Agencies: Don't Mix Business and Politics

Taxi's Berg Argues Political Work Introduces Something Into the Agency That Is Potentially Divisive

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Political advertising this year is expected to reach nearly $5 billion. The bulk of those billions will be spent on traditional media.

John Berg is president of Taxi, New York.

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So it's no secret that creating political ads can be a boon for ad agencies. An association with a particular candidate or a political campaign can be a public-relations coup. Remember the Tuesday Team, a group of ad executives and agencies that helped put Ronald Reagan in office? What about Saatchi & Saatchi's "Labour Isn't Working" campaign, which swayed a nation toward Margaret Thatcher? In the current election, the recent outreach by Roy Spence, founder of Omnicom's GSD&M, to Hillary Clinton made headlines, as did independent SS&K and Omnicom-owned GMMB's support of Barack Obama.

Mr. Spence and the rest are embarking on a time-honored tradition. No doubt, when an agency CEO or principal declares an affinity for a candidate and pledges to help land that candidate in office, the potential upside is clear: In addition to steady mentions in the press for an extended period, the agency benefits from a halo effect if a campaign resonates with the public.

But there are downsides when agency principals support campaigns as volunteers or take on such an account for pay. That's why, in my role as agency president, I've made a policy of never personally volunteering my time for a political cause or engaging the agency in the advancement of a particular political party, candidate or controversial issue. This is not due to political ambivalence. I have a B.A. in political science from Haverford College and remain deeply interested in politics. In fact, I have been known to wear out my family and friends with my views.

Some people might argue I'm passing up great opportunities. Possibly. But I firmly believe that an agency's most valuable asset is its employees. And what people want to feel more than anything else is that they are working in a meritocracy. Political work breaks the meritocracy by introducing something into the agency that is potentially divisive, something that benefits some employees and puts others at a disadvantage.

Sure, the Federal Election Commission has strict rules on how managers who've decided to help a candidate can use their corporate resources in volunteer efforts. But those rules have no impact on the politics within a shop. The reality is that employees who share their management's positions will be comfortable volunteering, while those who don't share management's views won't. Those with shared values get an opportunity to build a relationship over deeply personal issues. Those who don't agree won't have the same opportunity. It's as simple as that. Staffers who fall into the definition of administration, and therefore can be requested to work on the boss' volunteer cause (within the FEC guidelines) have little choice but to do it -- even if they're ardently opposed to the candidate.

A general-market agency taking on a party or candidate for pay also presents problems. It's not at all uncommon for candidates interviewing for agency jobs to question management about the company's ethics. Does the shop, for instance, work for a tobacco company? If the answer is yes, and the prospect disagrees with that, she won't pursue the job. When management accepts a political client, some employees are happy and some are not. What an impossible position for some: They can either help a party and candidate they don't believe in and capitalize on a unique opportunity to show management their stuff, or they can self-righteously sit on the sidelines and watch some of their peers gain awareness and stature.

I've seen this while working for various agencies and know that while no one dares to complain openly, the divisions are felt deeply. When I interviewed with Taxi co-founder Paul Lavoie for this job running Taxi in New York, I was pleased to learn that for years in Canada, where Taxi is based, he's turned down requests for political work for the same reasons.

In this political season, many people are feeling passionate about the election. People are voting in record numbers. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama are building and rebuilding their political organizations in the hope of a November victory. Voter turnout and political activity is high.

Our industry leaders who want to participate in the political process can and should get involved. The fairest approach for an ad-agency leader who wants to make a difference in a political campaign is to separate from the agency. Take an unpaid leave of absence. Take a sabbatical. Join an organization. Just don't mix politics and work. Employees will benefit by feeling they all have an equal opportunity to impress the boss and advance. And when employees benefit, so does the agency.
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