The ethics of working for Andrej Babiš


“I don’t know how they sleep at night”, my friend said, “What are they thinking of?”

We were having lunch and as usual talking about politics. He is a well known person in the marketing communications industry; as are the the two guys he was referring to, who are both working as consultants to Babiš. I readily agreed with him.

But afterwards I thought, “how fair is this, to condemn them so easily?”. And what would you do, dear reader?

Of course to answer the question one has to ask what would be so wrong with working for Babiš, and that is inevitably a political question. My friend and I (who disagree on many political issues) are united in the belief that Babiš is an anti-democratic demagogue, with blatant conflicts of interest; who is mainly interested in passing laws which benefit his personal interest first and foremost. In addition he is one of those who presents a threat to the freedom of the press. You may by now have gathered that Babiš is not someone we would vote for. More importantly though, I in particular find that this view of Babiš is shared by most people around me. My friend and I shared a horror that two such intelligent and skilled practitioners would apparently be in such disagreement with our analysis of Babiš, that they would be prepared to help him achieve his goals.

We speculated on why they had decided to work for Babiš. Money was obviously one reason. Both are now independent, and Babiš doubtless pays above average rates. Then there is the lure of power. Which of us would not fell at least a little flattered and excited by an invitation to meet with Babiš in his French Riviera villa? Doubtless, they told themselves that many advertising agencies work for political parties, it does not mean that everyone in that agency believes in the politics. The argument is that they are simply professionals, in the same way as is a lawyer who defends someone accused of murder.

This last argument is a powerful one, discussed in agencies around the world. The chairman of my old agency in London, (BMP), Martin Boase, said “we are professional advocates for our clients.” And yet BMP had some lines it would not cross. It was one of the reasons I was proud to work there. It refused tobacco clients. When it inherited British Aerospace (manufacturer of Gripens) as a client, after buying another agency, it quietly cancelled that contract too. In both cases, the products, when used as directed by the manufacturer, kill people. BMP on the other hand worked for the Labour Party at election time. But it was careful to ask for volunteers from within the agency to work on the campaigns, and in public was very discreet about its involvement.

I brought those ethics with me to Prague. Very quickly, they got me into trouble at DDB. Inside the agency I suggested that we could propose to the government to start a campaign designed to persuade people to stop smoking. But this was 1994. The big tobacco companies had arrived in the Czech Republic, and started their highly skilled lobbying of politicians. Philip Morris clearly had a sophisticated global monitoring system which picked up “anti-smoking” publicity. I received a strong letter from DDB’s then President of Europe, Bernard Brochand, (as did DDB’s newly acquired Swedish agency, who were already running an aggressive anti-smoking campaign). He said we were unprofessional. 22 years later, I still burn with resentment about that. This resentment was not diminished when some 10 years later, DDB’s legendary creative guru, Keith Reinhart, died of lung cancer. DDB quietly let it be known that it was no longer available to tobacco clients. Apparently, some lives are more important than others.

I was never asked by Philip Morris in Prague to help them recruit marketing people. They knew my stance. Some years later I became personally friendly with the marketing director of BAT, an English non-smoker. He too never raised the issue, and I wondered if the tobacco industry in the Czech Republic created and shared a “black list ” of anti-tobacco people. Either way I was glad that i never had to refuse. Later  though, JTI asked Registr reklamnich agentur to help them prepare a pitch for a new agency. My first instinct was to refuse, but then I stopped to think further.

It was easy to argue why I should not help them recruit marketing people. Those people would be employed to persuade consumers to feed an addictive habit with serious consequences for health. But when it came to an RRA project, I had to think of the agencies. They expect us to involve them in pitches which are professionally organized, and where they have a fair chance of winning if they perform well. I realized that I had no right to deny them the chance to win business from JTI. If they felt the same way as I did about tobacco, they could always refuse to participate. So I went ahead, and took JTI’s money. One agency I contacted did indeed refuse to participate. Was I right to do work on this project, and to make the distinction between the two types of work that I potentially could do for a tobacco company?

When it comes to politics, it is hard to imagine an individual consultant working for a party whose policies he finds to be repugnant. It’s true that in the first year or so of Babiš’ involvement in politics, most intelligent people were “unsure” about him. Our two acquaintances may have been open-minded, and by the time they realized his true goals, they were caught inside the Babiš machine, dazzled by the proximity to power.

Maybe therefore, we should not be too quick to judge them. However I have a warning for them based on my UK experience. When your fellow professionals find out you are working for a political party, with whose views they disagree, they will give you a hard time. In this case, if I bump into either of them I will tell them how much extra in accountancy fees we are paying because of ‘ ridiculous invoice matching system, and ask them what the point of it all is. In a democratic society you are free to make money as you think fit, provided it is legal. But others are equally free to comment on your activity. It is probably quite healthy if they do so.

What would you do?

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