Advertising and speech

By Bob Hoffman

Speech issues raised their ugly heads again recently in the ad industry. Tom Goodwin, Head of Futures and Insight at Publicis Group and, ironically, author of the book Digital Darwinism, was fired for tweeting some controversial – and in my opinion, stupid – opinions about COVID-19. If stupid opinions were grounds for dismissal, the ad industry would have a tough time fielding a softball team.

Goodwin wound up in a tweetsquabble with some highly sensitive ad aristocrats who seemed only too eager to shut him down. As if anyone in the real world gives 25% of a flying shit what some ad guy thinks about COVID.

But fire him? Isn’t Goodwin entitled to express opinions on a topical issue on his personal Twitter account without fear of being fired?

Of course, like all corporate hell holes, Publicis says it has a policy of diversity and inclusiveness. And like all these “policies” it’s mostly PR and hot air. Apparently “inclusiveness” doesn’t include expressing unorthodox opinions.

There was a time when creative enterprises welcomed – even encouraged – crackpot thinking and outrageous speaking. It was a badge of honor in the creative arts that we were tolerant and respectful of nutty ideas and immoderate speech. In fact, it was believed that creativity required a dose of such behavior.

Sadly, you have to be pretty dopey to think of our current crop of demoralizing holding companies as creative enterprises. They are dutifully pious Wall Street constructs who are afraid of their own shadows. Publicis has an annual “Client Bravery Award.” They extol “bravery,” but practice cowardice. It takes no balls whatsoever to  fire someone with unpopular ideas.

Publicis should have issued the following statement…

“The leadership of Publicis, and the vast majority of our employees, do not agree with opinions expressed about COVID-19 by Tom Goodwin. But Publicis is a creative enterprise that respects diversity, including diversity of opinion, among all our employees. We do not agree with Mr. Goodwin’s personal opinions, but in keeping with our respect for democratic principles, we support Mr. Goodwin’s prerogative to express them.”

Did Publicis have the right to fire Goodwin? I’m pretty sure they can fire anyone they damn well please (in Bob World, just having the title “Head of Futures and Insight” would get you fired.) But that doesn’t make it smart or correct. Have we come to the point in this industry at which we can no longer tolerate dumbass opinions?

This is not the first time Goodwin has expressed unpopular or intemperate viewpoints. I’m sure there are people who consider him an annoying loudmouth. I happen to be very fond of annoying loudmouths.

COVID has been a horrible thing, and I’m sure there are many who would find Goodwin’s ideas offensive – especially those who’ve lost family and friends to the disease. But if free speech doesn’t protect provocative yammering, what’s the point? If I read our constitution correctly, Goodwin’s right to express offensive opinions supersedes my yearning to lead an un-offended life.

Because I’m a Peacemaker…

Goodwin and Publicis should get their lawyers together, generate some vanilla sounding PR twaddle, and kiss and make up.

Tom should issue the following statement:

“I’m afraid there were people who thought my comments regarding COVID were reflective of my employer, Publicis’, opinions. They were not and I apologize if I gave anyone that impression.”

Publicis should issue this statement:

“Tom Goodwin has assured us that in the future his personal opinions will be clearly labeled as such and not reflect negatively on Publicis. In turn, we have asked Tom to re-join the company.”

Chances of this happening: Square root of zero.

Bob Hoffman is author of “Advertising For Skeptics.

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