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Naughty Client School: marketing ethics and what not to do


Naughty Client School: marketing ethics and what not to do


Rob Morrison talks ethics, and argues that as marketers, we need to be better than the rest to keep our seat at the boardroom table.

I once had a brilliant client sum up the changes in marketing in just two sentences. He said: “Marketing used to be the department that did the colouring in. Now we’re drawing the lines that everyone else colours in.”

And we all know why.

The balance of power has shifted.

Once brands were powerful and customers were grateful. Now customers are powerful and brands are grateful.

So CEOs are desperately looking for help with truly understanding customers. And it’s what we’ve always done as marketers. It’s meant the marketing department finally has a prime seat at the boardroom table.

It’s a great thing that we’re there. The challenge is, we have to stay there. Marketing needs to keep delivering or the sheen will fade fast. Which is why all of our behaviour needs to be beyond reproach. And it hasn’t always been.

Back in the mid 1990s (that’s not a typo, I am that old), an art director friend of mine had a fantastic idea to help marketing as a whole. It was an education program to help clients work better with all their suppliers – in particular with their agencies. To stop expensive double-handling. To deliver first time, every time. And to maximise budgets.

She called it ‘Naughty Client School.’

Now, I’d like to take you on a tour of NCS. Not because you need to be enrolled – I’m sure you’re the ideal client for all your suppliers. No, I’d like you to see just what these ‘naughty clients’ really look like. Those who were born wicked. Without business ethics or, frankly, personal ethics. A rogue’s gallery of what not to do.

So, let me introduce you to the long-term inmates (students). The people and the stories here are real – but clearly the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Meet the members of our ‘colouring in’ past who cannot be part of our ‘draw-the-lines’ future.

Unethical Ethel

Ethel was the senior client at a weight loss business who made major claims about their ethics. Imagine our surprise when they asked the agency to retouch the ‘after’ photos in their ads to make the women looked thinner. Clearly Ethel would be found out today and ridiculed on social media.

The damage to the brand would be immense.

Fingerprint Frank

He was the global CMO who insisted on changing the brand platform – not because it wasn’t working, simply because he didn’t invent it.

Now, I get it. It’s very difficult to prove you’ve had an impact if you’re running the previous CMOs work. But, as my first ever marketing boss used to say; “Your job as a marketer is to leave the brand in at least as good a shape as when you inherited it. And if the right choice is to maintain the status quo, then job done.”

Today, Frank should be stopped from throwing away millions of dollars of legacy awareness.

Sneaky Sheila

Sheila called a full creative pitch the day she took office – something which still happens far too frequently. But that’s not what lands her at NCS. No, Sheila – with multiple big brands under her command – gave the smallest to a multi-national agency simply to lock them out of working with a competitor. Today, Sheila could be black-balled by agencies for the rest of her career.

Blunt Blake

Despite heading up marketing, Blake admitted to his agency that the most important part of his business was not ‘the customer’ but was, in fact, ‘the shareholder.’ In truth, Blake was a ring-in to the marketing department – I think his training was in finance. Today, hopefully, Blake wouldn’t be in that chair.

Dodgy Darryl

The pride and joy of NCS. Darryl gets a special mention as he accepted a ‘donation’ into his superannuation fund when he awarded the business to a new agency. Sadly, I’m not kidding. Today, Darryl could be in jail.


If you’ve worked in the industry for a while, I’m sure a few of these cast of characters are vaguely familiar.

If you’re new to marketing then watch out for them. Because, if we let them back in, we risk marketing being marginalised.

We risk not being taken seriously. We risk being sent back to the colouring in desk. And, for all our sake, we need to keep drawing the lines.





Image copyright: dolgachov / 123RF Stock Photo

Rob Morrison

Rob Morrison is acting ECD at Ogilvy Brisbane.

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