Advertising titan David Ogilvy, considered by many the "Father of Modern Advertising," once said that "advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things." This week, Ogilvy employees got to test their founder's message.
After Sludge posted federal figures last month showing a $12.7 million US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contract with Ogilvy for "marketing and advertising," Adweek on Thursday reported that the company's global chairman and CEO sent an email to a worried staffer that quickly spread around the agency.
"I would not hesitate to speak out if I felt we were doing work that violated our culture, values and beliefs," John Seifert wrote in the email, which concerned employees dissected over anonymous messaging service Fishbowl.
PR pros like Seifert and other Ogilvy brass know all too well the damage inadequate response from the top to dissatisfied employees can wreak on a company—and they've got a recent example. Last month, Wayfair management's meek response to workers concerned about the company selling beds for use in child detention centers exploded online, and hundreds of employees subsequently staged a walk-out in protest. It was just the latest example of an outwardly progressive company struggling to reconcile its image with the reality of what critics describe as "concentration camps" for migrants on the border.
CBP is hardly the only government agency employing the ad giant, it should be noted. According to government-spending data, Ogilvy has won more than 300 contracts over the past 20 years, doing the bulk of its work for the Department of Health and Human Services. But the current CBP contract is hefty: The year-long agreement is Ogilvy's sixth-largest government contract in that list, and is outranked mostly by multi-year agreements.
CBP also seems out of place amid some of Ogilvy's other clientele. The agency's Twitter and Facebook accounts are littered with do-gooder ephemera. Over the past month, it has promoted an anti-homophobia ad for Coca-Cola, a spot for a Cadbury anti-hunger campaign, and client work to protect women's rights in India. An Ogilvy flag design for a team comprised entirely of refugees at the 2016 Olympics won an advertising award.
Seifert told Adweek that the entire contract was solely for work on CBP's recruitment campaigns, and said that he was "proud of work that promotes diversity and inclusion in hiring," which is a portion of the contract. $12.7 million seems like an enormous amount for an embattled, cash-strapped government agency to spend on its image, but it may well be that CBP needs it: staffing numbers have taken a nosedive since 2014, and CBP is reportedly struggling to follow President Trump's 2017 order to recruit more agents.
And given recent reporting, it’s not surprising that the government is spending big bucks for a top-tier ad agency to promote "diversity and inclusion in hiring" inside CBP. ProPublica reported this month on a secret Border Patrol Facebook group, which includes thousands of current and retired officers, that has served as a breeding ground for racist and sexist memes. There may not be enough ad money in the world to fix a culture like that.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.