The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has dropped Luther Pendragon, claiming it did so as soon as it learned the agency has decided to work for tobacco company Phillip Morris.
Good! I’m glad that the ABPI has distanced itself from an agency that is prepared to promote a company that sells products that kill and injure the health of millions each year.
But why would a firm like Luther Pendragon be willing to damage its own reputation? Taking cash from PMI comes at the same time as a new graphic ad campaign showing a cancerous tumour growing from a cigarette.
Perhaps this conversation that I once had with the leader of an international PR company sheds some light.
Me: With the rapid expansion of the business across the world, how can you be sure that the company is acting ethically in each territory? For example, how do you know that there is no “rogue” office working with the tobacco industry? Or working with a despotic regime?
Leader: It is not as easy as you make it sound with obvious Good Guys and Bad Guys. Many believe that everyone has a right to PR representation, including the tobacco industry. Some people might feel uncomfortable knowing that we represent a pharmaceutical business that manufactures anti-depressants or that we have links to the defence industry. Where would we draw the line?
Me: Just because it is difficult to draw a line does not mean you shouldn’t. Why don’t you draw the line with any products or services that harm or kill the users – and innocent bystanders? You cannot “smoke responsibly.” Draw the line around the tobacco industry. And then see what else you can push over that line. Which other potential clients would be toxic? Build compelling cases for walking away. That is corporate social responsibility. That is strategy. That is moral.
Leader: Tobacco is very big, lucrative business. There is also responsibility to shareholders and to make profit. One contract could change the course of our business. And if we don’t take it, you know another agency will.
Me: I’m sure that is true. But companies that dance with the devil will have a price to pay. Clients will be lost. Good staff will leave. Reputation will be damaged.
In fairness to this senior figure, I do know that they turned down the next approach from the tobacco industry. I know because the man that ran the procurement process told me. He gloated that the contract was worth millions and that Agency X had missed out. He wanted that message to reach the leader I had spoken to. Apparently the next approach was not re-buffed. This allegedly lead to the loss of a pan-European anti-smoking campaign, which the agency had been trying to run concurrently with “Chinese Walls.”
Every business should be out and proud if they believe representing a client is the right thing to do. If you are not proud to represent a client: don’t do it.
Let’s stop this cancer within the lobbying and PR industry. Let’s draw a line.