Have you been tempted?
These days, ‘conflict of interest’ seems to mean:
If it’s in my interest, there’s no conflict!
I don’t quite see it that way.
But I have.
When working for an ad agency, I was surprised to find myself writing for two BIG FIVE* clients in the same week.
I strive to do my best. So unless two clients have markedly different stories to tell, I feel conflicted that I can serve only one properly.
This means the second client gets a lesser deal, which upsets me.
As there was little light between these two clients, I asked the boss if we could cut one free and give the other our all.
I argued that in so doing so, we’d:
- Capture the high moral ground (and thus sleep well at night).
- Help our remaining client dominate their market (resulting in a growing spend).
- Differentiate ourselves as a truly ethical supplier (and thus gain new, like-minded clients).
The boss regarded me as if I were insane, then explained that our foreign masters would be highly unamused if we sacked a million-dollar client for ethics.
The trouble was, we only had one studio.
As work for both clients grew, we told them we had separate creative facilities for each. Though technically true, the separation was a line of masking tape on the carpet and a direction not to look when the other side was printing.
One day, the bigger client sacked us, citing conflict of interest.
Not long after, the second client also left. As did many staff.
When I went freelance, I finally had the glorious chance to practise what I preached.
Instead, terrified of insolvency, I grabbed every client I could.
So much for ethics!
To my knowledge, no client was harmed in the conflict; but that’s splitting hairs.
It’s only now, years later, that I can ‘afford’ the luxury of focusing on one client in each sector.
But some things still sting.
Lately I’ve been doing a truckload of work for a BIG FOUR client.
Last week I was offered a job for this company’s arch rival.
The gig was perfect: fun, lucrative, interesting and right up my alley.
I could’ve done it without anyone knowing.
But that wouldn’t have been right.
So I knocked it back with gritted teeth.
My grateful client told me they were loyal and that I’d be rewarded.
There was talk of karma.
The Great Wheel
So, I’ve gone from angel to mercenary and back again.
I’ve learnt that conflicts of interest, while appearing external, really dwell within.
So how strong is your moral compass?
Have you foregone instant loot for chronic brownies?
Did you come back as a sea-eagle?
Do you think business and ethics can coexist?
Or, in today’s cut-throat world,
do good guys finish
* i.e. five fierce, roughly equal competitors dominated this sector.
Paul Hassing, Founder & Senior Writer, The Feisty Empire