In your last column, you talked about how to persuade your clients and employers to do the right thing by building a good argument and alliances. But what happens when that’s not enough? What happens when they insist on doing unethical shit?
— A Designer
Well, we’re eventually going to get to the point where we flip some tables over. I just didn’t want you thinking that was your first course of action. But there comes a point after you’ve exhausted all other courses, where you have to put your foot down. There are things you cannot do. Case in point:
On July 3, 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol of Arizona posted a video tour of one of the concentration camps along our southern border. I’ve watched it, but if you want to watch you’ll have to Google it; I won’t link to it. It’s a video that justifies jailing refugees and separating children from their parents. It’s a video that lies about the conditions these human beings are living in. Its goal is to make you feel okay about the racist and dehumanizing acts our government is perpetrating. It’s totalitarian propaganda.
But hey, this is supposed to be a column about design advice. So why are we talking about this? Well, one, because we should give a shit. The fact that we have concentration camps in our country is something that should piss us off, and we should take action against it. I have no doubt many of you are with me on this. So let’s move on to issue number two.
Shortly after this video was released, RAICES Texas, a nonprofit doing amazing work providing educational resources and legal aid for migrants, discovered the video had been created by Ogilvy, one of the biggest and most renowned advertising agencies in the world. RAICES tweeted out “@Ogilvy has a $12m contract with CBP to help them with public relations such as this video.”
A few days later, Ogilvy denied they’d had anything to do with the video. And CBP claimed the video was produced in-house. I’m going to have to take both of them at their word, although I talked to a few people who’ve worked in government agencies and they were very doubtful CBP has an in-house team capable of producing a video like this.
For Ogilvy’s part, although they denied producing this particular video, they didn’t deny they’ve contracted with CBP for PR work since at least 2017. They’re the agency of record. And since multiple contracts have been signed since September of 2018, after we were all aware of what was going on at those camps, if not the extent of it, Ogilvy certainly can’t claim they weren’t aware of the kind of work they might be associated with as the agency of record on the account. Being blamed for a PR video a company puts out while you’re that company’s agency of record is a fair assumption.
So Ogilvy was either unaware of the video (at which point you’d wonder why a client went elsewhere to do the work when they had an agency on the books), or they passed on the video (again, they must have known what they were getting into when they signed that contract), or everyone’s lying. Of which, obviously, I have no proof. And it would be weird to accuse a PR agency of lying. So, I won’t.
The thing I’d rather focus on isn’t this particular video. It’s the contract. Ogilvy knowingly took a contract to work with CBP after the ground had broken on the camps. That’s the bigger story.
Here’s a little history: Ogilvy was founded in London in 1949 by David Ogilvy, the “father of advertising,” a title he probably gave himself. He wrote two very influential books about advertising: Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man. The company grew worldwide, changed names a bunch, and sold a lot of Dove soap, Rolls-Royces, and oil. David Ogilvy stepped down as chairman in 1973. Since his departure, the company has had its fair share of success under various leaders, among them Paul Hicks, who rose to regional CEO of the Americas. You may not be familiar with Paul Hicks, but my guess is you’ve heard of his daughter — Hope Hicks, former White House communications director under the Trump regime. As Lester Freamon would say, “Follow the money.”
And through this combination of prestige and influence, a group of people — designers, writers, directors, photographers, and project managers among them — who all happened to work at Ogilvy, ended up being told their next client was the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. And that client was building concentration camps. And that their job was doing PR for them.
Did any of those people try to talk Ogilvy out of taking on the client? At this point, we don’t know. And we may never find out. But perhaps they did. Perhaps more than one of them did. Perhaps there’s a whole bunch of people at Ogilvy pissed off about being associated with this client. Perhaps someone even stormed out and didn’t want anything to do with this client. We may hear from them yet. (Unless of course, Ogilvy bought their silence with a big fat settlement.)
That particular video may go in your book, or portfolio, or reel, or whatever you call it, or it may not. But its inclusion doesn’t justify what you did, and its exclusion doesn’t forgive it.
Here’s what we do know: A propaganda video was made to cover up atrocities happening in concentration camps along our southern border. That video couldn’t have been made without several people’s labor. Paychecks were cashed. And if you helped make it, that particular video may go in your book, portfolio, reel, or whatever you call it, or it may not. But its inclusion doesn’t justify what you did, and its exclusion doesn’t forgive it.
Enough people were willing to use their talent and their labor to get that video made, and I assume they were paid handsomely for it.
The employees’ right to veto
Where you put your labor is a choice. Always. Sometimes it may be a difficult choice. For example, if your employer controls your health care, and you or someone else covered by that health care have a medical issue that needs coverage, you’re going to weigh that when you make the choice of whether to work on a project or not. But you’re still making a choice. (This is one of the many reasons we need to decouple health coverage from employment.) I can’t begrudge someone choosing their family’s health. But I can begrudge them saying they had no choice. They did. And they made the one they needed to. I would, however, counsel you to move to a job where you’re not forced to choose your family’s health and well-being over other families’ health and well-being.
One of the cornerstones of our design studio, Mule, was that we never wanted to take on work we couldn’t be proud of. If it was worth doing, it was worth telling everyone we did it. No secret clients. That meant two things: We needed to stay small enough that we could be picky, and we gave every employee veto power on the jobs we took on. Everyone working for us knew they could veto a project from their first day of work. And staying small meant that every person was critical to what we did. If someone didn’t want to work on a project, we couldn’t afford to shield them from it. We just didn’t take it. We also hired people who had opinions and weren’t shy about them. And honestly, I think that’s one of the reasons people worked for us. They knew they’d never have to work on something they were ashamed of.
So before you take your next job, ask if employees have a right to veto work. Ask whether you have a say in the type of work you take on. And talk to members of the current team to make sure this is the case. It’s not too late to do this at your current job, either. Negotiate as a team. Let your employer know that you want to discuss every project that comes in before it’s signed. Is every employer going to be open to this? No. But that’s a good thing to know as well.
The cost to your career
Very few of us are in the last job we’ll ever have. At some point, you’ll move on. You’ll want to do something new, or the place you’re at now might close up. You’ll be on the hunt for a new job. You’ll polish up that resume and find yourself across the table from a prospective new employer. They’ll go over that resume. Maybe they’ll care that you were at Ogilvy in 2019. Maybe they’ll ask about the propaganda video you made. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll care you were on the Twitter Trust and Safety team at the height of abuse and harassment. Maybe they’ll ask why you didn’t do more to stop it. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll care that you were on the Superhuman team that tracked every time someone opened an email and then geotagged it. Maybe they’ll ask why you were okay implementing that. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll care that you were on the Uber team that developed Greyball, a tool that deceived regulators. Maybe they’ll ask why you thought it was ethical to do that. Maybe they won’t.
But maybe they will.
Ultimately, the reason we should work ethically shouldn’t come down to how it affects our career. But since much of the resistance to working ethically is, sadly, about career impact, it’s worth considering the longer-term effects. Doing unethical work might keep you safe in your current job; it might even help you climb the ladder. But fuck, what is it doing to your career?
With each unethical decision you make, the path you’re charting through your career changes. Paths close. And the paths left open don’t always look too good. Covering your ass in the present is only exposing it to the future.
And reputation matters. Someone who succeeds by doing the shitty work that more ethical people won’t do is going to be known for that. A lifetime of following orders rarely leads to a career in leadership.
Allegiance to a company is stupid
My dad was a construction worker for most of his life. And we grew up in a place where the ground froze over every winter. Which meant he got laid off every winter. Sometimes, once spring came back around and the ground thawed, the same company that laid him off would hire him right back. And sometimes they wouldn’t. He’d move on to another company. The companies he worked for had no allegiance to him. They’d dump him off the payroll as soon as they needed to. To be honest, he didn’t have too much allegiance to them, either. He sold them his labor. And he was proud of the work he did, but he took pride in the work, not in the company that did it. The companies were trying to build as fast as possible and profit as much as possible. That is what they do. The workers were building places where people took shelter. Where they lived. Where they worked. Where they went to school. And they wanted those people to be safe. So they did their jobs well, for the people using those buildings. And for their own reputation. Because your reputation got you your next job.
And when the ground froze, my dad would put away his tools for the winter. We’d decide which of the rooms in the house we could afford to heat. The union would bring groceries around. We’d stretch out the unemployment checks as much as we could. And small loans would fly back and forth among all the laid-off construction workers. Regardless of where they worked, those construction workers always had each others’ backs.
Their allegiance was to each other. Not to the companies they worked for. Because those came and went.
If you’re going to have an allegiance to something, make it the people who need to live with your work. If you’re going to have an allegiance to two things, make it the people you work with.
And when the ground thawed, the foremen would get called back first. Then they’d build their teams. Your reputation was important. If you had a reputation of doing good work, you got called back. If you were a shitty worker, if you put the company’s needs above the work… well, you weren’t called back. That road was closed.
If you’re going to have an allegiance to something, make it the people who need to live with your work. If you’re going to have allegiance to two things, make it the people you work with.
The problem with loving where you work is that you start believing they love you back. They don’t. Everyone gets laid off when the ground freezes.
Oh, and for the record, I called my dad and asked him if he would’ve taken the job building the camps. “Fuck no. All our guys were immigrants.”
If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).