balls covered in tinsel and silly string. Clearly most marketers and the journalists that cover these kinds of things are morons. Are you telling me that this morning all over London there are clients sitting in large corporate offices having urgent meetings because some bloke from accounting got a bit dizzy and picked up the wrong envelope and now, well, we are just not sure that we want to continue with that audit from PwC? Do you really think that about three days from now anyone will actually remember the name of the accounting firm that ballsed this up? Do you expect that PwC will suffer anything other than a bit of minor piss-taking over the next 48 hours?

PwC is a B2B firm. That means the people who select it are not like your auntie Gladys and the decision to hire it is not like buying some teabags. Almost all of PwC’s work comes from existing clients and is based on decades-long relationships. The brand that PwC has is forged from relationships between consultants and clients and not late-night Sunday TV and Faye Dunaway. To think anything else is childish, stupid, pointless drivel.

Marketing has become increasingly a pastiche of itself. Hopelessly out-of-touch commentators making hugely unsupportable observations that aren’t just questionable, but massively and hilariously stupid.

You want a crisis? You want one to really worry about? One that should, but won’t, damage the PwC brand and its hard-won reputation? Try googling Antoine Deltour, the ‘Lux Leaks’ whistleblower. Stop reading about the Oscars and spend the time understanding why he was fired from PwC and is now awaiting the outcome of his appeal against conviction for violating Luxembourg’s secrecy laws. That’s the brand crisis that journalists and marketers and social media should be focused on. Maybe if they make a movie about Deltour and his heroic and entirely selfless decision to shine a light on the shitty, shitty business world we all currently operate in we might finally get to talk about him one day. And PwC will have a real crisis to manage.

Meanwhile I will leave the marketers to live in La La Land.



There are 12 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Elroy 1 Mar 2017

    Wow, I think this article is 180 degrees off. Let’s start by remembering that PwC’s primary products are accuracy and honesty. When they sign the financial statements of multi-national companies, those are the things they’re promising.

    Now, we’re talking about the U.S. board chairman (Brian Cullinan), supposedly the finest of the finest in their U.S. branch. And he’s got one job that night, to keep track of 24 envelopes, slowly passing them out over a 3+ hour period. It’s not rocket science. You say he was distracted? Again, this is supposed to be the best of the best of PwC.

    And then, we’ve got Tim Ryan, another top executive and partner coming out and saying, “This is the first time in over 80 years that there has ever been a problem.” Oops, they did virtually the same thing in 1964 with Sammy Davis Jr. ( ). They’d better get their facts straight before they open their mouths, not admirable nor desirable behavior for a supposely world-class accounting firm.

    As stated by the Huffington Post, “The Academy’s mission is to advance excellence and achievement in film, we should expect no less from the Academy when it comes to the production of the Oscars ceremony” ( ).

    Can we really trust the accuracy and honesty of a company that can’t keep 24 envelopes straight?

    Yeah, I think PwC is sweating bullets about now, and deservedly so.

  2. Simone Castello 1 Mar 2017

    I knew it, somebody would say that. Well, greetings from marketing La La Land. I am writing a book about this and I have a few cautionary tales of giants with feet of clay. Big companies are not immune from huge mistakes and error of judgment. Don’t get cocky big company… as plenty of startups are nipping at your ankles. I could do a biblical reference here, but I will refrain.

  3. Simone Castello 1 Mar 2017

    I could also make references to crisis management, but I will leave it for a more specialised colleague.

  4. Pete Austin 1 Mar 2017

    It’s not about the mistake, it’s about marketing unexpectedly reaching the wrong audience.

    Normally only people who watch the Oscars would have been aware of PwC’s association. Most of them could be expected to be pro-Hollywood, so normally the association *improves* PwC’s reputation overall.

    But the mistake broke through to a much wider audience, and was especially shared on social media by people hostile to the Oscars and Hollywood. They learnt of PwC’s association with organizations they dislike, so this year the association *damages* PwC’s reputation overall.

  5. Zbiggy Ucinek 1 Mar 2017

    Mark I understand the sentiment and don’t disagree with the fact that major multinationals will continue working with PWC. However for me you are missing the more salient point, namely the blame game that so many large companies adopt as their company culture.

    While the team at the top enjoy the spoils of so called success, any screw up let’s blame and normally fire the poor sod who was just trying to do their job and made a mistake. Not fraud, not complete incompetence just an honest mistake, and hand on heart which person in this world has under severe pressure or otherwise never made one.

    But hey! Their fault not mine. I have a simple view of Leadership based on old sea values, a true captain always goes down with his ship, not name and shame, that is why they get paid the big bucks. Sadly this also sums up the majority of the current marketing world using cover your ass focus groups, quantitative studies and so-called “best practice” to keep their jobs rather than taking risks. Having a fuck you approach to your employees ends up in a fuck all growth environment.

  6. Paul Yonel 1 Mar 2017

    The next press releases from PwC will state “we don’t discuss personnel matters” when the rumors start flying about fate of the two partners involved. Also next year, it will all be digital. No envelopes and no PwC.

  7. Thom Kennon 1 Mar 2017

    Dude, um… Well – uh, this is awkward. You, like, totally mailed this glancing piece of empty fluff in. Next time, pause. Think. Consider a topic worth talking about, writing about, and whip up your usual insightful shit. This is an embarrassing waste of column inches, bruh. Next time. Promise?

  8. Alex H 1 Mar 2017

    Spot on Mark, really enjoyed reading this. Totally agree with your points. There is important stuff going on in the world and we get wall-to-wall coverage of a gaff at an award ceremony for the film industry. So in the grand scheme of things completely unimportant. That’s the point. What’s going on in the middle east is important. Politics is important. Our education and healthcare system is important. The Oscars is not in the slightest bit important and therefore I couldn’t give a damn what PWC did or didn’t do in the context of a bunch of people from the film industry patting each other on the back.

  9. Andy Haywood 2 Mar 2017

    Agreed – if your reason for not using PWC or trusting the integrity of a massive company that has its roots ingrained in enterprise well before Twitter memes existed is down to a mixed-up envelope in a Film awards show, then perhaps you need to rethink your priorities in business.

    Less than a week on and people are already bored of the topic – Emma Stone’s reaction got more media attention. It may lead to some jaunty boardroom banter with clients, but there are much larger concerns when it comes to audits and compliance than the Oscars.

    Now, if this triggers a witch hunt into trying to find every single way PWC has ever messed up to make more headlines, that’s another story… (Pardon the pun)

  10. stuart clough 6 Mar 2017

    As ever really straight up commentary from Mark.

    B2B buyers don’t give a shit, it’ll be banter over email etc, then when the audit call out comes round clients will pick up the phone to the professionals they’ve trusted to do their last x audits, because you don’t mess with this do you?

    Or else, they’ll go to market and if they’re big enough then the big 4 plus a couple of upstarts will take them out to dinner, do some presentations, sit in some suits eating some nice lunches, get comfortable with each other, and finally the buyer will go with the business they trust.

    The Oscars will be a talking point, an ice breaker maybe, if it comes up at all, but the buyer is probably going to want to know about who else PwC are working with, who the team are, what they’ve done for others in the past 24 months etc.

    Honestly, think from the customer’s perspective:

    Would you make your purchase decision on something like tax strategy contingent on TV award show performance? Come on.

  11. Gary 6 Mar 2017

    There’s no crisis with Deltour. Any corp tax director will look at 1% tax rates that PwC achieved for its clients and eyes will be popping out of sockets. And guess what…You think Mark Ritson won’t get his pneumonia vaccine because Pfizer tried to invert? Nope. Have you seen Apple’s Q1 performance?

    This piece was solid until its populist conspiratorial bullcrap. Without either of us knowing all the facts of PwC’s tax advice in Lux or anywhere else, we can only assume that PwC did its job to the satisfaction of its clients and within the bounds of the law. Advisors work for their clients, not the public and certain not pols or the lazy bureaucrats who work gov’t revenue departments.

  12. Colin Smith 11 Mar 2017

    U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero presiding in the MF Global Holdings trial believes there could well be a $3bn impact on PwC’s brand.

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