Desperate Times, Dubious Measures?

Ethics. Disclosure. Conflict of interest. Integrity. Even Martha Stewart can’t keep her house in order.

With the news overflowing with Enrons, Andersens, investment fraud, and congressional hearings, who can avoid the issue of business ethics?

Ethics saturate the media ( has posted a special section on the subject), and the advertising and marketing industries are hardly immune to scandal. Before more seismic stories broke, Ogilvy was busted for overbilling. This spring, The Harvard Business Review’s editor stepped down when details of an extracurricular relationship with GE CEO Jack Welch emerged.

In a climate in which “image campaign” implies “spin control” as much as controlling the brand, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) announced a commendable effort: a year-long campaign promoting interactive marketing (given the economy, there’s some spin control involved). Announcing the launch this week, CEO Greg Stuart cited three reasons for the IAB campaign, “To speak with a single voice, control our own destiny, and to practice what we preach. We have truth and justice on our side!”

It’s a pretty good campaign. Employing case studies and the tagline, “Interactive. It’s the active ingredient,” the IAB rolled out the multimedia launch over dozens of sites, all of which donated inventory. The IAB is soliciting members and nonmembers alike for media.

It’s a huge step for a small-but-growing industry organization, and one deserving support. I’m rooting for it. This campaign alone, however, won’t achieve the stated goals. Success is increasingly dependent on aligning with “real” media and “traditional” advertising. With 145 million online users in the U.S., we’re no longer in startup territory. We’re playing in the big leagues.

Startups improvise. Being a big-league player, on the other hand, means following certain rules and ethical practices. The Wild West days are over, folks. Want to be treated like a grownup? Act like one. Think we’re immune to scrutiny? The FTC just sternly warned search engines about disclosure. Legislation is both pending and proposed on issues such as spam and online privacy. Either we police ourselves or someone else does the policing for us.

More than metrics, standards, or even cash, we require a solid foundation of principles, ethics, and disclosure. Looking around, I see practices that, frankly, stink. As an editor, I’m supposed to be a gadfly. It’s not always easy, particularly if the beat is interactive marketing and media and you work for an online, ad-supported publishing company. Sticky, no? But here are some examples of what I’m seeing:

  • Should an editor who serves on the board of a major industry event publish sunny reports on the event — the only positive dispatches to emerge (press releases excepted)?

    Probably not without disclosure.

  • Should a media planner write about media planning for competing online publications (under different bylines) whilst having financial stakes in both the publishing and client sides? And while recommending them to clients?

    Probably not without disclosure.

  • Should a company commissioned to conduct independent research weigh a client’s data more heavily than outside sources?

    Probably not without disclosure.

We’re all in this to make a buck. Times are tough. Everyone’s in survival mode. The above practices won’t land anyone in front of a congressional hearing or on the links at Club Fed. Still, from an outsider’s perspective, they reflect badly on us all.

Although I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiment and purpose behind the IAB campaign, a number of people in the industry (IAB members and nonmembers alike) tell me they have a sour taste about the way the campaign came together (and remember, it ain’t easy to pull something like this together, folks). There are murmurings of cronyism.

“It’s pissing a lot of us off on the media side. No one was asked, or even told, there was anything going on,” an interactive VP at a major agency told me. Others have said the businesses donating resources, inventory, and services to the campaign smack uncomfortably of an old-boys’ network. A publisher at the major marketing trade publication told me, “I don’t know if it’s unethical or just sly,” that his company, an IAB member, hadn’t been approached with a request for inventory while comparatively teensy-weensy competitors who have tightly knit relationships with campaign participants are already on the media list.

Again, it’s tough to pull something like this off, especially when no money and few dedicated staff are involved. Kelly Colbert has only held her marketing VP post at the IAB for seven weeks. Everyone at the IAB and the companies contributing to the launch say they welcome input from all comers, from strategy to media donations to case studies.

Perhaps the initiative was thrown together too hastily — at least from the perspective of industry members on the sidelines who would love to have been given a chance to pitch in from the beginning. To move forward, the IAB must not only speak with one voice but also create a unified voice over a broad base, not within a narrow clique. It needs to vet members, especially service providers and partners, for the whiff of impropriety.

To succeed, we’ll be judged not only by our work but also by our credibility and the company we keep.

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