TBWA Held Hostage By Desire for Lions

The desire for industry accolades at Cannes has screwed a global agency as it pursues more clients in China.
Omnicom Group Inc.’s TBWA Worldwide has been working on both sides of China’s global image, according to The Wall Street Journal. On behalf of sportswear maker Adidas, TBWA’s Beijing office has been running a campaign focused on Chinese pride, showing Chinese athletes supported by throngs of fans.
At the same time, the agency’s Paris office was working on another ad campaign on behalf of Amnesty International that showed Chinese athletes being tortured by Chinese authorities. In one of the print ads, a person has been attached to a target normally used in the shooting competition at the Games. At the bottom, it says, “After the Olympic Games, the fight for human rights must go on.”
Word of the human-rights campaign is now spreading through China, and TBWA and Amnesty International are disavowing the ads. But Amnesty still allowed TBWA to run the ads once so they could be entered into the Cannes competition. It won a bronze award.
TBWA’s headquarters in New York said it wasn’t aware of the campaign. “Had TBWA management known about this ad, not only would the ad not have been entered into an award show, but it would not have been produced,” said Tom Carroll, chief executive of TBWA Worldwide. “This is the action of one individual at our agency working on a pro bono account.” He said the agency is investigating the matter and will take appropriate action to “ensure this never happens again.”
TBWA has a policy in the U.S. that bars it from doing political ads. Still, other regions tend to operate more autonomously. TBWA has 258 offices in 75 countries world-wide.
And while the relationship with Amnesty has been fruitful for the agency in terms of publicity and honors, that relationship is “now under discussion,” according to a person familiar with the agency.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. “This is the action of one individual at our agency working on a pro bono account.”
    One individual? It only took one person to concept it, present it to the client, write the copy, art direct it, hire the photographer, layout the ad, find and buy the media space to run it once, prepare the mechanical, fill out the Cannes entry form and pay the fee?
    Man, that guy’s gonna get so fired.

  2. It’s probably the same person behind the Draftfcb “fornicating lions” ad. He’s also the guy who killed O.J.’s wife.

  3. I like how “pro bono” is used to make it sound OK.
    Like, “Yeah, it was a ruse. But at least we didn’t charge for it.”
    Nice integrity boys.

  4. fortyver says:

    This really depresses me, as I was an employee of TBWA\Chiat for 4.5 years and really respect the agency. Amnesty was one of TBWA’s crown clients. The work was and is amazing, but as ad agencies start kissing the Chinese government’s ass to get the jump on the increasingly open market that is emerging, they are quick to put aside principles in order to not offend and to cash in on Chinese cash. It is a sad state of affairs, the ad world. Look at WPP and their involvement in the sister of Robert Mugabi’s ad agency. Blood money will bring the all down.
    Now, here is a novel idea, why don’t we ad grunts start standing up for principle and force the holding companies to adhere to some assemblance of ethical behavior or just start our own agencies to counter this turn to shit of the BDA’s. (Thanks to George Packer for the BDA acronym or whoever made it up. It sums up the current ad environment well. Big and Dumb.)

  5. Fortyver,
    You make good points. But couldn’t the same be technically extended to the worker bees too? After all, we’re more than happy to switch agencies and go from selling Coke to Pepsi. Hell, I’ve seen people working on anti-smoking campaigns while puffing on Marlboros. The days of David Ogilvy loyally using the clients’ products and services are long gone. We’re all Adhos, another favorite Parker term.

  6. Aside from the ad being a complete Granger Special, how many names were on the entry?
    When awards entries go out, the creatives on the work sign off on it.
    One person may have been responsible for the concept, art buying, layout, writing, color correction, media buying and creative direction (technically it’s possible) but there’s no way on earth only one person knew about it.