It wasn't long after I got my first job as a copywriter that I heard about how a rival agency won a pitch. Asked to present concepts for what promised to be a substantial account, not only did they make a good show of the work they did, they went above and beyond. Making a bit of razzle dazzle out of it, they led the client out to the front of the building. A new car was sitting there. To indicate their excitement and commitment about working together, they gave the keys to the client. She took them. And the agency won the account. It was unclear whether the story was being told out of disgust, or grudging admiration.
The next agency I work for, a big London one, I got to see how things sometimes worked when one of the directors showed me some previous work they'd done. I was looking at a leaflet campaign for a premium retail store seeking staff, and asked why they used that approach and not run an ad in a newspaper. Turned out they'd done that, but too many of the candidates who applied were off-brand. Which is to say, they were black, or at any rate not white. So the leaflets targeted a suburb where well brought-up young white women were to be found, which is who the department store wanted to be selling to their customers.
A few years later, in Nottingham, I was developing scripts and meeting people who were getting short films made and occasionally worked in radio and television. Two guys hatched a sitcom, and got some funds to make a pilot episode. They came along to a shindig for the regional screen agency, and thanked the chief exec for support received to an audience of people hoping for similar backing. Only, the screen agency had nothing to do with the money that the sitcom got. The chief exec was pals with the chaps who'd made it though, who sang his praises in return for the prospect of future collaboration.
I mention all of this in the light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. They made dark use of data harvested illegally from Facebook, and using a combination of digitally-assisted psychological profiling and good old-fashioned skulduggery delivered election results that some pretty unpleasant clients paid handsomely for.
The thing being, none of this is surprising.
Cambridge Analytica are only different in the scale that they operate on. The targeting the department store colluded in with the London ad agency was no different in principle, or lack of it. There are people in businesses worldwide who would behave in exactly the same ways, and clients everywhere more than happy to pay for results.
The guys behind the sitcom caper are classic cases in point. They'd think of themselves as decent sorts, just doing whatever it takes to get by in a cut-throat industry. So they cut throats. One in particular would justify his actions by frequent use of the term 'realpolitik'. Being prepared to do anything to get your result is ok if there's a German word for it.
As you go about your business today, what ethical choices will you be faced with? And how will you deal with them?