After the Falklands, how will WPP police its agencies?

Y&R Buenos Aires has “gone rogue”  and produced a piece of propaganda on behalf of the Argentine Government featuring a hockey player training on the Falkland Islands with the tag “To compete on English soil we train on Argentinian soil”.

It’s understandably upset a lot of people in the UK and despite requests from Y&R New York and the British Government, the Argentine Government has refused to pull it.

Both Sir Martin Sorrell and Y&R New York have apologised. Their man in Buenos Aires has said the ad belongs to the Argentine Government and was never meant for an audience outside his country.

Overlooking the naivety of the latter’s position, the episode raises interesting questions about the credibility of establishing and policing of universal ethical values within a global organisation. Especially one whose trade is communications. The problem being that there is no international consensus on geopolitics.

In the case of Y&R Buenos Aires, the brief they received was wholly consistent with mainstream Argentine thinking. I guess from their perspective, they have done nothing wrong (that is a jurisprudential statement not a moral one). From our perspective, it was a crass and insensitive act. Should they have refused the brief for fear of upsetting British sensibilities? How would that have played in Argentina and with their domestic clients? How would it have played if New York or London had been seen to ban it?

Of course, it would have been better if the advert had never been produced. But that would effectively mean WPP refusing to work for that particular government. The group cannot realistically issue a diktat banning WPP companies from working for ANY government, so will they now have to pick and choose which governments and which briefs are acceptable? Rather them than me.

It may also find itself in the unenviable position of having to decide which cultures and minorities can and cannot afford to be offended. I believe there is a WPP office in Damascus. And one in Tel Aviv. Within what parameters can they operate? Does London monitor their output for fear of offending regional sensitivities?

In the Falklands case it was British sensitivities that were offended and WPP has been quick to act. But now they have set a high standard and could face a backlash if they are not seen to be as protective of others’.

I’d imagine there will now be a renewed internal focus on their corporate ethical values, but getting international agreement on moral, social and political norms has proved beyond the capabilities of greater minds than mine. I do not envy Sir Martin the task.

  • Martin Thomas

    The only way to avoid this type of issue is to steer well clear of ‘political’ business.  WPP didn’t have a policy on this when I worked there and given the size of the Sorrell empire, it is inevitable that this type of issue will occur … in fact it is a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often.

    • CHRIS BARRACLOUGH

       Yes I looked at their website and there’s quite a lot on “ethics” by which they seem to mean CSR and the environment.

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