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The morality clause in digital marketing

What if a project or client isn’t in line with your own personal ethics and values? Columnist Rebecca Lieb tackles that question and offers some guidance on when to say no.

If you very honestly, in your heart of hearts, don’t want a digital marketing initiative to succeed, should you take on the project?

The issue is a constant one, of course, and hardly limited to digital, but nothing brings it into sharp relief quite like an election year. Perhaps that’s why discussions about the ethical dilemmas inherent in digital marketing assignments and clients have been cropping up with increasing frequency over drinks and lunches, at conferences and in my private meetings between digital executives.

The topic? That job (or project, or client) you walked away from — or didn’t — when it becomes a question of ethics, beliefs or political opinion.

Just last week, a friend and colleague told me about walking away from what, by any standards, was a crazy sum of money offered by the Koch brothers for a digital marketing project. Like, really crazy money.

“I could have remodeled my mother’s house for only one day of work, but I talked to my husband about it and finally had to say no,” she confided over a cocktail.

When marketers set aside their personal beliefs

Digital marketers don’t always say no to the causes and to the candidates they don’t believe in.

Back in 2004 — which seems like recent history but was when digital was only beginning to go really mainstream — I knew a San Francisco-based digital executive giving his all to George W. Bush’s second campaign. This was someone whose personal politics perfectly matched his demographic (that of a San Francisco-based digital marketing executive).

Over lunch at the city’s Embarcadero Center one day, he confided that he took on the assignment “because digital needs this push.”

That’s not dissimilar to the left-leaning NYC executive who, eight years ago, managed a substantial portion of Sarah Palin’s digital campaign. Personal beliefs and personal politics were conveniently set aside.

It’s been a fraught year, politically speaking. The most recent stand-taking has been against North Carolina’s HB2 “bathroom bill.” In additional to celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr, dozens of companies, many in tech, have registered their disapproval, and most have enacted or threatened sanctions against the state.

More recently, Microsoft has stated it will not this year, as in years past, donate money to the Republican convention.

These aren’t easy decisions for companies large or small. I’ve seen smaller agencies and individual marketers alike struggle over the past couple of years, deciding whether or not to join forces with a national fast-food giant (Will this set a good example for my kids and the values we have as a family?); a multinational agrochemical giant; and a national franchise that also happens to be a major donor to religious groups opposing same-sex marriage.

It’s also been a year of stunning corporate advocacy and stand-taking, such as Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff’s high-profile tweet that the company would suspend travel to Indiana following the passage of anti-gay legislation in that state, followed up days later by offering employees in that state a relocation package.

Marketers need to take a stand

Tech companies are clearly taking a stand — but are the marketers their technology enables? This election cycle is the first in years in which I don’t personally know any agencies or marketers who have taken on clients despite the fact that they espouse agendas diametrically in opposition to their own personal ethics and values.

The strength to say “no” and stand up for your convictions — whatever it is you believe — is a sign of maturity. Twelve years ago, my acquaintance hoped to demonstrate the maturity of digital by setting aside his views and saying  “yes” to George W. Bush. Now, digital has evolved to the point that such a thing isn’t necessary.

When enterprises like PayPal, Apple, Google, HP, Salesforce, IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo and a host of others choose to walk away from, rather than engage with, states and politicians that don’t reflect their, or their employees’, values, they’re demonstrating integrity, but something more as well.

They’re exhibiting independence and self-determination.

Personally, I’ve walked away from perfectly good money from what to me were unjustifiable sources: the pro-gun lobby and a group dedicated to dismantling Planned Parenthood. (Given my own solidly blue state and female demographic, it remains a point of wonder that I was even approached by these organizations.)

Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about the money if you’re a marketer. You have to ask yourself, “What if the marketing actually works?”




by Rebecca Lieb

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