Homophobia and (In)Authenticity at Omnicom: What can a leader do?

by cv harquail on July 24, 2008

omnicom_logoI am struggling to understand the pattern of reactions to a recent critique of an organization’s authenticity. Bob Garfield, writing in Monday’s (7/21) Advertising Age, has an Open Letter to Omnicom President-CEO John Wren, asking Wren to look at the contradiction between Omnicom’s public Statement on Corporate Responsibility and the homophobia represented in three recent advertisements by Omnicom Group agencies TBWA and BBDO.

Exhorts Garfield:

“Stop the dehumanizing stereotypes. Stop the jokey violence. There is no place in advertising for cruelty. Pull the campaign. Do it now. Then tell your agencies how to behave.” (emphasis mine)

Of the 73 comments (so far, at 7.24 noon) on Garfield’s Open Letter, only 4 of these comments refer to Garfield’s central critique and his actual request: that Wren should ensure that the work of the agencies he leads represents the agencies’ policy.

The vast majority of comments on the AdAge page critique Garfield’s characterization of these three adverts as homophobic, while a few support it. Garfield is told everything from that he is wrong, he doesn’t know what homophobia is, he is too sensitive, and too politically correct to the other extreme, that he is naive and that he has not gone far enough in his criticism. In general, the pattern in the blogworld is the same: mostly criticism and some small, occasionally impassioned but not completely focused support.

Some comments get close, but….

Check out how these four supportive comments get closer to the real issue, but still don’t quite make it there:

Karen McBain: ‘Using mass media to reinforce ANY negative stereotype as a means of growing market share and sales is socially irresponsible. The buck doesn’t stop with John Wren: the marketers who paid for the Dodge and Snickers work are just as much to blame.”
* Okay, the marketers need to pay attention too.

Galen Bernard: John Wren should be made aware of this spot and he should be worried. Not that some of his London based creatives are homophobes …but that they are small thinkers.
* Wren should care, but mostly because the ads are dumb.

Terry Floyd Johnson: John Wren not only needs to step in, but make a public apology for so gross of a hate commercials, attacking gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
* Wren should say he/they are sorry. (Is that enough?)

Jack Jones: The spots are only symptomatic of a bigger problem. … A commercial does not hatch in a vacuum. It’s seen and produced and commented upon by scores of people. How many individuals do you think saw this commercial during its production process without noticing the potential issues? That’s the most disturbing part of all. … There continues to be an arrogance and ignorance in our industry that no one wants to admit. Writing a letter to John Wren doesn’t begin to address the real problem.
* The whole Some people in the industry is are homophobic,racist, sexist… and Wren can’t affect that.

Notice that no one is saying:

john wren omnicomHey Omnicom/Wren–
Put your products where your promises are!

Maybe Garfield’s phrasing is too dramatic, maybe his rhetorical strategy of indignance pushes a few buttons. But even so, why miss the real point, that the CEO should take responsibility for keeping the organization’s behavior aligned with its statements of purpose, vision and value?

What I don’t understand about the responses to Garfield’s letter is that so few people are focused on holding Wren accountable for aligning his organization’s actions with its words. Why is this?

Striving for authenticity, for alignment between who you say you are, what you believe about yourself, and how you behave as an organization, is the responsibility of the organization’s leadership.

And responsibility for being authentic is not confined to leadership: Keeping behavior aligned with the organization’s statements of purpose, vision and value is the responsibility of every employee. The people at Omnicom know this– it’s right here in Omnicom’s Code of Conduct statement:

Our reputation depends, to a very large measure, on you taking personal responsibility for maintaining and adhering to the policies and guidelines set forth here. Your continued cooperation in this regard is appreciated.

So, what are the employees of Omnicom’s agencies saying? What do they think of this criticism of their work and their organizations? And, how is John Wren, Omnicom’s leader, planning to respond?

These are not (only) questions of political correctness and social responsibility; these are questions about whether an organization is willing to hold itself accountable for putting into practice what it says is important.

Given that it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that the organization at least strives for authenticity, what will John Wren do?

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{ 4 comments }

Jack Jones July 24, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Ms. Harquail,

I don’t think you completely understand my perspective (I commented as Jack Jones). Plus, you clearly don’t understand the advertising industry (that’s a good thing, incidentally).

I’m afraid I don’t have the time to elaborate, but you should check out this source for additional insight.

It’s not that I ignored Garfield’s issue of wanting to connect with Wren. It’s just that I realize it’s not going to happen. If anything, the protests should be directed at Snickers—they’ll then seek out Wren, if they wish. If you check Advertising Age this week, you’ll see another lead story starring Mr. Wren. He discusses the key topics related to Omnicom, and advertising—especially a Snickers spot—isn’t even part of the discussion. Wren’s companies literally produce thousands of commercials per year. He’s not going to stop his day to discuss one—unless a client calls him. Bob Garfield does not have the authority or credibility to affect Wren’s day planner.

Plus, as you’ll see if you check out the source above, I think Bob Garfield missed the real point.

Cheers.

CV Harquail July 25, 2008 at 12:37 am

Hi Jack-

Did you notice that I linked to your website to flag your point of view, without even knowing that HighJine and Jack Jones were the same guy? I wanted to quote your comment on cluelessness but I couldn’t find a way to fit it in…. Hmmmm…

While I am concerned in general about homophobia in advertising, I was looking at a different part of this situation, which is that the leader of the org is not making sure himself, or putting systems in place himself, to align the organization’s policies with its practices. This is admittedly not the ‘hot button’ that most are responding to. Authenticity is a meta-issue that, if addressed, would fix the homophobia problem.

Organizational authenticity would also be an issue if the ads were sexist, racist, or even just plain ineffective. Because Omnicom says it stands for certain (social and creative) values…these should be reflected in what the agencies produce. Precisely because Omnicom Group agencies produce so many ads, it’s dumb to expect that the CEO himself should vet the ads. Instead, he should institute appropriate systems to make sure that they all achieve the standards that Omnicom claims it holds.

Directing a protest at M&M/Mars would be a way to address the homophobia in the ads themselves (and at the client that approved the ads). What, though, do you recommend be done to address the attitudes & lack of diversity within agencies that makes it so easy for some to create homophobic ads?

But more to my point, what do you suggest as a way to get Wren (or any leader) to address inauthenticity? If Wren were to lead in a way that had the org walk its talk, that would address both the homophobia that ticks you off and the inauthenticity that bothers me.

Given your insight into the industry, are you sure you want to throw in the towel on these issues?

Jenny Brown July 25, 2008 at 8:04 pm

I know little about organizational behavior and less about advertising but I do know something about homophobia. I think CV Harquail and Jack Jones are both right. An appropriate response to homophobic ads is to protest the homophobia AND the hypocrisy. We might attempt to hold the company accountable for the deviation from its stated values. But as Jack seems to suggest, whatever the stated values might be, we should also work through the most effective channels (e.g., the client) to stop the offending behavior. We are really offended and harmed not by the inconsistency between actions and policies, but by the homophobia (thought experiment: would these ads bother us less if M&M/Mars or the ad agency had previously adopted homophobic policies that were somehow consistent with the ads? I don’t think so).

The Snickers ad featuring Mr T (available for viewing at Youtube) is truly sick. CV argues above that a focus on authenticity might prevent ads such as these from appearing. But that’s only true if the organization truly cares about respect and equality for LGBT people. What do we say when organizations, by their actions, show that they don’t really care about these things? And what can be done if we observe homophobic actions from organizations that are silent, or decline to take a stand for LGBT equality (such as the dozens of Fortune 500 companies that still refuse to adopt policies of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation)? These organizations may be authentic in the sense that they then engage in homophobic actions consistent with their (neutral or bad) values. Appeals to authenticity will therefore do little good. It’s this possibility — the possibility that the corporate values actually are amoral or homophobic — that may lead people to miss the authenticity point (even if they see it) and move directly to the harm of homophobia.

CV Harquail August 1, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Hi Jenny-

Thanks for your comments. It’s important to point out, as both you and Jack do, that there are many ways/many different channels through which people concerned about homophobic adverts can work to have these adverts off the air. The efforts by the HRC and other groups that targeted the client (Mars) were indeed effective at eliminating this particular instance of homophobia. So, we know that this strategy, well executed, works.

But there is an additional issue here: this is the second time in a year that activists have had to pressure Mars to withdraw a homophobic advert. So, while activists’ pressure on the client can work for a particular episode, emphasizing this particular channel of action assumes that activists will be the ‘filter’ or the ‘fix’. This is much too far downstream for me– I’d rather the problems were fixed closer to the point of the ads’ creation.

Were the inconsistencies between ‘valuing’ policies and ‘homophobic’ actions to be addressed by Wren/ Omnicom, Mars would never even be presented with a homophobic ad, because none of the Ominicom agencies would produce homophobic ads for Mars. Better still, there would be no homophobic ads presented to ANY of the Ommicom agencies’ clients.

Authenticity is values agnostic. Bad organizations can be authentic or not, good organizations can be authentic or not. When any organization claims to be or be for some value that is not demonstrated in its actions, that organization’s stakeholders can use authenticity as an argument for changing the organization’s behavior. In this particular situation, stakeholders could pressure both Mars and Omnicom to act authentically re: their organization’s stated values, since both organizations make claims to value diversity, etc.

It’s like with dandelions — you can monitor your lawn and pull off the seedheads before they disperse, you can pull off the flowers before they turn to seed, and you can pull up the weed by the roots. All of these actions can stop another weed from growing and are useful, but the actions that get closer to the root of the problem have a larger, more systemic impact. That’s why I’m emphasizing the opportunity– in this case, the *missed* opportunity — to address homophobic advertising somewhat closer to its roots.

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