Can marketing be ethical? Or is marketing nothing but a sharp-elbowed race for business growth?
I truly think it can be. In moral terms, healthy commercial competition needn’t mean a race to the bottom. And I find it sad that I should even have to say that. But I do.
So I’ve written a manifesto for ethical marketing practices. It started as something I wrote purely for my own benefit, to keep myself honest. But now I’m thinking – why not share it with the world? It’s the kind of manifesto I would have liked to read at the start of my career, and if others find it useful, then great.
I’m keen to point out that it’s not one of those manifestos. What I mean is, it’s not style over substance. It’s very much about the substance and values behind today’s marketing practices, and how we can do things better.
Why Do We Glorify Growth Hacks?
It’s not so much that growth hacks are a problem per se. There’s nothing wrong with spotting new opportunities that make good use of data or customer behaviour and add a bit of technology to get the best possible outcome.
But bad practices lurk in the most honourable of professions, and there’s a world of difference between a legal and ethical growth hack and scraping third-party websites for user data, or otherwise breaking the terms and conditions of those sites to exploit users and strip away their privacy. Airbnb: The Growth Story You Didn’t Know is a case in point here.
It saddens me to read articles that trumpet the growth of Uber, despite dubious tactics like identifying and tagging iPhones even after the owner has deleted the Uber app app and erased the device. Or deceiving authorities and blocking officials from the Uber service.
It’s not just Uber. Marketers continued to praise Facebook’s growth even after revelations that the social media giant used tools like Onavo to pay kids as young as 13 to give them root access to their devices. And then made gross intrusions into their privacy by opening up personal messages, photos, videos, emails, and even Amazon order history, while publicly posing as a privacy-focused app.
Marketing and The Social Dilemma
I watched The Social Dilemma, a fantastic documentary that should be mandatory viewing in schools. And it made me feel genuinely embarrassed for my profession.
In the film, we see a bunch of people who’ve made a killing by moving around from one unethical corporation to another. Then in the documentary we see their profound discomfort with the damage their features inflict on people who use them.
We all know about the negative consequences of the Instagram society – living for likes, and worse besides. My problem is, again, that we glorify these tricks because in marketing, growth is gold. The Social Dilemma unpeels the attention economy and reveals the rotten core that is ‘growth at all costs’ thinking. It shows the wilful ignorance at play here, with powerful people actively avoiding information that exposes uncomfortable truths.
None of these people are evil. But that’s precisely what is so dangerous, because they are actively contributing to a society-wide problem. As Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce once said, Facebook “is the new cigarettes for our society”. Some think it made them look cool, but in 20 years it will look quite different. We stand to be judged by future generations.
Dark Patterns and Sludges
I am deeply concerned about the proliferation of two disturbing trends in user interface design that are actively promoted as growth hacks by marketers:
- Dark patterns: Features that coerce, steer or deceive users into unintended and potentially harmful actions
- Sludges: Processes that are made deliberately difficult to encourage users into a pathway that will go against their best interests.
What is even more dubious than these dark patterns and sludges? Stand up Nir Eyal, and others like him, who, having played a big part in creating the problem, go on to make even more money by selling the solution. Eyal wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to teach founders how to build addictive products. He followed it up with Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, which teaches consumers how to avoid the addictive design of the products he himself helped to shape.
The Ethics of Marketing Agencies
No, I’m not about to argue that marketing agencies are evil. But I do think their business model is flawed, and this can have unethical consequences. I’ve worked with agencies both as an employee and a client, and there are a number of reasons why I’ve resisted setting up my own traditional agency:
- The agent/principal problem – Most agencies sell time, and their business model only works if they take a cookie-cutter approach. The more copy and pasting they do, the better their returns. It is simply inefficient to be creative and do a ton of original research for every new client.
- No skin in the game – Nassim Taleb explains this brilliantly in Skin in the Game but basically, regardless of the outcome of any project, an agency simply collects the fees and risks nothing. Famously, Hertz had to sue Accenture to recover $32m they paid for a website rebuild which was allegedly incomplete and poor quality. Accenture offered to fix the shortcomings for an extra $10m.
- You might be a world-class marketer, but if you set up an agency and hire people, much of your day-to-day work will shift from marketing to running a business.
- Agencies routinely assign high-skilled marketers to create a pitch, or play a prominent role in the early stages, only to pass the real work down to junior staff or even outsource it. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see that talented individual again – when your contract comes up for renewal.
If we widen our lens on the agency, we see that most clients are surprisingly okay with all that. And that’s because for them, hiring an agency is not about the deliverables; it’s about validation and even covering their own backside.
Here’s what I mean. When one of the Big Four is hired to tackle a complex issue, they are not hired primarily for their skills or capacity to solve that problem. It’s more that in the event of their failure to solve it, the CEO will be able to stand up to the Board and say: “Well, the problem turned out to be so difficult that even the Big Four were stumped.” In other words, the agency relationship is more about blame reduction than business outcomes.
Do all agencies suffer from these problems? Of course not. In fact, I’m currently working with an amazing agency that is truly ethical and, as far as I can see, always does the right thing for the client, even that eats into their profit margin. But it’s important to be aware of these issues and mitigate the risks.
Ethical Marketing Manifesto
Things can and do go wrong. The minute you notice something wrong on a joint problem, ‘fess up! Then give your full attention to solving the problem.
Being direct (though not to the point of rudeness) with people you work with is a sign of respect. It means you’re a responsible adult and you’re treating others as such. Focus on delivering the true message and not on repackaging it.
Use ethically-sourced data
Only use consumer data that the user willingly shared or that was captured with full consent in place. For Account-Based Marketing (ABM) campaigns the data can come from third parties, but it will always be data that the consumer shared knowingly.
Protect your users’ privacy
Only capture and use data that it is absolutely necessary and wherever possible, avoid Personal Identifiable Information (PII).
Avoid confirmation bias
Don’t actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms your own hypothesis.
Don’t promote products or services that encourage wasteful or unhealthy behaviour.
Work with companies that add value to society
Your organisation, its products and services should not exploit anyone. Instead, they should have a positive impact on other people and the world around you.
Be open-minded and don’t fall for reactive devaluation
Evaluate all options and opinions available. Don’t rush to dismiss certain opinions just because they come from a source that you habitually disagree with.
Identify and point out sunk cost fallacies
It’s not uncommon to see projects continuing simply because of the vast amount of money already spent on them, even though the outcomes won’t be those expected. Point out the problem when that happens and work constructively to save the project.
Google famously had a ‘Don’t be evil’ slogan. (Have you noticed that they’ve since dropped it altogether?) But even if they’d kept it, is it enough not to be evil? How about committing to being as good as you possibly can, and always doing the right thing?
Don’t use dark patterns
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t use any deceptive tactics to trick your users into doing things they don’t want to.
Don’t fall for the Texas sharpshooter fallacy
Good marketing involves experimentation. When you run an experiment, it will sometimes deliver positive outcomes that were unintended and outside scope. Don’t try to spin them into some sort of tactic you planned all along. Some things just happen for no particular reason.
Don’t fall for action bias
Don’t fall for the illusion that doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Don’t lie with statistics
Always present your findings in the most transparent manner. Don’t use flawed correlations, or cherry-pick data that suits your own interests. Share all your results regardless of the outcome; it’s scary how many studies end up unpublished when the results don’t favour the researcher.
Don’t fall for information bias
Sometimes you find teams searching for additional information even when it’s not going to affect the decision. Find ways to make the best decisions with the minimum amount of information.
Don’t be seduced by groupthink
If you truly believe something, then be prepared to stand by for your ideas and push back even if the majority disagrees
Don’t overlook governance
Work within governance mechanisms, and follow established processes where possible. Where no process is in place, create one.
Where does my marketing career sit in relation to this manifesto?
Well, I’ve been fortunate to work for companies that for the most part operated in line with my ethical expectations. But that’s only for the most part. I didn’t always love my employers, the products or the office politics that come with working in a company.
A few examples spring to mind. There’s the time when I was super-excited to deliver a set of fantastic results in the very early stages of a campaign, only to be told by my boss, “You’ve peaked too soon; how are you going to top that next month?”. Or the colleagues who congratulated themselves on tricking users into subscribing to their lists. Worst of all was the manager who changed the definition of their Marketing Qualified Leads purely to hit a target.
None of them are genuinely bad people, just like the individuals portrayed in The Social Dilemma aren’t evil. Yet they failed to understand that what they were doing was wrong. I guess it goes back to what Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I personally feel fortunate to have got my career to a point where I like all the clients I work with. The main criteria I use when I decide whether or not to take on a new client is whether or not I think that they are ethical, and I’m aware of what a privilege that is. Many marketers are in a different position, and may well be working for organisations whose questionable practices make them feel uncomfortable. It’s tough out there, and it would be wrong for me to point the finger when we all have to make a living somehow. At the same time, they can at least acknowledge the problem, if only to themselves, and maybe consider moving on at the next opportunity.
A Pragmatic Approach to Ethical Marketing
So where do I draw the line when it comes to ethical practices in marketing? Let’s face it, if we dig deep enough, we’re bound to find unethical elements either in the companies we work with or their supply chains. What would be a pragmatic but ethical approach?
Let’s start with the tools I use. If my preference is for ethical tools and suppliers, should I avoid the likes of Hubspot, Marketo and Google Analytics altogether? I don’t think so. Used wisely, they can continue to provide immense value without abusing users’ trust.
What I can do though is reduce my reliance on these tools where possible. So on this website, I use Cloudflare Analytics instead of Google Analytics. But because Google Analytics isn’t going anywhere soon, I stay on top of Google Analytics and use it in the best ways possible for clients that prefer it. If I can persuade one client to move away from a Google product, great, but rather than fixate on that, I focus on using Google Analytics ethically and helping to improve the product.
I take a similar approach to data and behavioural science. We all need data to grow our businesses, and behavioural science is important for improving both marketing and products themselves. But we should use them wisely and ethically. I don’t collect more data than I absolutely need, and I only collect it ethically. I never trick users into doing things they don’t want to do. It’s as simple as that.
Rather than ‘selling hours’, I prefer to sell guidance and access to myself. I will work with you or your team to achieve your goals in ways that are ethical and respectful. If you prefer real results rather than looking good in front of the board, that is. If you choose the latter, there are agencies around who will happily take your money in exchange for some pretty PDFs and timesheets.
I’m open to splitting the cost of the project into a fixed cost plus an incentivising or disincentivising share. That way, I have some skin in the game. Of course we’d have to agree on terms, such as full visibility of outcomes and control over process. I wouldn’t want to be measured on business outcomes if you insisted I drive traffic into a brick wall, making it impossible to convert users or follow up leads.
I don’t always have the capacity, or the skills in some cases, to deliver on all the plans I recommend to my clients. When that happens, I will happily introduce trusted members of my own network to my clients. (Disclaimer: I sometimes earn a referral fee from these introductions.)
Finally, I set no store by awards; indeed I have a rule not to enter any. Why? Because awards are rarely won by the best individuals or teams. They are won by those who spend the time (and sometimes money) to enter them. They deflect time and resources away from what really matters – the client.
P.S. I’m not right for everyone, but I might be right for you
I am fully aware that what I’m proposing is hugely popular in principle but less so in practice. There’s a huge disconnect between what people say they want and what they actually want. Everybody lies, as Seth Stephens-Davidowitz famously wrote. Loads of companies out there are happy to embrace ethical marketing principles in public, while failing to put them into practice if it means losing a single penny. I’d love to be proven wrong on that point, but I’m not holding my breath.
So this manifesto is not for everyone. It’s unlikely that Facebook will come knocking on my door (not that I would open it) any time soon.
I do hope, however, that my manifesto will inspire ethical marketers who feel trapped working for malevolent companies to look for work elsewhere. I also hope it will inspire founders of startups to keep these principles in mind when they hire marketers. And lastly, if you already run an ethical company and need a hand, get in touch and let’s see what we can achieve together.