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Employees At Ogilvy Ad Agency Confront CEO Over Contract With CBP


When Donald Trump became president in 2017, he signed an executive order calling for Customs and Border Protection to hire an additional 5,000 agents. Two and a half years later, CBP is far from meeting that goal. So they've turned to outside companies to help with recruitment, including the advertising agency Ogilvy. The company was awarded a contract last fall worth more than $12 million. And that association with CBP has angered some Ogilvy employees.

Earlier this month, a group of them confronted the CEO in a closed meeting. BuzzFeed reporter Lam Thuy Vo obtained a recording of that meeting, and she joins us now.



SHAPIRO: OK, so set the stage for us. The CEO was in a room full of angry employees. What exactly are they saying to him?

VO: So they just learned that their company does business with CBP. And what they really wanted to understand better was where does the company draw a line. One of the employees was saying something like, so I think what I heard is that we're willing to work with companies that have oil spills. We're willing to work with companies that sell big tobacco. We're willing to work with companies that contribute to obesity. And then this employee went on to say I guess what I'm mostly hearing is that we're willing to work with companies that are allowing children to die and that are running concentration camps.

SHAPIRO: And so what did the CEO John Seifert tell them?

VO: First of all, he started out with saying that this was a very personal issue to him, that his first wife was also Mexican and that he found the situation at the border abhorrent. But then he was also saying that the involvement with CBP was very particular and very restricted. He mentioned that it was their job to help them recruit more diverse candidates, something that he found very progressive, but that he didn't find it particularly condemning because it was restricted to that particular type of work.

SHAPIRO: But there's a broader question here about whether an advertising firm or a law firm has a moral responsibility not to take work from companies that might be doing things that are harmful, whether or not you agree that what CBP is doing is harmful. How does that play out in a meeting like this?

VO: So that's the interesting question, right? The CEO was mentioning that he had also been working with BP during the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and that he deemed BP to be a very important company overall and that he kept on working with them for that reason. But I think we're also here in a generational shift. Any kind of work that we do is kind of judged by the court of public opinion. That can be both good and bad. To some degree, that's good because it holds people accountable in a way that gives people who aren't as powerful some kind of voice in making sure that companies work in ethical ways.

But on the other hand, there's also this, like, outrage machine that can spin out of control. And so I think that's a really interesting thing that the employees had to wrestle with.

SHAPIRO: And Ogilvy is not the only company dealing with this. Last month, employees of the home goods retailer Wayfair walked out over the sale of furniture to a company that was outfitting a detention facility for migrant children. Hundreds of employees of Salesforce signed a letter to the software company's CEO calling for an end to its contract with CBP. Do you think these large companies are actually going to change their business practices based on the pushback from lower-level employees?

VO: I think it is a combination between what lower-level employees do and also what may hurt the bottom line, right? If even the employees of a company protest what the company is doing, that is going to trickle down to consumers. And if the bottom line is, in fact, in danger, I think that can put enough pressure onto companies to change something.

What may also be interesting is that even if, let's say, the outside world doesn't take note. The employees being inside and being sort of outraged by what is happening and sort of incised to change the company from within, that might also have a bigger effect on how the company may be conducting its business. And I think that's an interesting thing to look into in the coming years as more and more companies are trying to figure out what their role is within this very polarized political climate.

SHAPIRO: Lam Thuy Vo is a reporter for BuzzFeed.

Thanks for joining us.

VO: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: We also reached out to Ogilvy, and the company declined to comment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.