On July 9, employees at iconic advertising firm Ogilvy met with CEO John Seifert to demand answers about the company’s newly revealed work with US Customs and Border Protection.
Below is a transcript of the meeting, based on a recording obtained by BuzzFeed News. It’s one of the most striking documents to emerge to illustrate the sharp new conflict, largely generational, 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.
Names and identifying information about employees has been redacted. A few minutes of chatter at the beginning of the meeting setting up people calling in was removed. The rest has been lightly edited for clarity: removing stumbles; words like “um” and “like”; removing some repetitions; and streamlining some repetitions the speaker used in the moment to clarify their point.
Seifert: We're all here because I know that everyone who's joined this session feels strongly about a number of issues related to what we know is happening broadly in our reality of the immigration issues going on in the country and the border specifically, the southern border specifically, and how that may or may not be connected to the work we're doing for Customs and Border Protection out of our Washington, D.C. office.
I know that there are strong, impassioned feelings about all this, and I really have two objectives today, which is to share my perspective of our situation as I see it, and then to hear your views and to answer any questions that you have and to answer any of the questions you have to the best of my ability. That's, that's really the goal here. I would ask your consideration, for those of you outside New York, not to record this, because to be honest, I want us to be as candid as we can with each other, and I think in the spirit of privacy and confidentiality we should keep this among those who joined. I'm very happy for you to take notes, and communicate for those who cannot be in the session today, and if there's anyone that you know who can't be here, I am more than happy to have another session one on one, or with a smaller group, as necessary. So I appreciate you respecting that ask.
I just have a few opening comments, and then I'll open it up, because this is really about addressing your questions and, and concerns. The first is, and let me just step back and, and give you this perspective as a human being, and as a person who, my first wife was Mexican American. Both of my sons are fifty percent Mexican as far as I'm concerned. I find what is going on in the immigration debate broadly and what is going on in particular in terms of the horrific human situation going on at the southern border abhorrent. So I suspect I feel almost as passionate as many of you to see a country that is as wealthy as the United States, as I would hope as progressive as the United States, confront these challenges so badly.
And I feel that personally and so I think I have a lot of alignment with those of you who feel similarly or having even more frustration. There are many things going on in the world and in the country that are deeply frustrating, and deeply worrying. And as a global CEO, it is frankly very frustrating to me that I have to go to so many countries around the world as the chief executive of Ogilvy and represent the United States of America under a lot of the things that are happening.
And I think, if you talk to those who I meet with around the world, they will tell you I have a fairly blunt view of a lot of these things going on. But at the same time, as the chief executive of the Ogilvy group, I feel I have a responsibility to the reputation, the health, and the trust of the company and that is whatever my personal views are of what's happening around the world, what I am paid to do is to represent the company to the best of my ability as the senior leader of the firm. And one of the things that I believe very strongly is that we don't have a firm. I mean, most of you know I've spent my entire career at Ogilvy, 40 years in the company. The company is a little over 70 years, I've been here 40 of the 70. So, I often tell everybody I'm old, I'm not quite as old as the company but I feel it some more, right? And I am the last CEO. I am the ninth chair and CEO of the company, I will be the last to have been mentored by all the previous CEOs including David Ogilvy himself. So every day I come to work thinking with a sense that I am, I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. I don't want to let them down.
Equally I want to do the right things to ensure that the company not only survives but thrives for another 70 years and another 70 years after that. And I believe that the one thing that I have the most accountability for is upholding the policies, practices, values, and beliefs of the company. And I take that really seriously. It is a very hard thing to do because not everyone in the company comes in with the same mindset that I do, so I have to build a leadership team and a culture of the organization that is not in my image, that is in the image of what I think is right for the collective, the collective body of the company. So I take that incredibly seriously.
The other thing that I take incredibly seriously is the spirit of client confidentiality because this is an issue. It has always been true since David Ogilvy founded the company that he believed that we only have the right to exist if clients could trust us. And they often have to give us incredibly sensitive information about their businesses, about their brands, about their people, about the work they do and how they work, that is competitive, and they only will continue to do this if they trust us to treat them with the highest degree of confidentiality and respect in terms of everything that they, they do.
Now, I have been in client service my entire life. I can tell you that in 40 years in this business the sensitivity around client confidentiality is at an all-time high because so many clients have, because of the world that they operate in, are paranoid about their competitiveness, about their IP, about everything they do, with fear that if they lose control of it, their companies are at risk. We have client contracts today, which some people say, you know, for limited fees we have to sign up for unlimited liability, because clients have demanded more, more and more, that we take on liability clauses for the potential damage that we do, whether that's content online or state secrets that they deem, you know, essential to their competitiveness that is disproportionate for what they pay us.
But that's just the reality. We either agree, or they don't assign the business to us. So client confidentiality is something that's very sensitive. It has become even more sensitive because there are so many there is so much transparency within the digital age where people can take things and put them online and then they're public. And so it's a, it's a very complicated, serious aspect of managing the business every year. I think we do a pretty good job, we can do better. And that aspect of client confidentiality affects our reputation, because if we are deemed as a company that doesn't keep our clients' secrets and don't, if we don't continue to be operating within the spirit of the contractual agreements that we signed with them, then that is, undermines our very existence.
Now, there's a lot of frustration, I know, about this notion of leadership and communication, and there's often times that view that leadership means that you should just naturally, and transparently and very openly, communicate top down. That model, frankly, doesn't work anymore, because there is no way that I have all the information I need, as the most senior, most accountable leader of the firm, to just go around and communicate everything from my vantage point to the world, and assume that I will get it all right.
We need leadership at every single level. So when people have concerns around the clients we serve, the work that we're doing, the conditions of what's going on in a particular office, I cannot rely on it all coming to me. I have to have trust at every level, that there is leadership that operates bottom up and top down. If I don't set the right tone, if I don't behave in the right way, if I don't make leadership, leaders in the company understand what I expect, that's a problem.
At the same time, I need leadership from the front line in every way for the company to operate effectively. That is a really hard thing to do in a social media age, where things come out in an instant, and a lot of your time is spent figuring out what are the facts, what's the challenge to us, how do we think about addressing this. Part of what I have to ask for is not having an immediate response because often times, I won't have all the facts. And sometimes, I am operating with constraints that others don't appreciate because I'm looking at the representation of the firm, not just the particular clients or issues or people involved.
So that's why sometimes things don't happen naturally at speed from my vantage point, but they have to start to be informed and addressed, again, in a more bottom-up context. It also means that we have accountability as individuals and as a company. Because in a social media age, individuals have all the rights in the world to speak as individuals. But we can't have individuals speaking on behalf of the company, without all the considerations that ultimately I have to do when I go and speak publicly, whether it's to the press or anyone as the outside firm. So we have to follow protocols. We have to have them go through a process on how we handle these things.
And finally, you know, the one thing I've learned in 40 years is context is everything. There is the old adage that everyone's entitled to their opinion, but you're not entitled to your own set of facts. There's always, you know, fact is fact, and opinion is opinion. Well good luck trying to sort through all of that in today's environment. So, a big part of what I'm also trying to evaluate in situations like this is the total context of what is happening, so that I can be then trying to figure out what is the right reconciliation of fact, opinion, and how these things ultimately reconcile with themselves.
And then, this is my last point, and I will open this up. When things happen in the company, either through the actions and behaviors of employees of the company or the leaders of the company, anyone, and the circumstances around individual clients, whether it's our work for them or the clients' home [inaudible] or whatever, the one thing that I also just need you to all to try to understand is that when you get this process wrong today, the negative consequences are huge. Literally, it can mean, so, I'll give you an example I dealt with a couple of years ago. We had an individual in the creative community in the USA who posted their work. Speculative work that they were doing, as part of Ogilvy, for a client in the healthcare space, they posted it on their Facebook page. The client found this out, and this work threatened a regulatory approval of a new drug. The value of the client at that time was something like $25 [million] or $30 million dollars. We went through a negotiation process to keep the client from firing us unilaterally for that one single act. The person who had put it on their Facebook page did not realize, first, they violated company policy, because we don't allow people to publish their work that isn't in the public domain and isn't client-approved. Even then, it's sensitive in terms of rights usage and all the rest of it. But we were at risk at losing this entire client, which would've meant a $25 million business walking out the door.
Now, I know that in some cases, there is a view of, you have to have something that, the point of view is, is sometimes bigger than the money, and I get that. But the fact is, $25 million here, means probably 150 jobs, or more. So, the one thing we just have to all understand in this is that the negative consequences of some of these things are not always obvious in the individual instance at which issues are raised, but if mishandled, they potentially escalate.
We now have rights clauses where if certain client work gets misused, we've had this case in the context of Unilever, where if this work gets misused in some way in a public domain, we are liable. We are liable, and the liability has seemingly has not fully been tested, in terms of what goes on there. So these things are all linked. They have the potential of being firing material.
Finally, just CBP. Even now, I am not technically allowed to describe the totality of this relationship in a public context but what I can tell you is this: We have a narrow assignment around recruitment advertising to bring people in for a wide range of positions for this organization. We do no other work. We don't do advocacy work, we don't do public relations work for them, we don't do content that they use then to go produce for purposes beyond recruitment. This is a relatively narrow assignment but it's a very important assignment because it is a prestigious piece of business in Washington that is part of government service. We have government service contracts that represent about 80% of our Washington, DC, operation.
We do amazing work for amazing organizations within the government that serve the public good. So, in the context of this narrow assignment relative to the totality of everything we do, this is a very important portfolio work for the company and it has been for decades. So, this is not something that is brand new, opportunistic, this has been part of our business strategy for a long time. So that's the context from me. I'm happy to hear points of view, happy to answer questions, happy to take on any challenge, issue you want to.
Employee: My name is [redacted].
Seifert: Can we just ask everybody on the phone, there is just a bit of background noise coming through, so can we just ask you to put your phones on mute until you're ready to either interrupt or ask a question, which we want you to do, but we're going to start with [redacted].
Employee: You brought up a really good point about reputation.
[inaudible] having CBP as a client for decades [inaudible].
Seifert: Sorry we haven't had them for decades. We've had government agencies, US government agencies for decades. I'm not sure how long the relationship is.
Employee: I'm so sorry to interrupt, but I'm getting messages that we're having a little hard time hearing the question on the phone, so if you could repeat it after giving you a private microphone.
Employee: Having federal agencies as clients for decades is great [inaudible] but not a lot of great things that federal agencies do for the people [inaudible]. At what point in time do you decide that this might not be the best decision for the world to see as taking them on as a client [inaudible].
Seifert: So, it's an excellent question. The question is essentially at what point might we decide not to serve a client, or not take on a client because we believe that either what they do or what they represent or how they operate is inconsistent with the standards of how we think most of the clients we serve should be. So we have, this is a real time pervasive issue. So, I helped when the BP business in 1999. I completely believed in BP as a company. 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. There were protests, there were people all over the world that thought BP should be shut down. they should go away forever. I worked with BP people at every level across the company for around the world and I knew the essentiality of this company. There was no question that they 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 is 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've had tobacco clients around the world. Very important businesses for us. There were many of us who felt that we should not work for tobacco companies. There were equally strong voices around the world who thought that that was a convenient American point of view and who was America to tell the Chinese, the French, the Germans, that they shouldn't be able to purchase tobacco products. Or, we serve 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? So, there's almost no client who walks a perfect line of doing nothing but good for the world. So we make this choice every day. We make this choice everyday.
And if we believed that any of these clients were fraudulent, that were knowingly selling products and services that, you know, we thought we could not reconcile in terms of the greater good, then we have a simple choice "don't work for them." But in the main we have tried to find and see the good side in most clients and work with them to mitigate things that over time might be deemed negative. Forty years ago when I started, no one was worried about anything but the joy of Coca-Cola and that company is transforming itself into a total beverages company as, you know, tastes change and consumer behavior changes. So it's an ongoing issue all the time. Now the fact is when we got the assignment to work with Customs and Border Protection, the assignment they wanted for us to work on was very progressive. I don't go through a border in this country, I have to deal with them. 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.
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 they think they'll be safe. So, at the end of the day, my view is that that this organization itself is not necessarily 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. And so my view is our work is not the problem. I don't believe at its heart the organization 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. And that's not the whole organization. That's that part of the organization that's trying to cope with a particular set of issues in this particular domain.
So that is why when our work for them was misconstrued, as deemed from us when it wasn't, [editor’s note: Seifert is referring to an immigration advocacy organization incorrectly implying on Twitter that a CBP ad was done by the ad agency] and was being vilified on social media, I had to make to make two choices: Do I violate client confidentiality? And do I put at risk the trust and confidence that every government agency might have in working with Ogilvy by, in theory, exposing information that I'm not technically allowed to expose? Or do I try and see things, with our strategy, monitor the situation, try and influence the information in a way that would where we would be recognized as not being party to the particular effort that was done, and see how this evolves in terms of how the client handles it, and ultimately, what implications it has for us in terms of clients, employees, so on, because if I were simply to authorize everyone to go out there publicly and say "this was not us," vilify this organization, we tear up our contract and refuse to work with this entity of the government. I do not believe that would have been in the interest of Ogilvy, our people, or frankly, any of our clients, in terms of what message that would have sent. But I'm happy to hear counterviews.
Employee: 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.
[women interjects, inaudible]
Employee: So I don't know, so we'll work with anyone then, is what I'm hearing, and I feel like, I don't understand for me, and I don't understand why we can't pivot.
Seifert: Let me just see if I can help you understand drawing a line — auto companies allow people to die every single year.
Employee: But they're responsible. It's on their watch that seven children have died in the last year. They are purposefully not given them what they needed in terms of care.
Seifert: I understand but there are mechanisms for addressing that lack of performance that are beyond both the work we do for that client and frankly the accountability that we have for that client in terms of what they have come to Ogilvy for. So my point is, I wouldn't deny anyone in this room or anyone on the phone their rights to go hold the government accountable or anything that you deem as not serving the public good. That's called peaceful protest, that's called you're exercising your right to vote for better choices. That's called having a voice.
I went home yesterday in Grand Central station. There were a group of people with a big rope around them in the middle of Grand Central, who were protesting, saying, you know, "make ICE go away," basically, protesting, right? And you have this gaggle of photographers that were all around them. At an individual level, I wouldn't deny anyone's right to exercise their voice and their point of view. What we're saying as a company is that is not our role as a company. That is not what Ogilvy is intended to do. Our intention is to serve our clients in the context of the services that they want to buy from us and where we believe we can add value to their brands and their business. And we believe that the work we were doing for CBP is advancing the good of what that organization can and should be doing by getting the most diverse people with the right set of skills serving the needs of that organization.
Now, if our view is that when organizations underperform and don't deliver, it is our role to then say, we should 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. Now if you had said to me, "Did we produce content that was manipulated or used wrongly to create perceptions of a situation that was not true or didn't exist?" Believe me that would rise to a new level of scrutiny and should we be doing business with that client? And I would hold any client to that account.
Employee: This is [redacted] on the phone. I just want to present something and see if it's clear or if it makes sense. I'm pretty cynical, I'm also pragmatic but I'm not unsympathetic, it sounds like you're describing a sort of Catch-22 situation, right, where on one hand, ''I want to make the right choices on a publicity front,'' it's hard to know a situation is a problem that lasts a week, or a problem that lasts three months, or a problem that lasts five years. But on the other hand, it's hard to know if you'll get sued out of existence because you've taken on so much liability. Are there objective measures by which that decision is triggered, or is it really case by case, and you just kind of wait and see what happens in those instances?
Seifert: It's a great question because you can have a set of principles. But what I'm finding is that you have sort of go through a case-by-case process to weigh all the information and then make what oftentimes is an uncomfortable decision. It's rarely a perfect black-and-white choice. So, let me just separate two things. When our brand is, use the expression, dragged through the mud by within a public context, by someone attributing something to our brand that is not true [editor’s note: See the previous note, above]. If that act is something that we, that I as the leader of the company, or anyone, because it's not just about me, but let's just say that the company can respond to because we have the freedom to respond to it unencumbered and the risks are only our own risks in having a point of view, then that's a relatively easy thing to do. And we can do anything from go put our point of view out there, to go pursue legal action if we think that it rises to that level of veracity. We have a lot of options.
In the context of doing work for a client, our first obligation is not to violate the agreement we have with that client in terms of what we are allowed to publicly disclose even when so in the case of Unilever and Dove, a separate entity manipulated content that we created but they manipulated that content in a way that it was deemed by some people, some consumers, as being racist. Even though Unilever was being accused of creating an insensitive piece of content for one of their brands, and the association of Ogilvy was connected, we chose not to respond and to wait it out, and the reason is because we felt we made a judgment call that we didn't have all the facts of who manipulated that content. The client was taking most of the attacks. We did not want to undermine the client by trying to put our interest, our brand's interests ahead of theirs, when they were being bombarded in the public domain at a hundred [inaudible].
So we waited it out, and we were credited by the client for doing that, for being patient and not putting our self-interests ahead of the clients' interest, because we would've made them look worse. So that was a judgment call of case-by-case. We probably could have said more than what we chose to, but we chose not to because we were trying to be sensitive to a particular client's own reputation. In this particular case, the issue was much, much simpler, in which is we did not have the authority to comment without approvals that would have contractual implications.
Employee: One thing I'm really struggling with in this conversation is the idea that recruiting is going to be completely separate from crisis communications. I think that if the charge is to recruit a more diverse workforce for CBP, I fail to see how you could not touch on these issues and in that case, do we not have leverage to try to make the situation better?
Seifert: So the question is, how is it possible that we can really separate doing very specific work for one aspect of the client, i.e. recruitment and not have in some tangential way influence or the ability to or the likelihood of being involved in something related to the crisis. In the context of a public corporation, there is no question that any given day we are an advisor on crisis. That happens all the time. That happens all the time.
In the BP case, I was in the second ring of the crisis team. We were not given any specific assignments to intervene in the crisis in the immediate period. I was an advisor on the second ring on helping them give them advice on what to do. In government contracts, it doesn't work that way. When you get contracted to do one thing, that's what you're contracted for. In the main, you have to go through a separate process to work for them on other aspects of their needs. So it's not even like our team in Washington would have the natural inclination to say: "Oh, by the way, we know we've only done this recruitment advertising for you. Please let us advise you on crisis." That's just not the way—
Employee: I guess I'm talking like, those recruitment advertising not have to factor in, like, I mean if it's good, it's going to have to address this right?
Seifert: Ultimately yeah. Ultimately yes. I don't disagree. And so at some point if the as I understand it, the work we done, some of the work is not in the public domain yet. It’s still to come, they will have to go through a process of understanding the impact that this crisis may or may not have on recruitment, no question. No question.
Employee: I guess that's a lot of everyone's follow-up questions. I know you've been talking about a lot of different accounts, but is there a specific plan for this specific account on what that kind of monitoring process looks like, what — if any — are milestones, or kind of key steps where you guys might be reconsidering this, to [redacted] point, there's going to come a point somewhere down the trajectory where it's all going to intertwine somehow.
Seifert: I think it's like anything in life. The issue is yes. 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. The reason I'm speaking with all of you is you are raising a very specific set of issues and concerns relative to the awareness that we're even working with this client.
And what I'm trying to parse for you is how you should think about it. And so 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.
That said, do I believe we should continue to monitor how this plays out and if it gets to a point where we believe that it affects everything, then yes we should have a responsibility of making a different choice. I have multiple hands here, just before we go more in the room, are there more questions on the phone that people want to raise?
Employee: It's [redacted], I guess the last thing I'll ask. This is a kind of a question about government contracts in general. Do these contracts expand past election cycles and if they do, do the following administrations have the right to review and remove said contracts, and how frequently does that happen?
Seifert: They do cross election cycles. They rarely have anything to do with elections other than funding. So if new administrations come in and cut funding — but the contract, these are often multi-year contracts. Sometimes they're renewed every year sometimes you win a five-year and you renew every year, sometimes you win a fixed period of time and that gets renewed, so it varies by government agency. I'm not an expert in this but I think our Washington team would tell you that administration changes, the political makeup of the country influences funding more than it does the agenda of agency, per se.
Employee: [question about impacting liability that is mostly inaudible].
Seifert: That depends on the procurement. Many of these government contracts are all through procurement process. So many contracts are awarded where 80% of the award is a written RFP submission. You don't even present to a group of people. You don't know the group of people who you're ultimately going to work with. You're hired as a contractor and then you, you know, you meet everybody. Let's go to more questions in the room and I'll remember to repeat them.
Employee: So this is [redacted]. So I love the fact that you talked about learning from David Ogilvy because in his books, especially Confessions [of an Advertising Man], he talks about alignment with brands. I think everyone in the room understand the economics of a lot of bad things have happened, including from slavery to what we're experiencing now in terms of economics in terms of what makes sense in terms of dollars. So I think that's clear. But I do think that if we want to talk about a moral ground that Ogilvy stood by also and crossed a line with our clients, we should really be taking in the people perspective. The difference between BP and Coke is that it was products based, and those people held those companies accountable based on what their products are doing, but the reason why this is going beyond the CBP is because this is a human issue, it's a crime. And so when the companies themselves and the industries are not taking care of the industry problem then people do their own research to really figure out what is really going on because things are so private. And we understand that governments specialize and it's quiet and all that stuff, but this is a human issue, it's a human rights problem. And yes, you know, Coca-Cola was bad but you can do a preference and you can choose it. BP, you can go to someone else. So, those companies have taken accountability for what they've done to the environment or to the people that they are serving and I think for us because we serve on influence and we serve people it's more important to us to just take the perspective of what this is looking like because when the national protests that have been happening for these government entities and are not being heard or people are not taking actions for it then we have to as a united nation really step and take other people accountable for serving it. When you doing your reports and start talking to people, take on that perspective what we morally should be doing because we are a business influence and of people and our perspective can't just be economic. So that's something to think about and also realize that, you know, realize that, you know this is about people not just about money.
[clapping in the room]
Seifert: I don't disagree. So the question is not whether the company is or should be more sensitive to the people issues than the product issues, right? Cause ultimately products get consumed by people. Everything has a, ultimately, a human impact of one sort or another. I think maybe where the disagreement may center is if you have a view that says, "we don't agree with how one part of the Customs and Border Protection agency," which is huge and diversified in terms of all that it does, "if we don't agree with how they are handling the current situation at the border and the impact that it's having for desperate people who are trying to cross the border, most of them illegally, and the conditions they find themselves in as a result of that after," right?
And by the way, I think that's part of the political debate. Which is, I am not a Donald Trump advocate. But President Obama on one level has just as tough a stance on immigration as Trump. Trump is choosing to actually execute the policy in a way that Obama chose not to. Now that is a far simplification and I'm not trying to be an expert on the two administrations. But if the debate is there's one part of Customs and Border Protection that is failing to do what it should do and that has a human cost, and Ogilvy as a contractor to the entity as a whole should have nothing to do with that organization as a result, right? To me that is not a black-and-white choice.
Employee: I don't think I was...
Seifert: I'm not saying you're advocating for that. If the feedback is, "this is a horrific human [multiple employees: human rights violation] rights violations". So we serve political parties in India, where thousands of people die every single day based on a lack of clean water, food, all the rest of it. Should we have no advocacy in India for certain one political party, one politician versus another. If I went and said to our India team: "you are supporting — whoever you pick, basically — but a political choice that has human consequences" and they would say "yes we are and we think that there is a trade-off that is worth making and we're prepared to make that argument, that case."
So my point is just, the company, you all individually have to make choices based on what you believe the situation to be and you have every individual right, God-given right and the country's given right, to go exercise it. As a company, what I am saying is we make choices with a different set of filters that we have to evaluate. And 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, to not violate our contract and stick by them and do what we're doing and see where we go.
Employee: [Inaudible] in the contract. [Inaudible] To try to work with them to do anything?
Seifert: You mean in terms of influencing what they are doing?
Seifert: I do not know because we have a team of people who have been working in Washington to do that work and we can certainly talk to them about it. By the way, I chose not to invite the Washington team, not to exclude them but I wanted to hear from those of you who raised their hand to say you wanted to engage but that's something we can go back and follow up on.
Employee: [inaudible] What can you say not violating the contract?
Seifert: It was a different. I'm talking about violating the contract in terms of going out and sharing things publicly that we're not allowed to go. Not about how Ogilvy would advise them. That's a different thing.
Employee: Two comments and a business question. The first question is: Seeking asylum is not illegal. It is a legal thing that you can do. And I understand that Obama had a very strict immigration policy but seven children did not die under his watch based on this organization.
My business question is regardless of our remit even though it is small and isolated and we cannot talk about, we are now inextricably linked to the CBP in every single piece media, in the trade media, all of us as employees are. If we want to apply for another job, if we went after a piece of business it's gonna be the second [inaudible] of Ad Week is going to say Ogilvy, last known for its work with the CBP [inaudible] or if we want to pitch, and it comes down to two of us, who's going to take on the responsibility to effectively work with Ogilvy after this?
Seifert: I have a very strong point of view on this. This is where you need to stand up for the brand because if you cannot stand up for the brand, we have done our best to clarify our work. If you left today and went to a job interview and you said, "Oh I'm not sure I... consider hiring you from Ogilvy given your work" then I frankly, would expect and I'm happy to give you all the ammunition you need, that you should be able to proudly say, what Ogilvy represents and what we do. Because...
Employee: I've worked here for nine years and I've never not been proud until Monday to come to work.
Seifert: So what I'm saying though is, 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.
Employee: I'm not sure what those values are.
Seifert: There's no question that there are dilemmas. There are dilemmas every day. And so, all I am asking of you is: The company has made a choice, I'm asking you to try your best to represent that choice based on the facts, based on the merits of what I've laid out for you. If at some point that we believe that our obligations and commitments and work that we're doing is compromised based on an organization that we don't believe in and we think is not capable of doing its job then that is a different question and we may come and make that choice in the future. All I'm saying is: We're not there now.
Employee: Pardon me. Where I'm struggling in this conversation we're being asked to parse between the work we have done and the work we're being accused of being done, and frankly, that is difficult for us to do because we have no transparency into the work in and of itself until this moment. It's not something we're clearly proud of as an organization cause it's not what we're listing [inaudible].
We entered into this contract in 2018, if what I'm reading in the press is correct, at a time when what was happening with immigration system and everything around it was quite fraught in controversy, so I have a lot to say and I don't want to get off track by derailing on this, but if protecting our brand means having some sort of process for understanding who we're working with and why, it doesn't seem like the interest of our brand are being protected by a) entering into this agreement during a time when it is so fraught but b) why should we, as individuals, stand up for this integrity of this brand if we as individuals are not having the brand protect us?
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 go speak at with my name highlighted with Ogilvy if we're silent on this issue. It is the greatest issue of this time.
Seifert: I’m sorry I don't buy it. This is where we have a personal disagreement, I don't buy it. I don't buy it. If you are telling me that the Ogilvy environment, that the Ogilvy, if you don't have the ability to present the Ogilvy point of view in a way that you are comfortable with and that doesn't in your mind put you at risk, then we should talk about this and I'm happy to have that on an individual level. But I can tell you right now that if I can stand up and make a case of not responding immediately to a misattribution of work, I was willing to accept that in the short term, not to violate a client contract. I am more than happy to speak to [redacted], I have already spoken to Facebook and others who have reached out, the minute we tell them that this work was misattributed and we stood behind the principles, no more questions.
So part of this is I'm not asking any of you to adopt a different point of view about how you feel about the situation. What you think is morally right, legally right, whatever, you have multiple avenues — multiple avenues — in which to go to have your point of view heard. What I am saying is, I don't believe it's responsible to ask or expect the company to make a choice at an individual level when we're trying to weigh a whole set of factors for the collective good of the company at large. Now the minute that I can’t stand up and defend our choice and feel comfortable with the implications of it, then believe me, then I feel face the ultimate compromise. But I'm saying right now, which is, we have had a reaction of people feeling like they are being tarred and feathered by how the brand has been attributed in social media and I'm saying you know what? That happens every day. But we gotta be good at is being able to clarify our point of view and stand behind that set of principles that we can defend.
Employee: I think that that's why I'm struggling cause I'm not getting the answer I need on that, which is that 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.
Seifert: Let me give you a separate view. 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 should not work for clients at that risk level, then you shouldn't be here. Because the fact is we cannot hold that line of expectation and assume that we'll work for anybody. I mean let me ask you a question: Should work for Boeing?
Employee: Don’t we?
Employee: It’s a good question.
Employee: I think that the difference is I think that we, or at least the people I spoke with and I don't speak for anyone I haven't spoken to, feel differently. There are 9,000 people in this organization in a group making fun of refugees [editor’s note: This is in reference to this Facebook group]. 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 that 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.
Seifert: Yeah, and what I'm trying to play back is that I am not insensitive to any of those arguments. What I'm saying is that as an employee of the company, you can look at this all on a spectrum. 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. 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, personally, all the things they're going through — I don't know if it's they don't have the funding, they don't have the right direction, I don't know all the facts. I don't know all the facts. I don't pretend to know all the facts. I haven't even heard anyone who can talk coherently about all the facts, even people who have gone and seen these places.
So my point is that, at this point, I don't have enough information to indict this company and say we will not work for you, or this organization, and say we will not work for you. I also don't have, I believe, the responsibility to put people in the company and the work they think they are doing that's of value, at risk by violating a client contract. And right now, while I completely accept and this would be true of any client, a process of monitoring to make sure that we can align in terms of what they intend and what they ask us to do, I do not believe that based on what I know right now that we're at that point. I have no problem with 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 outside the context of what we're trying to do.
Employee: Right, it's just more in association with the company than trying to use the company as a tool. But I understand.
Employee: Just one point. I was watching one of the Sunday public affairs shows this weekend and one of the Democratic representatives who was down at the border was talking about expressing both the experience of hearing what some of the CBP officers were doing wrong, which we read about in some of the big stories in the past couple of days which is reprehensible, but she also talked about two officers who pulled her aside and said "please don't let this continue" and those were CBP officers.
So the way that I in terms of the [redacted] how you process the work we are doing, I would like to see Ogilvy helping more people like that applying for those jobs than us walking away from a contract like that. Because the more people like that that are involved in the process, despite the administration, I see as positive. And those people who are coming in will be here, civil servants, technically they'll be for not for a year or two but often decades. So if that was the kind of impact we can have through our limited scope in what we do for them that is how I process the work that we're doing and that may be different from others.
Employee: I love that point that you just made and I do think that we're all hopefully aligned here in the fact that rather than walking away from something we could be doing some good that would be our plan A. I don't want to be cynical like my colleague [redacted] on the phone either but I am just kind of wondering from a bottom line perspective if this doesn't just go away and if our light rebuttals that we've given and that this is not a piece of work from us and that this is and we're working with this organization with a limited capacity. If this sort of emotional weekend or four or five days does not go away, what is the process? I'm very curious. How many pitches do we need to lose or employee attrition do we need to process or clients possibly do we need to lose before this is a moment where then from a business perspective we say, ‘ok, we need to drop this client.’
Seifert: To be honest with you, I don't have a perfect answer for that. I mean, at some point if people feel strongly about, look at the end of the day, you have every right, I would not deny anyone. If you leave this meeting and you say, "you know what I've heard John, I've heard all the arguments. I don't buy it, I don't agree with it. If I was in his shoes I would fire the client." I would say, "We cannot work for an organization that is allowing for the things that are happening to happen." Then I wouldn't like it but at least I would understand that, you know, you can't walk in my shoes and not agreeing with the decisions that I'm making is such an anathema. Then in your good conscience you should do what you think is right.
Employee: And I'm not saying that either. I'm here to hear from you. I appreciate your time and I'm absolutely here to hear what you're saying and what your plan is and I think that's more my question, you know I think you've done everything you can so far to honor the client contract. I respect that absolutely. I want to make sure that the Ogilvy name and the name that I am proud to carry the banner of and have wanted to since I was 22 years old and a young student of advertising, this company means something to me and I want to be a steward to them, just exactly like you're saying. My question is just: if it needs to happen that we need to get out while the getting is no longer good, is it too late then? From a branding perspective? This is what we do.
Seifert: And the honest answer is I have not talked to the team, so I don't know if their view would be to those closest to the client. If I had a relationship, a personal relationship with this client and I thought there was something that I could personally do or that Ogilvy could do to help mitigate the consequences of the situation I wouldn't hesitate to pick up the phone. I don't know in this particular case whether this is appropriate, I don't know if our people believe that that's possible, I don't know, right? What I do know is that I was on vacation last week. My email lit up. I was told that a video was done. Ogilvy was attributed to that. And it has created a firestorm in social media, some of which had the potential for negative consequences. Even before employee reaction and what I'm saying to you is my first instinct was to follow our playbook of: Stand behind our policies, when it comes to client confidentiality and not do anything that would jeopardize that situation for our relationship with the client and for what it means for the company as a whole.
As we have gone on for the last few days and I'm hearing your points of views and your issues, the one thing I can completely agree with is this needs ongoing monitoring and we need to see how this plays out. If we continue to be associated with work that isn't ours, if the Ogilvy brand starts to be painted as a brand of evil that serves something that, you know, people can't stomach, we're going to have to pay attention to that and make a choice. I'm just saying in the very short term based on the facts I have, what's come through, I believe our obligation is to uphold core principles of what we would do for any client, which is serve the contract, protect their interests and our own and then we have to see how it goes. Go ahead.
Employee: [redacted] I completely understand that this is very delicate and a situation that needs to be treated with a lot of diplomacy. Personally, I understand this because I have worked with the United Nations and I have also worked in the [inaudible] department, however, I ask you kindly to just consider that this is not just a run of the mill type of situation, this is not just another client, this is a government contract and there's a confidentiality clause, but does that come at the expense of Ogilvy's reputation, and at which point do the cost benefit analysis of how much do we lose in $12 million of potential revenue versus employee attrition versus reputation damage versus new business versus can we even deliver on this contract at this point?
Because what [redacted] was saying, we do this day in day out, [redacted], as any one of us nobody of us wants to work for an organization that doesn't stand for something that they believe in. Purpose is also very very big in today's world. I'm not sure that on a good day, I'm being very honest with that, Ogilvy knows or fully knows its purpose — to clients yes but to social in the social realm of things — we don't stand for sustainability, we don't have an equal.
Seifert: Do you know all the things we do, in terms of purpose and agenda?
Employee: Well, if I don't then, you know...
Seifert: Part of what I've learned in this journey is just because you don't know it doesn't mean it doesn't mean it doesn't happen. If you saw what I see in terms of all of the pro bono work that we do for both clients and [Employee in background: I do know of all the work, yes] non-clients and what our people do beyond as Ogilvy.
Employee: I was personally involved in a couple of them at work. [inaudible]
Seifert: But my point is that we are a purpose driven company. We are a purpose driven company. We serve communities, we serve brands.
Employee: It's not even just that. We're just not as prominent in that space. So any negativity, any negativity.
Seifert: But this is where I don't think you have your facts right. We are constantly called by the UN. We work for organizations all over the world, from the Red Cross to World Wildlife Fund to organizations who are devoting their whole lives to social good. Our brand is high among them. So, my caution is that I am not naive to the intensity of this problem and this issue. But please do not use this in a very narrow context to define the company at large. That is wrong, it's not fact-based. We made a choice around our policies and practices where client relationship had started, you know, not before the immigration problem, but before the intensity of the particular issues that are happening at the border today. I accept the challenge that we have to continue to monitor the situation and see how things evolve. I also think it's a very constructive suggestion to say: "Is there more we could do to have a positive impact through the association and relationship we already have," and I will follow up with our team in Washington to see what might be possible in that context, which I think is great.
But what I ask you not to do, however you may feel about this particular situation personally and whether you disagree with my arguments or agree with them, I would ask you not to paint the Ogilvy brand broadly with a brush that doesn't suggest that we're not an organization that is respected around the world and we're doing amazing things, not just for the service of our clients, but for the greater good of the people of the world. Because that list is longer than I could possibly describe and the people behind that work and those efforts are awesome. And I have a front row seat to them because I visit them everywhere I go around the world.
Employee: And my point about that, before you interrupted me, was the idea that any negativity that Ogilvy might potentially be associated with will stand out because we do a lot of good things, we do them on a wide stage. But we are, I think you misunderstood, what I meant was that we are not specifically known for our purposes, not in one specific area for one specific thing. When people say Unilever they think, equals sustainability. [redacted]. I understand the work I know the work. But any opportunity for our image to be mirrored in the public eye is gonna stand out because our image is not such that we stand just for one good thing. So people won't be like, "Oh, you know their work, it's known for sustainability, so what if they have CBP as a client or someone else, they do so much good in the world." [inaudible]
Seifert: You and I can have a separate debate, we can have it separately. You may not have the faith and confidence in the brand that I do. I think our brand more than stands up whether it means one aspect of...
Employee: I think you [inaudible] in this particular situation...
Seifert: And my point is that the best defense is [inaudible] not to act defensively where we don't need to. To work carefully and verify the situation and I think we've done that reasonably well. I cannot argue for what any of you all have experiencing personally through your own networks and your own social media, you will have to be the judge of that but at the end of the day, I have to come to work every day and feel that we're doing everything in our power to protect the brand. And I believe that the choices we have made so far are the right choices. The help I need is I need people in the organization don’t have to agree with everything I have said but I need advocates who can do that without having to compromise policies in place.
Employee: I do also understand where we're going here. My only take is that like, I know in the past we, like, we can wait and I know you are going to be monitoring and I know that that's like the best call in terms of what we can do organization-wise to address this. I do think that making this kind of meeting public for a town hall in the New York office so people can hear the facts. From the articles, it all came out really [inaudible], no one had full information. So I think that would be really important and then unlike IBM who gave technology to the Germans and they did stuff like people, I'm a history buff so I'll take that back but, brands aren't clean and our goal in this millennium is to really kind of change that and I do know that in the past where people could have left things fade away, but with social media they work like the stock exchange now where my influence it changes. So I know you're going to be monitoring this. I know you mentioned that contracts run yearly or something, I do hope that you take [inaudible] into consideration because a human crisis like this is not just going to disappear.
So that's all I was just saying, I understand the business aspect, I understand the economics of it, and it's a contract and I respect that. I just want publicly because that is how we're being valued these days and in this time just to really consider it bears [inaudible] to maybe not do so. I know that might be a risk of jobs and stuff like that, but I know that all the hard work that our brand does and that our producers are doing, especially on my end, like to make sure we get pitches. I think we can work hard to get something that works towards the greater good. So I agree with you. I think that you're in a weird position right now so like, I get it.
Seifert: It's not just a financial consideration. I know that the work that we do in Washington, people believe in that work and they believe in the people that they are doing that work for. I don't think that they would be defending everything that's happening now. But I think they believe as I did when BP went through its crisis that you know, while mistakes were made, this was a good company and will commit to doing the right thing. So I think that's, we have to be able to evaluate in actions and intent. That's part of the process.
Employee: When will we be able to monitor the [inaudible] ourselves.
Seifert: Ogilvy? As soon as it's in the public domain.
Employee: Can we offer feedback on this?
Seifert: Of course. But I would prefer that you do this within the context of Ogilvy.
Employee: Of course. I wouldn't do it on social media.
Seifert: If there's been work that, I applaud commenting on work every day that we do for clients. Make the work better, so absolutely. What we don't do if we don't share work around and we're very careful not to distribute work that is not in the public domain that either hasn't been approved or is considered confidential.
Employee: Say we do have comments. [inaudible] How do we actually respond? Send an email to you?
Seifert: You can send an email any time. On anything that you want to raise. Look, I think that the goal here was obviously, you all feel passionate about the subject. Totally get it. Many of you are probably still frustrated at what you believe is a lack of the right response from me personally and the company at large. That's OK, right? This is not about agreeing. But this is my ask: Disagreements about things need to stay within the company because if this becomes something where we believe that we should be debating the choices that the company makes in a way that has the potential of bringing more negativity to the organization that is not a healthy thing. There should be nothing in the company that doesn't encourage debate, sharing of information and points of view and if you don't feel like you have an outlet to do that that's fine. You know where to get me and I'm more than happy to connect people, I'm happy to do a wider conversation with more. We said we would start here, but at the end of the day I am also trying to convey that there are responsibilities, that it's my job to ensure [inaudible]. And it's not about convincing you about something one way or another, it's you as much information as I can so you can [inaudible].
And if any of you personally feel that your livelihood, your job, and your opportunities have been damaged as a result of this, come see me. I'll be your personal public relations advisor because there's nothing that we have done or that's happened so far or that we have done so far, that I wouldn't defend go defend to anybody. And I'm pretty confident I can help you defend as well if that's the help you're looking for. I believe that we're not a perfect organization, we make mistakes every day but I do believe that we have a culture that has withstood lots of challenges and that's withstood time and I do believe that we have the respect of being more than just making money for our clients. We do amazing things around the world. We have plenty of client alums that confront us every day and we have to work our way through this.
Employee: In terms of next steps, is the plan that we will be having a larger town hall around this or is this it?
Seifert: I will, first of all [say] there is no plan. We would do this in any situation. Continue to see what happens. If we continue to be associated with work that isn't ours or a agenda that isn't ours then obviously we have to think differently about how we could respond to that. Believe me the last thing I'm into is to let Ogilvy be harmed in a way that is inappropriate. Here, very candidly, is my challenge: That whenever we do things at a certain scale there are individuals in the company who choose to use that for their own purposes. And that is damaging to the organization. And it happens all too frequently. So what I want to try and figure out is, I do not not want to have whatever conversations are necessary and happy to respond to those. When those conversations are used in a manipulative way that's not intended, then I’ve got a problem. So that's the trick in this. How do we square that circle. Because if we start to look like an organization that clients don't trust because we don't look like we respect confidentiality within our own organization why should they trust us when it comes to serving their agenda?
Employee: I think as long as you are doing exactly what you just outlined in terms of confidentiality also transcends into brand ethos and what we kind of stand for and what we will accept, then I'm on board obviously and I appreciate this discussion but I wanna really make sure that that's backed up.
Seifert: I can guarantee you that it is. I've spent 40 years in this company for any other reason than the brand and the day that someone thinks that I'm not upholding the brand they should shoot me. I mean that with all seriousness. I would happily give up my seat if someone believes that I am doing anything to do harm to the Ogilvy brand. Or I'm enabling others to do harm to the Ogilvy brand. Are there any other questions, comments on the phone that people want to express?
Employee: I think we're good — thank you!
Seifert: Everybody sure? One last point. I am more than happy to carry on the conversation with anyone who wants to have it and anyone who wants to share their thoughts with me personally. I would just ask one thing. If you write to me and I write back to you I would appreciate it that it's kept between the people who are writing and myself. Because I will try to be as honest and candid as I can be. But that's not always understood when it gets passed around out of context. That's the only ask right now. OK? Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.