CVS Health Took the Quit Big Tobacco Pledge, But May Have a Problem: Holding Companies

Individual agencies have signed on while related organizations haven’t

CVS Health has pledged to quit working with advertising, marketing and PR agencies that work with tobacco or e-cigarette companies.
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Last week, CVS Health signed on to Quit Big Tobacco, an initiative launched by global health organization Vital Strategies, pledging to quit working with advertising, marketing and PR agencies that work with tobacco or e-cigarette companies.

“CVS Health’s leadership as the first major brand to sign the Quit Tobacco Pledge sends a powerful message to the advertising, marketing and public relations communities that engaging with an industry that makes billions by harming millions will cost you,” Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative, said in a statement.

A group of agencies has signed on to the Quit Big Tobacco pledge, vowing to never work with tobacco or e-cigarette companies.

CVS Health stopped selling tobacco back in September 2014, with the Quit Big Tobacco pledge marking another step toward splitting with the tobacco industry.

“Agencies that do not have tobacco or tobacco-related clients can pledge to Quit Big Tobacco, regardless of their holding companies’ other agencies,” a Vital Strategies spokesperson explained.

One agency that signed on to the Quit Big Tobacco pledge is Austin-based Omnicom agency GSD&M.

“We have a long history of getting behind issues that we believe in and for years we worked with the American Legacy Foundation on their cessation efforts, so this is something that we’re super passionate about,” GSD&M president Marianne Malina said.

“I think it’s pathetic that it’s 2019 and we’re talking about tobacco,” she said of tobacco and e-cigarette companies’ continuing advertising efforts, adding that the issue held particular weight for her as a mother of an 11-year-old. She explained that the pledge represented “positive momentum” around addressing what she defined as “a serious issue within culture and society.”

“It is a time for common sense and responsibility and knowing what you’re willing to do. The truth of the matter is there are people who put money first, and there are people who put values first and there are people who put people first,” she added. “There are all kinds of ways of doing business and there are all kinds of people in the world.”

Last summer, fellow Omnicom agency DDB reportedly won a creative review for e-cigarette company Juul, which has been criticized for allegedly targeting minors in the past.

Malina argued that this didn’t limit the effectiveness of the pledge made by GSD&M or CVS Health. “We’re all individual companies that are owned by a holding company, so our individual identities are part of how we go to market and how we operate every day. Going to the holding company level on something like this gives them a role that’s not what it’s about,” she said.

“I’m in charge of GSD&M,” she added. “I’m in charge of the people that work here and the brands that we hold. My job is not my sister agencies or Omnicom,” she added. “Because we are who we are and we have a very clear belief system, I have to live within the world of GSD&M, because that’s just the way we operate.”

Another agency who signed the pledge is New York-based agency Human, whose founder, Jonathan Olinger, explained that “Doing anything that promotes a product that kills 7 million people a year like tobacco does is diametrically antithetical to our mission.”

He shared that the agency has been approached by “some of the biggest tobacco companies in the world” who expressed a desire to work with Human.

“They often position it as trying to help save lives by promoting products that are better than cigarettes. But at the end of the day, to be frank, it is all contributing to an industry of death,” he said.

“If an agency won’t take on a cigarette brand as a client, they shouldn’t take on a vape brand. They are one and the same now,” added Anne Elisco-Lemme, executive creative director for Duncan Channon, which has also signed the pledge.

Elisco-Lemme called signing the pledge a “no-brainer” and pointed to the agency’s work with its largest client, California Tobacco Control Program, as “educating the public about not only the dangers of vaping but the lies of omission the industry perpetuates,” such as last year’s “Flavors Hook Kids” campaign focused on the appeal of certain flavors to teens.

Last November, Juul pulled a number of its flavored products from retailers in response to an FDA crackdown.

Duncan Channon CEO Andy Berkenfield explained that as part of its relationship with California Tobacco Control Program, the agency agreed not to work with not only tobacco or e-cigarette companies but “any agency or vendor partners—all the way up to the holding company level—who work with them.”

Olinger said some agencies continue to work with tobacco and e-cigarette companies because of the “abundant money,” while rationalizing that they are a step removed from the process. “But I think deep down, they all know—from the executives to the copywriters to the interns who worked on the account—that they are somehow complicit in those deaths.”

“There is undeniable evidence that kid-friendly flavors, youth-centric marketing and promotion by social media influencers have contributed to the nearly 80% rise in vaping among U.S. high school students,” he argued. “That means 80% more high schoolers who feel their identities are enhanced by a product that shortens their life. These tactics need to be countered.”

Yet he agreed with Malina’s assessment that working within individual agencies within holding companies that profit from working with some companies didn’t present a limitation.

“Agencies and their subsidiaries who benefit from tobacco will be known and the Quit Big Tobacco campaign is helping to unearth that by brilliantly highlighting the ones who aren’t working with the tobacco companies. I think there is still value in getting individual agencies to sign on to the pledge until there is critical mass within a holding company,” he said.

Berkenfield argued that while it did present a limitation, being as inclusive as possible ultimately made sense as a first step.

“That loophole is certainly a limitation. The pledge would be stronger without it,” he said. “But, it’s an important first step. In many movements, the early steps are as important as the end goal. If we want to shut out tobacco and e-cigarette companies as our ultimate goal, we have to start somewhere.”

“If this loophole was closed at launch, it would prevent many agencies from declaring their values and make it harder for this critical movement to gain momentum,” he added. “As we fight the modern battle against tobacco in all of its new forms, we want as many companies as possible to participate.”

Elisco-Lemme wondered if “it would be easier to get advertising professionals to pledge they won’t work on these businesses, which will then in turn put pressure on the agencies.”

“It was fascinating to hear how DDB had a hard time attracting employees to actually work on Juul,” she added. “There was quite a bit of chatter about it in San Francisco.”

DDB has yet to respond to a request for comment.

“I’d love for CVS to close the loophole on holding companies,” Elisco-Lemme said. “But, I really do respect that they are starting somewhere. Too much progress is stalled because measures are deemed to be imperfect. And I’m sure it’s such a smart business move as well. I know I certainly think differently of them now.”

Below is a list of agencies which have signed the Quit Big Tobacco pledge, as of earlier today:

6th Borough Agency
Alles Creative
Behaviour Change Partners
Bird Design
Bonfire Effect
BonVoix Corp.
Brown&co The Brand Collective
Brownstein Group
Brunet-Garcia Advertising
Bully Pulpit Interactive
C&R Communications
Camp + King
Chris Webb
Color In Code web design
Crazy Girl Productions
Crispin Porter Bogusky
Disrupted Logic Interactive
Duncan Channon
Edgar Allan
Ethnos Strategy
Finn Partners
Fortnight Collective
GC Digital Agency
Geppelt : Visual Storytelling
goodstory films
Ground Glass Media Inc.
Guonderland creative lab
Hager Sharp
Helfgott Creative
House of Holmes Branding
Human Design
IMAgency, B.V.
Imprint Projects
InLine Media
Interesting Development
Invisible North
Jack Spades Studio
Lead Dog Marketing Consultants
Lifetime Branding
Loom Media
Lovely Worldwide
M + R
Mabus Agency
Malmö Advertising Agency
MDC Partners
Media Cause
Media Karma
Media Two Interactive
NAIL Communications
Paperglee, LLC
Purplewood Limited
Real World Planning
Rescue Agency
SAPR Group
Scott Circle Communications
Sleek Machine
Space Machine Inc.
Sweet FireBrand
Terri & Sandy
The Engine is Red
The Global Brain
The Next Wave
The Perception
Value Com
Verdes Industries
Village Marketing
Work & Co

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.