Morality in the Marketing World

I’ve been in marketing since the mid-ish 1990s, in one form or another, and done actual agency marketing for about 20 years in that time. I’m not going to say “been there, done that, seen it all”, mostly because marketing is such a weird and diverse world that it is genuinely hard to have done it all … though I can accurately imagine quite a lot of it.

In all of that time, I was never asked by anyone if I was comfortable working with a particular client; I was just assigned work. If I didn’t want to do the work, I clearly didn’t want the job, right?

Well, times change, and we’ve come to respect (at least a little) that good employees – teammates, colleagues, contributors, whatever term you want to use – are hard to come by, and yes, you should treat them with sightly better respect than mere tools to deliver a service.

Recently, I was asked if I wanted to work on a client, partly because someone else had already refused. (I don’t see this as being a “second choice”, by the way. There are other factors at play.) I was, admittedly, surprised that I was asked at all – it had never happened nor (at my period in my career) have I given it much thought.

The question, however, was well-considered: do I have any objections to working on this particular client?

Long ago, back at Critical Mass, we used to have conversations along the lines of “what if we got Client X” – what would they be like, would we want to work with them, am I okay with that sort of client? But at the time, most of us were well below the pay grade for making such decisions, our thoughts were the musings of the then-grunts on the projects.

But then the rumours started floating: Tobacco companies, weapons manufacturers, Playboy. And then the conversation became literally real, culminating in a company-wide meeting with some pretty general rules (these are highly paraphrased, as it’s been a looooong time since that meeting):


We were already toeing a fairly grey line, when you sat back and thought about it. We already had clients who sold:

And if you think any of the Fortune 500 give a flying fig for their vendors or any hell they might have to endure along the way, you’ve clearly not been a vendor for a Fortune 500.

But the reality is that we all have lines that we won’t cross, and those lines vary from person to person. Some of my friends had no line at all, they were willing to work on anything if it gave them the means to do what they wanted to do. Others, including myself, grumbled about having to do it, but often just did it, anyway. Some refused, often by having to switch accounts or leaving the company altogether.

The reasons why people have lines are irrelevant, it’s that the line exists. That’s it. There’s no other qualification or justification needed. You’re not willing to work with a given industry because you object to it. Period, end of sentence, close the book. I am perfectly fine with that, I do not look down on anyone in that situation because they have a different code than myself. That is a choice and I will respect it.

The client I’m being asked to work on (not giving the name or industry) is an interesting twist: they have all the information, background, and research of a formally-trained professional, but for marketing purposes, are coming across as something else.

For me, that’s marketing: having to explain something in a different manner because that’s what’s needed to communicate.

And maybe I’m making that a bit too simplistic, I recognize that. But I’m also not trying to make a singular rule, either; this is my line, not yours, not anyone else’s. You might recognize it, heck you might even have a line that’s awfully damned close, but this one is mine.

I also reserve the right to move it, as should everyone else. As your life moves on, as you grow with experience and wisdom, you’ll realize more and more where you need to define your limits, for better or for worse, and that means redefining them as required to ensure your quality of life … including your sanity.

Morals are a tough thing – they’re intensely personal, rarely transferrable or shared. Even when they might be codified, such as with religion, it’s ultimately the individual who decides what is important and what to follow. Which means that, ultimately, one person’s morals might not be fully understood by another person.

We all need to take a moment to respect other’s morality, whether or not we personally agree or disagree. One person’s perspective is theirs and theirs alone. If we have disagreement, that’s the start of discussion and understanding, and acceptance that there are lines that cannot be crossed and that requires different approaches.

It’s an art that humanity has lost in recent years, the ability to negotiate around different moralities. Instead, we use them as weapons against one another, causing massive divides, which has led to discrimination and outright harm. So needless to say, I’m glad that here, at Believeco, we’re willing to have those conversations and respect the boundaries that exist.

Because if we’re going to be about human relationships, we have to treat one another with humanity.