What does the ethical agency mean?

Why am I writing about the ethical agency? We’ve just surfaced after the busiest month we’ve had since Covid 19 sent us all into lockdown in March. Now should be a time when we celebrate briefly before diving into the next tranche of work. Well, I think it’s also a time to reflect on our values, our brand and where we want take it.

Helter Skelter is a craft based brand. We provide services under a number of sub brands; TV & Documentary work via Helter Skelter Media, Commercial Photography and Content via Helter Skelter Studios and most recently Digital Marketing via Helter Skelter Design. All of these activities are linked by a passion for creating things and communicating. All three are built on the premise of acting ethically.

When I worked at IBM, there was a story about the legendary Lou Gerstner that resonated strongly with me. In his early days, he was pounding the streets of New York visiting clients, drumming up business and he looked in on one particular client, a small business with a good product, an old fashioned approach that had served them well as they worked day and night to pull themselves up the slippery slope. The client was in a state of abject despair, he had spent weeks implementing a primitive stock control system, one computer in a back office with lists of stock in a relational database. The computer had crashed.

Lou listened to this tale, returned to his own office and reappeared an hour later with his own PC. He set up the database, input the data and restored the digital lynchpin of his customer’s business. He refused to accept a penny in payment. He looked after his customer. It was this attitude that permeated IBM in my early days and it is this attitude that we bring to our customers. We believe in our clients and we’re not afraid to stand up and be counted when the going gets tough.

Being the ethical agency isn’t just restricted to lending people kit or putting in a longer than average day to get the job done. Crucially it means making sure that they understand what they are buying and who they are buying from.

We have customers that have been badly burned by unethical practices. By unethical, we mean practices that are designed to benefit the person providing the service, not the client.  Here are ten of the most egregious examples.

  1. The use of jargon to conceal, overcharge and obfuscate. “specialised cryptographic solution on the back end” turns out to be installing an SSL certificate. Not a premium service.
  2. Locking the customer into expensive maintenance contracts. WordPress maintenance takes hours, not days. We prefer a low maintenance charge with a “callout fee” for extraordinary emergencies like data recovery.
  3. Locking down critical functionality of wordpress with the sole intention of selling it back to the customer as an “add on”
  4. Creating complexity in order to generate unnecessary work further down the line. e.g. multiple CMS technologies in one website.
  5. Promising #1 ranking in Google – this promise is only realistically deliverable in the short term on key phrases that nobody will ever search for. it’s easy to be ranked #1 for “phantasmagorical photographer” – not so easy for “product photographer shropshire”
  6. Offices that don’t exist. I’ve seen the address of a Starbucks in Birmingham, close to the business sector listed on a photographer’s website as a studio. I’ve seen a solicitor’s office in London listed by an ‘International’ video company as a studio. Further investigation revealed a one man band with no staff or equipment.
  7. Attacking rival websites – Our Funky Frankwell website was subjected to a denial of service attack on Day 1, over 100,000 attempts to log in on the first couple of hours on launch day. The perpetrator was careless, we traced the origin of one of these attacks to an IP address that was allocated to a competitor.
  8. Use of unfiltered statistics in Google Analytics – At the very least, client and developer IP addresses should be filtered out of traffic reports. A developer working on a site can make well over 100 page calls a day, this can lead to completely distorted traffic results, and using bad data to inform decisions on advertising is a recipe for disaster.
  9. A particular favourite – “We do marketing strategy” sometimes means “We don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.” A marketing consultant should be able to demonstrate the links between what they propose to do and what they expect the result to be. They should also be able to implement the strategy.
  10. DIY Digital – Marketeers evangelising DIY Marketing. When coaching becomes the product, it is because it’s more profitable. The reality, if you want to build a high end brand is you really can’t do your own photography (unless you have an exceptional eye), Canva is no substitute for Adobe Illustrator, Social Media alone will not support your business.

Building a high end brand that lasts is hard work and you have to live the values, Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

We didn’t set out to be the ethical agency, we thought everyone was ethical. We came across a few dodgy characters along the way and some whose enthusiasm outweighed their ability, we saw sharp practice in the photography industry, photographers passing off other people’s work as their own, but the real shock was the stories we started hearing from our web clients.

We have come across some actual horror stories. It was only then we realised that our commitment to ethical behaviour was a differentiator.

The Ethical Agency Commitment

We commit to ourselves and our partners behaving in an ethical way at all times. We have in the past broken off relationships with partner organisations we considered to be acting unethically.

  • We always explain to our customers what we are going to do for them in plain english.
  • We explain the benefits and the pitfalls of any approach we take.
  • We do not build in redundancy or unnecessary extra work.
  • We do not lock our customers into a relationship with us – we believe a happy customer is the best guarantee of a long relationship.
  • We don’t make promises we can’t keep.
  • If we sub contract, we are always transparent about that with our client.
  • We compete on our ability to deliver high quality at a fair price.
  • Our offices are real, our premises are registered as a business.
  • When we say “We” , there are more than one of us!
  • We don’t strategise on topics that we don’t understand.
  • We are open and fair in all of our dealings.

The ethical agency is not just a buzzword, it is a way of life. We would like to be known as an ethical agency, an agency that is honest, open and fair and that delivers fantastic projects. Our story is of crafts people that tell stories. We started out as photographers and filmmakers and we lived or died on the quality of the product.

We have been building websites for over 20 years. The industry was known as “The Wild Web” back in the day. There should be no place nowadays for cowboys. Quality is important to us and as we grow the company, the concept of the ethical agency has become an integral part of the brand. We’d love to see an end to the kind of practices I’ve called out here, the British Computer Society has a charter with an ethical component. It would be great if there were one for digital marketers too.