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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