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.”
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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

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. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am now head of brand strategy and creative direction at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.