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CAANZ calibrates industry's moral compass with new ethical guidelines

According to CAANZ, one of the big challenges facing the communications industry is the way it is sometimes perceived by clients—and society more broadly. So, in an effort to address this and show that it is in fact what chief executive Paul Head calls a reputable and professional industry that adds value to businesses, the communications industry will be governed by a formal set of rules after CAANZ introduced its new ‘Code of Ethics, Practices, and Obligations of CAANZ Members'. 

While there are plenty of common sense rules and guidelines, two clauses about public criticism of the industry have cornered most of the commentary, with some saying it aims to curtail freedom of expression and others saying that it will be ineffectual due to the prevalence of anonymous commentary (and the creative, competitive spirit this industry is imbued with). 

  • While public dialogue regarding the state and/or direction of the advertising industry is healthy, there is a type of public statement that is harmful and unfair to the industry, and is to be regarded as unethical practice by members. 
  • It is not possible to define the differences to cover all cases, but generally, statements of the unethical kind are of the sort that tend to denigrate the work or business practice of other agencies. This section is not meant to apply to those agencies which have developed a particular kind of expertise, service or application of the art of advertising which they are attempting to fairly market.

TBWA\ head and ex-CAANZ president Dave Walden told NBR he wouldn't sign the code if it muzzled him from speaking freely, but Head says it isn't about muzzling anyone. The industry "thrives on robust debate and it's healthy when people express views on work or the industry as a whole". But the aim is to take the first step and ensure people start thinking about how their comments might reflect on the industry because, at the moment, "some of them don't position us as the professional industry we are". 

He says it isn't trying to be judicial, but "you can't have a code without some sanctions", so he hopes that leaders of agencies will be prepared to reprimand those who break the rules. But, again, he admits anonymous comments make that particularly difficult. 

"We're not going to stop anonymous comments, but it's a case of needing to start somewhere," he says (interestingly, YouTube has recently endorsed the use of real identities, rather than screen-names).  

Head understands why the public criticism clauses have captured the most attention, but the code isn't just about how the industry talks to itself, he says. It's a wide-ranging document that also deals with agency-client relationships, supporting self-regulation, confidentiality, acting in good faith and providing the best value

He says the process was kicked off at the end of last year when it became apparent there was a desire to implement a code and it looked for global best practise and based a lot of it on Canada's code, which was implemented seven or eight years ago. In America, there has been a code since 1928, so some would say the local version is well overdue. But will it make a difference to some of those perception issues, both among clients and society as a whole? 

Head is realistic and says "it's the start of a journey," but he says if he didn't believe this was part of a strategy around long-term change, he wouldn't be wasting his time on it. 

"I believe passionately that this is the right thing to do," he says. “... This code isn’t necessarily about changing our members’ behaviour; it’s more to show that the communications industry already has a strong ethical underpinning. It’s about articulating what we already believe in and how we already operate. The reality for communication agencies today is far from the ‘Mad Men’ stereotype; our members are professional businesses that are committed to bringing value to client organisations.”

He says the Canadian industry has seen some positive change in terms of being seen as more professional after implementing its code. But in many ways, Head it's about pinning some colours to the mast and showing clients that "this is what we [CAANZ members] believe in". 

Of course, it's not just agency partners with perception issues. Marketers everywhere are trying to cement their positions around the boardroom table, not always successfully, and when you see reports like therecent study in the UKby the Fournaise Marketing Group that showed over 70 percent of chief executives believed marketers were "disconnected" from business results and focused on the wrong areas, you can see why. 

Sandy Moore, CAANZ president and chief executive of DDB Group New Zealand, says an important driver in developing the code was assurance to businesses that member behaviour is aligned with shared standards and values. 

“By choosing a CAANZ agency, clients can be assured that their agency will be transparent and ethical, and provide the best value for their investment,” he says. 

CAANZ member agencies collectively represent 95 percent of agency billings in New Zealand, with a combined turnover of more than $1 billion, covering creative, media, digital and marketing communication disciplines. 

  • Download the full code here

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