An ad-ethics code from Shona Seifert? Surely not

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The ad industry's next big statement on ethics will come from the central personality in its most embarrassing scandal to date: Shona Seifert.

Ms. Seifert, convicted of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government, last week received 18 months in a minimum-security prison, a $125,000 fine, and, in a bit of creative sentencing, an order from a federal judge to create an ethical code for a business she will likely never work in again. Though it's unclear that the former Ogilvy & Mather executive's creation would ever see the light of day, there was nothing ambiguous about the Madison Avenue's feelings about such an ethics lesson: no thanks.

"The 4A's has in place strong standards of practices that have served the industry well over the years," said O. Burtch Drake, president-CEO, the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "I don't see a need for a change or addition to these standards."

Mr. Drake was referring to a one-page document first adopted in 1924 and most recently revised in 1990. It forbids "price claims that are misleading," which pretty much covers the misbehavior of Ms. Seifert as well as Thomas Early, who was also sentenced last week, and other Ogilvy executives who over-billed the federal government on work for its national anti-drug ad account. The conspiracy, which involved doctoring time sheets and orders to staffers to bill hours they didn't work, was the subject of an investigation and trial that sent shivers up the spine of an industry known to be more than a little careless with keeping time sheets and other administrative matters.


That sloppiness was used to little avail by the attorneys of Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early during their February trial. A jury convicted them on one count of conspiracy to defraud and nine counts of filing false claims. (Read more: QwikFIND aaq35e)

Judge Berman even referenced the industry's "culture of carelessness" at the sentencing hearings last week-then promptly slapped them with prison terms. Mr. Early is to serve 14 months and pay a $10,000 fine.

Both are expected to surrender to authorities in September.

It was difficult to find anyone who thinks the industry needs another ethics statement. And some observers were quick to point out that in addition to the 4A's standards, the holding companies and individual agencies maintain their own policies.

"The number of excesses in the agency business are very few compared to most industries," said Bill Nicholson, a former 4A's official who's now a consultant at A-Team Advisors.

Plus, a code from Ms. Seifert wouldn't possess much credibility.

"There are many people in the industry who understand what's right or wrong and are far better equipped than Shona to write an ethics statement," Mr. Nicholson said.

It was unclear what Judge Berman's motive was in requiring Ms. Seifert to write the code. Based on his demeanor and his willingness to consider a variety of factors in the sentences, he seemed less interested in heaping another indignity upon Ms. Seifert than he did in filling what he saw as a vacuum.

As he put it at Ms. Seifert's hearing: "This case is about slippage in ethics, perhaps an absence of an ethics code."

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