Thursday, September 08, 2005

Seifert's Ethics Sideshow

As part of her sentence for defrauding the government former Ogilvy and TBWA executive Shona Seifert was required, by US District Court judge Richard Berman, to write a Code of Ethics for the advertising industry. The judge evidently thought we, as an industry, were down a quart.

The 18 page document written by Ms. Seifert and filed with the court on August 31st is an odd duck that has spawned some interesting commentary and controversy. Anyone looking for a set of rules or anything approaching a handbook will be disappointed.

Instead Ms. Seifert addresses her “Proposed Code of Ethics for the Advertising Industry” to “frontliners everywhere.” Her first words, “None of us ever plans to be thrown under a bus” make it clear that in addition to a few gratuitous rules, our girl Shona is out to prove that she was the sacrificial lamb; that she took one for the team.

If you doubt my interpretation, consider her fifth line, “If you are a frontliner you are more likely to find yourself in the line of fire. And it may be better for others that you take a bullet.” To which she adds in hindsight, “Don’t compromise your own values to achieve someone else’s goals.” Nah. Nobody in the ad game ever does that.

This is a funny sentence and a funny response to it. The language is elliptical, filled with clichés and obvious imperatives. For example she writes “Don’t take a government contract if your agency is not well versed in the regulations.” This and many other Business 101 statements make me cringe. I wonder if her PowerPoint decks and her client memos were as ponderous and as vacuous. On the basis of the writing alone, I’d sentence her to prison.

Ogilvy and Shona did what most agencies do. They have the most junior players keep records using rudimentary systems. Then they ask senior people to continually project workflow, estimate revenues and cover the number of hours worked at target margins. Shona and her team held record keeping as a low priority and when necessary to protect their jobs and their bonuses manipulated the data to make their numbers.

Unfortunately they messed around with the government, who cares more about accounting than creative. Shona makes my point by discussing the importance of big ideas and brilliant work versus bookkeeping. She advises her peers that “boring work has never resulted in a prison sentence. Poor timekeeping practices have.” Consider us warned.

I hope the judge is lenient with her. This is a mealy-mouthed apologia that dances around the issues, has all the weight of a Hallmark card and attempts to position Ms. Seifert as less than the felon she is.


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