Editorial: Grey problem is everyone's issue

Published on .

This is unpleasant to grapple with but necessary to address. Before Enron and Arthur Andersen made business ethics and business crime daily news fodder, the advertising/marketing world had been suffering through its own problems. Thoughtful agency and advertiser leaders need to start sharing ideas about what needs to be done.

A lengthy probe of misconduct in the point-of-sale advertising business has produced guilty pleas from 32 people and nine companies since 1996. An embezzlement destroyed Dallas ad agency Berry Brown in 2000. Now the issue has come home to Madison Ave. A former exec VP at blue-chip agency Grey Worldwide stands accused of bilking clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in padded ad production costs-in an alleged scheme that may have been underway for 10 years.

While federal officials say the charges against the former Grey executive are part of an "ongoing" investigation, only the foolish would think some sort of "crime wave" was sweeping the ad business. But only the foolish would dismiss what's been happening as someone else's problem. Advertising agency leaders, however pressed they are in this difficult ad economy, can't shrug this issue off. Prudently, Grey has hired Deloitte & Touche to audit its internal procedures. But every agency top management team has to respond in some way, as should the associations that serve agencies and advertisers. This kind of conduct is corrosive to what every agency says it values most: the confidence and trust of clients.

Clients should ask, must ask, for evidence their agencies vigorously police employees entrusted with the spending of client funds. Corporate culture counts as much as rules and procedures. It should protect every honest and conscientious employee by stressing high standards and ethics. It should leave no room for anyone tempted to offer or solicit bribes to hold the comforting idea that this, somehow, is merely business "as usual."

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