Should Marketers Strive To Make A Difference?

Despite all the cynicism I’ve seen about marketing professionals–so often depicted as subversive brainwashers, spin doctors, or snake-oil salesmen–I’ve often imagined that even those who seemed aligned with mind-boggling products, causes, or political candidates must believe in what they do. That’s my eternal optimism speaking, or perhaps my naivete.


“Do you do good at work, or is doing good something you do outside your job?” That, to paraphrase, was the question that sat before some fellow marketers/corporate communicators and me at a gathering some time back.

The question seemed a simple one to me. Surely, I thought, people get into a field like communications because they have a desire to align with causes they believe in, or they desire to help audiences find out the information they might want or need to know. At the very least, even if out-and-out passion isn’t there, I had presumed people had the desire to promote products that they felt deserved to be shared.

Despite all the cynicism I had seen about the marketing world–so often depicted as subversive brainwashers, spin doctors, or snake-oil salesmen–I’d often imagined that even those who seemed aligned with mind-boggling products, causes, or political candidates must believe in what they do.

That’s my eternal optimism speaking, or perhaps my naivete.

Instead, I was shocked to hear a good number of people in the room express the opinion that the field of marketing was not about doing good nor bad; instead, it was about having a skill (effective communications and persuasion) that could be employed for any cause indiscriminately. From this view, work was work–nothing personal–and doing good was something a marketing professional might do in their downtime. The justification line, it seemed, was something along the lines of: “We’re capitalists; we take on paying clients.”

Many of us who were part of that discussion seemed surprised to see such a split. And–for a second, at least–my inclination was to judge. After all, this is just the sort of logic the industry I had entered gets blasted for from the outside. But then I stopped to think from the perspective of those espousing this belief. They were smart, principled, likable individuals who I had both personal and professional respect for. And they were serious in their conviction that personal judgment should be checked at the door and that “doing good” is something one concerns themselves with after the workday is through.


That conversation occurred some time ago. But I often think back to it as I ponder “what I’m doing here” in strategic communications, a transplant from the academic world who came to marketing and consulting out of the desire to take the types of change I was espousing from academe and see what ways I might be able to contribute to disseminating some of those ideas into industry practice.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m lucky; my employers at Peppercom stated overtly when I started with the company that–should any project come along that I had a fundamental disagreement with–I would never be expected to work on that business. At times, we’ve worked with controversial clients, but I’ve only been expected to engage with those clients if and when I agreed with their stance, at least on the particular issues we were advising them on. (For the record, I have not yet encountered a project at Peppercom that I found objectionable to take part in.) I’ve occasionally worked with clients over the years who I did not always agree with the actions of, but I took pride that the counsel I gave them was “right,” even if it was not always adhered to.

I now understand the perspective of those in my field who hold this “dispassionate practitioner” stance toward marketing. Those people often feel a strong ethical obligation to provide superior counsel and service to those who pay them. And those people also hold strong concerns about the ethics of the field in general, ensuring that marketing is not done in underhanded or manipulative ways. (I’m honored, for instance, to be a member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Membership Ethics Advisory Panel. As a group, we don’t consider the “moral correctness” of a company’s actions but rather the ethical practice of marketing.)

Yet, while we may not always be passionate “fans” of some of the companies we do business with–and while we likely have worked with companies whose policies or actions we disagree with from time to time–I’m amazed to occasionally run across people in marketing jobs who are working with a client whose cause they are actually diametrically opposed to or that they believe is in some way harmful to society.

In some cases, people are doing such work because they have to: They don’t work for a company who has a policy like mine, or they are not in an economic position to stand on principle. In others, they adhere to the idea that “capitalism doesn’t discriminate on the basis of scruples or actions.” In fact–at least in public relations–one of the tried and true explanations for the industry’s reason for being has been akin to that of a defense lawyer: that everyone is entitled to adequate communications counsel to tell their story.

I personally find that line of argument quite faulty. Defense against criminal prosecution is one thing; under no circumstance do I think every public figure or organization has a “right” to communications strategy. (Awfully presumptuous of us marketers and corporate communicators to paint our desire for billings as some constitutionally inspired cause…)


I don’t mean to simplistically direct scorn at people who espouse such views. As I mentioned, I’ve heard people in my industry for whom I have great respect espouse similar opinions. But I am concerned about the commitment people feel and–particularly–about the responsibility people take for their actions, in a world where they feel their professional life is not having any positive impact (or, perhaps, even feeling that it has a negative impact).

As I’ve written about in the past, I’m of the firm belief that a more transparent communication environment is forcing companies to be more ethical than ever. And I believe real business success can be found from companies who see themselves as a connected part of the communities they operate in and the audiences they serve–from companies who concern themselves with putting themselves in their audiences’ shoes and aligning themselves more closely with the wants and needs of those who buy, build, or support their products.

However, it seems impossible to make that change in thinking within an organization if marketing professionals feel detached from the work they do; agnostic about the good they might achieve; and a lack of responsibility about the repercussions of their actions. I’m not suggesting marketers need to always agree with a client, or that they should cease doing business with a company every time an unsavory crisis unfolds. But I do believe we have to feel some culpability in the repercussions of the work we do and some concern about the impact of our work, beyond the money it puts in our pockets today.

What’s your take? Do you agree? Or am I akin to the entrepreneurs of the dotcom era, believing everyone should think their toilet brush e-commerce site should be seen as the first step toward world peace? Am I being too idealistic? Do, for instance, the moral concerns of keeping employees in jobs trump the distaste a marketing firm might have for a potential client? I’d love to hear your take.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies program. He was recently named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image provided by Shutterstock]


About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee