The head of an iconic advertising agency faced a room full of angry employees July 9 to defend the company’s newly revealed work for US Customs and Border Protection — saying the government contract is a “prestigious piece of business” and that CBP “itself is not a bad organization.”
“They are struggling to cope with a problem that has not been dealt with as a comprehensive solution from the US system,” Ogilvy Worldwide CEO John Seifert told employees, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by BuzzFeed News. “And so my view is our work is not the problem. I don’t believe at its heart [CBP] is intended to be a bad organization and do harm to people, but I also feel that it’s overwhelmed with the challenges it faces and it’s not performing well.”
[Read a full transcript of the meeting.]
The employees, who were either attending in person at the New York City office or calling in from across the country, argued that several children have died in CBP custody and that Border Patrol agents are in secret Facebook groups mocking refugees.
“This is about people, not just about money,” one employee told their boss during the meeting. “I’m not sure what our values are,” another employee said. Another said they weren’t sure how they could show their face at an upcoming conference knowing their company did work for the agency.
“We’re willing to work with companies that are allowing children to die and that are running concentration camps,” another employee said.
The leaked recording is one of the most striking documents to emerge of the sharp new conflict between companies accustomed to working largely uncontroversially with the US government, and employees who expect even a public relations firm to carry a set of values — and to take a public stand against the worst features of the ascendant new American right. Ogilvy, founded in 1850, was an iconic ad agency of the Mad Men era and represents some of the world’s biggest brands to this day. But the recording reveals the extent to which even employees of a firm that has long been comfortable shaping the images of widely controversial corporate actors — from tobacco companies to the oil industry — are now drawing a line.
The employees grappled with differentiating Ogilvy’s work for Coca-Cola, Boeing, BP, and other major brands and their work for CBP. The seasoned CEO tried to explain that the company’s contract was far removed from the crisis at the border. At one point, he suggested that employees who could no longer defend the company “should leave” — but he also suggested Ogilvy is monitoring the situation and could take action if further damning reports emerge.
BuzzFeed News isn’t naming any of the employees or publishing the audio recording because sources feared reprisals at their job and in their career.
Seifert and an Ogilvy spokesperson didn’t provide a comment by publication time.
Ogilvy’s work with CBP, Seifert said, was limited to helping the government agency recruit applicants.
“The assignment they wanted for us to work on was very progressive,” Seifert said. The work focused on helping CBP recruit diverse candidates. “I can’t get global entry without their services. I can’t come into the country without their services. We can’t stop drugs and other things coming into the country without what they do. They do many good things.”
At the end of June, political watchdog Sludge detailed who had CBP contracts. The article named Ogilvy as one of the top vendors, with a contract for $12.8 million.
Employees started talking about it on a messaging board on Fishbowl, a platform that allows employees to communicate with one another based on a shared employer or on being in the same industry.
One employee suggested on the message board they put together a “petition like Wayfair,” the online furniture store whose employees walked out to protest the company’s sales of furniture to a US detention facility. Roughly 40 Ogilvy employees signed a letter that went out July 8, according to a number of employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News under the condition of anonymity.
Seifert arranged to meet with the employees the next day. Between 15 and 30 people attended in person, according to multiple employees, and at least 8 people dialed in from various locations at the beginning of the meeting, though several employees estimate the final number of remote attendees to be more than 20. An employee in an office in another location told BuzzFeed News that several colleagues did not know the meeting was taking place and inquired about it afterward, as no companywide memo had been issued at the time.
Seifert opened the meeting saying the issue was personal to him, because his “first wife was Mexican American” and that his sons were “50% Mexican.” He said that he found what was going on at the southern border “abhorrent.”
Seifert also compared criticism of CBP to other crises he had managed for clients throughout his 40 years at Ogilvy.
“I knew that BP had issues within their operating practices that were not perfect, from pipeline leaks in Alaska to a terrible explosion in a refinery in Texas City that 12 or 13 people died from. And the ultimate accident of the explosion of Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.
“There were protests, there were people all over the world that thought BP should be shut down,” he said.
“There was no question that they had made mistakes and they had lapses in operational safety, which they had to come to grips with, deal with, and they paid a big price, they wrote $70 billion in restitution money to deal with that accident. And I think that it has made them a better company and they are an essential part of the energy that the world needs. But there was a counterview that said ‘don't do business with big oil.’”
“For years, we had tobacco clients all around the world, very important businesses for us. There were many of us that felt that we should not work for tobacco companies ... We have Coca-Cola, we are Coca-Cola’s biggest global agency in terms of assignments. There are many people who believe that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, to diabetes, to whatever, right?” he said.
“There’s almost no client who walks a perfect line of doing nothing but good for the world,” he said. “So we make this choice every day. We make this choice every day.”
“In the main, we have tried to find the good side in most clients and work with them to mitigate things that over time might be deemed negative.”
If a client was fraudulent, or made Ogilvy help sell products or services “we thought we could not reconcile in terms of the greater good,” he said, “then we have a simple choice: ‘Don’t work for them.’ But in the main, we have tried to find the good side in most clients and work with them to mitigate things that over time might be deemed negative.”
Seifert added later at CBP, “In my personal view, they are not a political organization. They are overwhelmed by a group of politicians who do not have an effective immigration policy to deal with the number of people who are fleeing countries out of either persecution or poverty or abuse or whatever, and coming to a place where they think they’ll be safe.”
One employee said, “So I think what I heard is that we’re willing to work with companies that have oil spills. We’re willing to work with companies that sell big tobacco. We’re willing to work with companies that contribute to obesity rates. And I guess, what I’m mostly hearing is that we’re willing to work with companies that are allowing children to die and that are running concentration camps. So I don’t know, so we work with anyone then, is what I’m hearing. And I feel like I don’t understand, for me, I don’t understand why we can’t pivot?”
“Let me just see if I can help you understand drawing a line...So auto companies allow people to die every year,” Seifert responded.
Another employee jumped in: “But they are responsible. It’s under their watch that seven children have died in the last year. They have purposefully not given them what they needed in terms of care.”
Seifert explained there were “mechanisms for addressing that lack of performance” at CBP.
“Now if our view is that when organizations underperform and don't deliver, it is our role to then say, ‘You know what...We’re not going to work for you because you’re not meeting our standards,’ then we will have a very small business and we won’t really have a place in the industry with that pure view of a black-and-white view,” Seifert said.
“If we feel that what is happening now gets worse or the response is something that we feel in the context of the relationship we have today should be reconsidered, we will reconsider it,” he said later in the meeting about the CBP contract, and then revisited it later. “At this point I do not believe it is either appropriate or responsible to march in and say to a client: ‘We will no longer work with you because we believe that some aspect of what you were doing in totality is so egregious that it spills over into everything you do.’ I do not believe that would be the right course of action.”
During the meeting, Seifert also spoke of the company’s long history of working with myriad government institutions. The work that Ogilvy does with CBP represented a “relatively narrow assignment” but “a very important” one for the Washington, DC, office, according to Seifert.
“We do amazing work for amazing organizations within the government that serve the public good,” he said.
The employees pushed back on that subject later on. “We are a business of morals and influence, and our perspective can’t just be economic. ... This is about people, not just about money,” said one employee whose comment solicited applause from their colleagues in the room.
“In this particular case, for the assignment we’re working on, and for that agency and what they are trying to do in totality, is our judgment so far, not without ongoing monitoring, so far that we have, we are making the right choice in the very short term,” Seifert said. “To not violate our contract, to stick by them and do the work that we’re doing and see where we go.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Seifert urged employees to stand by the company: “I wouldn’t be here for five minutes if I wasn’t prepared to stand up and be an advocate for the good of Ogilvy and where Ogilvy needs to be better. We all have to do that. If you can't do that, then you should leave because we should have people in this company who believe in its values who are willing to stand up and represent those values — and argue for them.”
One of the more tense exchanges came when an employee said Ogilvy had “human lives on [its] hands.”
“When we talk about what we’re willing to take on as a client, we’ve listed all of these other atrocities both product-wise with oil spills in the Gulf and now with human lives on our hands, and to have that not be where the line is at some level — I don’t care what work we’re doing for them, it feels really difficult,” the employee said.
“Let me give you a separate view,” Seifert said. “If your line is no company, whether it’s product defect, whether it’s breakdown of operational safety, whether it’s a formulation that didn’t serve a particular constituency, if your line is we shouldn’t work for clients at that risk level, then you shouldn’t be here.”
“This is different. And it feels different, and it feels different everywhere, and I think that’s what we’re trying to communicate to you.”
After Seifert’s statement, another employee jumped in: “We ... feel differently. There are 9,000 people in this organization in a group making fun of refugees. Like, seven children have died for lack of care. Like, it feels a lot different than Boeing. Boeing, or Coke, or BP, it was an accident, and the court of public opinion as egregious as it was understood it was an accident. This is not that, this is different. And it feels different, and it feels different everywhere, and I think that’s what we’re trying to communicate to you.”
“I'm not insensitive to any of those arguments. ... Right now, we as a company have made the choice to work with a variety of government agencies, that we believe, in the main, they have the intention, a mission, a commitment to do the right thing,” Seifert said. “You have one aspect of this particular agency that is absolutely overwhelmed and failing to deliver on what most of us would agree, they should be a standard they should be trying to live up to. ... I don’t know all the facts. ... So my point is that, at this point, I don’t have enough information to indict this [organization] and say we will not for you. ... I have no problem with you and anyone here to express how you feel about the situation. I’m just saying, I don’t feel like you have the right to use the company as a tool to influence that.”
Employee chatter about the contract on Fishbowl began after RAICES, an organization that provides legal services to immigrants, tweeted about Ogilvy’s involvement with CBP — but misattributed a CBP ad to Ogilvy, sparking outrage online. The ad was made by another agency.
The tweet caught the eyes of an Ogilvy employee who posted it in an internal messaging board on Fishbowl. A number of employees seemed to become aware of the company’s involvement with CBP for the first time through the tweet but wanted to understand more.
They shared articles they found online about Ogilvy’s involvement with CBP and about the ad in question, trying to weigh what information was correct or incorrect.
Various employees reached out to Seifert, according to several people familiar with the issue. One of them received a reply and posted the CEO’s reply on Fishbowl. It was later leaked to Ad Week.
“I would not hesitate to speak out if I felt we were doing work that violated our culture, values and beliefs,” Seifert wrote, according to screenshots of the Ogilvy Fishbowl message board provided to BuzzFeed News.
Some employees believe the contract is problematic for them personally and professionally.
“Why should — we as individuals — stand up for this integrity of this brand when we as individuals are not having the brand protect us?” one employee said during the meeting. “My name is being dragged through the mud as a representative of Ogilvy in places where it actually matters to me, and I can’t go forward and speak at a conference that I’m going to speak at with my name highlighted with Ogilvy when we’re silent on this issue.”
Several employees told BuzzFeed News that they left the meeting angry and that their supervisors, whom they consulted afterward, echoed their concerns.
“I left with a sense of feeling helpless,” said one employee.
“It’s one of those things. It sucks to hear that and it feels gross,” they said. “We have Ogilvy tied to our name and we have that account tied to our name.” Some spoke after the meeting and asked: “What happens next?”
“From the meeting it looks like nothing’s going to change,” said the employee.
“I wanted to hear some kind of humanity. The entire time it was about money and clients,” another employee said. “But at the end of the day, people are dying at the hands of our clients.”